“Committing Journalism” is NOT Reporting

Recently a member of the Vietnam Old Hacks organization I belong to offered a valuable discussion about what is happening to journalism today.

His point was that young journalists today are increasingly ill-equipped to do good journalism. This may be a failure of journalism schools to properly prepare them for the rigors of superior journalistic practice. Or it may be a lack of leadership in professional newsrooms.

As someone who has toiled in both worlds (27 years with the Chicago Tribune and 13 years at the University of Illinois–7 of those as Dean of the College of Media, which includes the Departments of Journalism, Advertising, Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research) I can tell you that he offered a pretty accurate appraisal of some of the inmates of the academy who are teaching the next generation of old hacks–if indeed there will ever be a “next” generation.

This past year some members of the AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications), which is the umbrella organization for all accredited journalism programs in the country (about 110 at last count) squabbled for weeks about dropping the word “newspaper” from the organization’s “Newspaper Division” because many academics believe newspapers are already dead.

Never mind that many newspapers are reinventing themselves and using new technologies and delivery platforms to reach readers and advertisers. Of course, there is the fact that too many of the young minds sitting in journalism classes are being indoctrinated with the idea that technology is the driver and accurate and compelling content is some kind of journalistic afterthought.

In my classes (I taught what I did for 25 years at the Trib–foreign correspondence) too many students had the idea that all they had to do was sit at a computer conduct Google searches and cull the Internet for information and then rewrite it with their own twist of style, etc.

The idea of actually going out and talking to people–sometimes in far away and dangerous places–was anathema to some students. Thankfully, after telling them enough of my own war stories, those students moved on to English Literature or Film Studies.

Of the handful that remained some have actually gone on to be correspondents. I hear from them on occasion and what I hear is that editors and producers are under increasing pressure to cut costs.

When I was sent abroad for my first posting in Japan back in 1974 I was told quite clearly: “Never let money stand between you and a good story. Do what you have to do to get to where the story is.” That’s how I operated for most of my career until the mid 1990s when the bean counters finally gained control of the Tribune and news gathering became much less important than keeping the bottom line fat for the stockholders.

Needless to say, those are NOT the kind of marching orders reporters receive today. I fear that the combination of money woes, lack of good old-fashioned newsroom mentoring and the infatuation with new technologies are conspiring to reduce reporting to armies of “communicators” who do no first hand reporting.

Today, almost anybody with a computer or I-Phone can “commit journalism.” Unfortunately, that’s a lot like committing a crime–and the public is the victim.