Feb 9, 2009

The children are the future

Few people love journalists - especially other journalists, and most especially publishers who see journalists as mini-black holes from which no profit can escape.

But lots of people love kids - especially their own, and even people without children feel a certain responsibility to make the world a better place for the generations to come.

So, it's perhaps a good thing that the professional journalism preservation crowd has begun to employ a generational appeal when trying to focus minds the Great Newspaper Quandary.

Don't just save journalism for journalists. Do it for the kids.

Walter Isaacson gave the generational-appeal argument a shot in last week's Time magazine to knock down the "information wants to be free" excuse for giving away journalism:
When I used to go fishing in the bayous of Louisiana as a boy, my friend Thomas would sometimes steal ice from those machines outside gas stations. He had the theory that ice should be free. We didn't reflect much on who would make the ice if it were free, but fortunately we grew out of that phase. Likewise, those who believe that all content should be free should reflect on who will open bureaus in Baghdad or be able to fly off as freelancers to report in Rwanda under such a system.

I say this not because I am "evil," which is the description my daughter slings at those who want to charge for their Web content, music or apps. Instead, I say this because my daughter is very creative, and when she gets older, I want her to get paid for producing really neat stuff rather than come to me for money or decide that it makes more sense to be an investment banker.
(As an aside, I'd argue that information is free. I never had to pay for it, save for a few copying costs charged by cheap-ass cities, in all my ten years in print. Yet every story I produced required time, consideration, experience and editing - none of which come for free. Indeed, one could argue that plants want to be free, too, but unless we learn to forage we have to pay farmers for cultivating the lettuce and the corn. If we want to change how the economy compensates people for their work, that's another matter.)

Steven Brill, in a post today on Romenesko, makes a point similar to Isaacson's, although with somebody else's child. Brill endowed a journalism institute at Yale and promises the students who enroll jobs at the end:
The implicit and now-traditional part of the deal is that if you do all this and become a Yale Journalism Scholar, I will also get you a job – which I do, placing them with alumni of The American Lawyer, Court TV and Brills Content (plus Yale alumni) all over the country and world.

The problem is that now I fear I am guiding them off a plank. As one parent put it to me last fall, "why are you luring my daughter into something that will never pay her loans when she could go to work for McKinsey?" I have been trying to construct an answer for her.
Appeals to owners' business sense have hit a wall. Corporate bosses are busy running amok in their mad plan to save newspapers by killing the newspaper business. Those who think they see the cliff ahead are riding herd toward it, hoping resurrection will be found on the rocky ground below.

Appeals to readership have limited success because most people don't know, or really care, how news is produced as long as it's there when they open the front door or turn on the Internet machine. Arguments for newsroom self-preservation fail because they sound arrogant and feed counter-arguments that aging journalists are simply afraid of the new, or are selfishly trying to earn a living, or are jealously guarding bandwidth from roaming hordes of citizen journalists.

Will a focus on the young people who hear the calling have more success? Will owners come to realize they have a responsibility not just to their bottom line but to generations to come?

Maybe, if the appeal echoes in the halls of our top newspapers and news organizations, which have to realize that their future sits in the offices of the crumbling community newspapers around the country.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All I know is people in their 20s and 30s who show some talent are leaving newsrooms -- running, out of self-respect, for their lives.

For all the faults of traditional newspapers, many of the newsrooms in which they're produced are decent training grounds for future, better journalism. There is definitely something to be said for lessons learned as young reporters gain experience. I would also argue that learning the ethics of a traditional newsroom -- along with the push for objectivity, even if it's a myth -- are truly elemental to good reporting. (None of this is to say that smaller papers don't fail at these missions with frequency.)

Younger reporters are being pushed out -- laid off, scared off. If those lower-level newsrooms are cut into nothingness or shut down all together, who will be left to perform whatever the "future of journalism" is?

In 15 or 20 years, will the New York Times -- in whatever form it exists -- be hiring bloggers with no newsroom experience who have never learned to be extremely careful with their sourcing, their quotes, their facts?

That's a scary thought.