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No joy in Mudville: Is journalism striking out?

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My newsroom days are 15 years distant, but I can see that there’s not as much joy these days in the newsrooms I visit. That’s a direct consequence of the change in motivation from the mission of journalism to the mission of creating shareholder value.

I teach journalism for a living to college students now. So I think a great deal about the newsrooms and the journalistic life my students will eventually enter. Should I teach them how disheartening it became for me at the end? Or should I teach them about, as a friend recently said, “the Great Mission and Moral Imperative” of the newspaper culture?

Back in the day, I started my career as a sportswriter. I loved being a sportswriter. It taught me how to be a journalist.

I learned to interview people and let them speak, opening my mouth only to shepherd them toward a cogent point. I learned to tell stories with carefully crafted detail. I learned that people are the news. I learned to be efficient in observing, recording, organizing and writing. I learned to love newsrooms.

I learned to take notes under extraordinary circumstances: Covering high-school football in November’s sleet and snow in New England tends to teach you these things.

I learned about ethics by failing to be strictly ethical from time to time. No, I didn’t plagiarize, make up quotes or otherwise cheat. But back in the ’70s when the guys from the Greenfield Men’s Softball League brought their scores into the newsroom on those hot summer nights, they brought along beer as well. They got good coverage and good story placement as a result.

Being a sportswriter taught me about journalism, myself, and the world around me. Well, so what? Being a sportswriter was joyful. Sure, the odd hours sucked, some coaches shot flames from their lower porthole, and my editor always made me whack two inches out of my can’t-lose-a-word column each week.

I didn’t screw up too much, so the paper bumped me to the copy desk in 1976.

So began my move through the newsroom hierarchy. I became less a journalist and more a shaper of information. I became more aware of the financial strains on editorial decision-making. I endured newsprint crises caused by mill strikes. People left the newsroom and were not replaced. Control of my family-owned paper changed; profit expectations increased four-fold in one year. I found myself working weekends to do monthly “special sections” or “supplements” — Back To School, Fall Foliage, Bridal Days, Christmas, President’s Day … all designed to provide cheap syndicated copy friendly to advertisers.

As running the desk became more difficult, journalism became less joyful. As a treasured colleague still in the biz wrote to me recently, “It’s becoming a lonely place, a lonely business …”

When I arrived on the copy desk, my newsroom had 33 editorial employees. Most were journalists; a few were keyboardists. When I left the newspaper in 1988, the newsroom had 18 employees. The publisher told me he had always considered the newsroom overstaffed. He cited the old, familiar refrain:

“One newsroom staffer for every 1,000 circulation.”

Content changed: Local news coverage, over time, shrank; wire copy increased. Appearance changed: Fewer copy editors and page designers meant less time to create page layouts designed to help the reader better understand the stories and their importance.

If you’ve been working in a newsroom over the past decade or two, you’re nodding your head: “Oh, yeah. Been there.”

My story is not unusual. This slow, inexorable sea change began nearly half-a-century ago when Wall Streeters discovered newspapers made a helluva lot of money. So they began buying them and reducing costs (people, mostly) to allow them to make even more money.

So: Should I tell my college j-students today that the Mighty Media Corporations that own the newspapers they will work for don’t worry about journalism but rather fear:

* company stock prices that go down instead of up
* federal regulation that pre-empts corporate profit-maximizing efforts
* exposure as anti-consumer in pricing their products and their advertising space?

In newsrooms controlled by this worldview, only rarely do bold new ideas emerge about how to significantly improve journalism.

In this worldview, the traditional Great Mission and Moral Imperative of a newspaper as considered by the Founders — to provide information that allows the public to make fully informed consumer and political decisions — will further erode the ability of journalists to gather information and report it without fear or favor.

Should I tell my students they will enter a profession as it undergoes a corporate shift from a traditional mission — providing news — to a profit-maximizing service, providing, often in unedited form, information without context?

Or should I tell them that failing to tell readers and viewers and browsers how the world works and why it works that way erodes the democracy in which we live and wish to thrive?

Should I tell them that the journalist becomes the court of last resort for the people when Big Government and Big Corporations shun the people’s ability to petition for redress of their grievances?

Should I tell them that careful, thoughtful, precise use of words and images selected with deliberate, ethical care can lay waste the tyrant and the incompetent?

Should I tell them it’s a good life filled with variety and they get to meet interesting people along the way? And, perhaps, report stories that people read and remember?

I suppose I’ll mix the two: Tell them how it was yesterday, how it is today, and how I think it ought to be tomorrow. Let them decide how to adapt.

I do know this: Journalism professors need to produce good journalists because people need information ethically collected and rigorously presented. Without good journalists, others without a sense of the journalistic mission — such as unscrupulous advertisers and political charlatans — will be telling the stories.

That won’t serve any of us well.

at Editor & Publisher’s “Shoptalk

THX: to E&P’s Greg Mitchell for his editing touch.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 16, 2005 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I saw this originally at E&P and on Gawker…as a young journalist, I really enjoyed your reflection. Two of my co-workers are St. Bonaventure j-alums…


    August 18, 2005 at 1:58 pm

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