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The new face of media and journalism: Me or Rachel Sklar?

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The AEJMC News jury has rendered its verdict: As a print journalism professor, I am a dinosaur. I suspect many professors like me — bred through long newsroom careers and leavened, in many cases, with doctoral education — feel the same. Outdated. Web 3.0 inadequate. Multi-media insufficient.

In the past year, had I sought a professorship to teach print news reporting, writing, and editing, I’d be hard-pressed to find a job despite my two decades of experience and a really expensive piece of PhD parchment. A reason: Several thousand highly experienced, talented print journalists have been shitcanned by their newspapers in the past two years. But print professorships are few, making it a buyer’s market, writes Joe Strupp at Editor & Publisher.

But there’s another reason: Journalism schools, at least in terms of their job postings, may be shifting identities.

In its January 2010 edition of AEJMC News, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (colloquially known as AEJ) lists few jobs in which experience in print journalism is a must, or teaching print journalism is required.

Aside from traditional broadcast, advertising and public relations professorships, here are some jobs and or job descriptions listed:

• “new media including but not limited to Internet Technology, E-commerce, and Webpage Design”
• “Digital TV/Advertising/New Media”
• “Corporate Communications”
• “integrated marketing communications” (Disclosure: My school offers this as a graduate degree.)
• “digital communication” … “web design, social networks, search engines, new media theory, media law, media ethics, gaming, blogs, virtual worlds, databases, digital literacy, new media, online communities”
• “expertise in the use of digital media applications in the advertising and/or public relations professions (e.g., social media, Web 3.0, blogging”
• “Economic Literacy and Entrepreneurship”
• “the business of the news media, including entrepreneurship and/or management”
• “communications/ media economics/ regulation and/or innovation. Knowledge of entrepreneurship as it relates to telecommunications, information technology, digital media, and/or web-based enterprises”

It’s the same with many of AEJ’s online ads. Florida wants “two new visionary faculty members with expertise in the rapidly emerging fields of Interactive Media / Digital Arts & Science.” Boston University wants “[s]cholars utilizing diverse modes of inquiry and methodologies with an interest in any aspect of new media, including but not limited to online communication, media effects, media policy, social networking, media economics, media history, and computer-mediated communication.”

J-schools are changing. In some respects, have they become commercially oriented entities that focus on designing, formatting, presenting and selling content instead of the journalistic production of that content? Are journalism schools thinking more like schools of business about their missions and pools of potential students?

Difficult questions reside here for the press, the public, deans of journalism schools and faculty.

When (not if) media corporations find a successful business model and realize credible journalism can be a profit center, whom will they hire to produce it?

Will they hire journalism school graduates whose coursework and internship experiences left them adequately trained to use various media to present content but who were not necessarily encouraged or sufficiently trained to do the hard work of reporting to produce it? Or, more simply, will they hire iPhone journalists or future Jimmy Breslins? (Breslin on media economics: “Why something in the public interest such as television news can be fought over, like a chain of hamburger stands, eludes me.”)

In the coming decade, who will provide information — the product of rigorous reporting — in the public interest?

Readers and viewers should expect a lost decade in which they are told much more about that of little import and much less about that of great import.

Name the journalistic illness, and the decade will provide it: more one-source stories; fewer competent analyses of political, economic, and social issues; and more focus on the mundane and meaningless (i.e., celebs and pseudo-celebs) than on the meaningful (such as the true human cost on readers of the performance failures of the nation’s political and corporate elite).

Why? Simple: The newspaper business, which once had about 56,000 journalists and was understaffed at that level, lost nearly 16,000 jobs (not all newsroom) in 2008 and almost 15,000 in 2009.

Any manager faced with the need to cut people begins with the most expensive ones first — in the newspaper business, they are often the most experienced, those with decades of experience in finding out stuff others tried to hide and telling us what they learned. But newspaper executives have been lying: With each round of staff cuts, they’ve continued to say: “We’ll be a leaner, more efficient newspaper, better able to serve our readers. Our award-winning journalism will be the same as ever. And everyone can find us online.” Do they think readers really believe that?

As the new decade unfolds, who will tell the stories 315 million Americans need to hear as citizens and consumers facing overwhelming taxes, higher health-care costs, unemployment over 10 percent, and two wars (about to become three, perhaps)? They won’t be told by the experienced former journalists who lost their jobs and who are now working in public relations but not necessarily richer or happier.

In 2005 I wrote in a commentary for E&P:

Without journalists, others without a sense of the journalistic mission — such as unscrupulous advertisers and political charlatans — will be telling the stories.

Duh. Expect more stories from more sources who hide their motivations and intent. Fewer journalists are on the job. Journalism schools are training, it appears, fewer journalists. Strupp notes that newspaper majors at the University of Missouri have declined. Lee Becker’s 2008 survey of J-school enrollment notes an increase overall but a slight decline in any form of journalism as a major. Thus fewer journalists-to-be may be in the pipeline. Meanwhile, those remaining in newsrooms, if they survived because they’re inexpensive, are likely to be less experienced and will need this decade to mature.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So, predicts Rachel Sklar at The Daily Beast, bylines as brands, niches, “undernews” and Web TV will fill it. But how credible will be the content produced by the 200 million Twitterers and the 350 million Facebook users?

Do those hundreds of million of Americans trying to live out their lives with some vestige of happiness and faith that the American Dream still exists even give a damn about the economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of the media turmoil that surrounds them?

A traditional task of journalism is education. That’s why, when the Republic was founded, newspapers were given special mailing rates. School systems had not taken firm root. Teaching the public (not brainwashing or misleading it) ought to still be a part of the public-service mission of journalism.

Perhaps that’s why there’s room in journalism schools for ossified, old newsroom hacks like me. We need to teach that mission. We need to teach these iPhone-honed students that there is still a need to observe well, record faithfully, analyze intelligently, organize thoughtfully, and present compellingly. That’s the nature of communication, be it print journalism or “entrepreneurship as it relates to telecommunications, information technology, digital media, and/or web-based enterprises.”

And Sklar, who is as “new media” as you can get, walks the fine line between the old and the emerging:

Grownups, you’ve been in this business for decades, but the ground is shifting under your feet and if you don’t grab on to some smart 22-year-old, you’re screwed. Why? Because that 22-year-old grew up on the Internet while you were spending all your time working in some other quaint old-timey medium. So stop pulling rank and just say, “help me.” They will. And to you young punks who think you run this world—there actually are rules in this Wild West. Quaint old-fashioned conventions like transparency, attribution, confirmation, and accountability will matter just as much in 2010, maybe more now that the Internet is multiplying around us like Mickey’s broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And if you don’t get that reference, ask a grownup. There’s much we can teach you.

Thank you, Rachel. Well said. You’d make a terrific colleague.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

January 5, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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