A couple of weeks back, I offered some thoughts on the challenges of teaching journalism in this day and age. I have an essay on some other aspects of the subject in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, as part of an special section on the state of journalism and journalism education. (I’ll comment on the section once I’ve had a chance to read the whole thing!)
Interestingly enough, the Chronicle charges actual cash money for most of its content, so you can’t read the whole article on its site unless you’re a subscriber. I hold the copyright, so I reprint the entire piece below:
I’VE READ THE NEWS TODAY, OH BOY
David Simon did some righteous testifying a few months ago. Speaking before a Senate committee, the author (Homicide), creator/producer (The Wire), and former newspaper reporter (The Baltimore Sun) heaved icy water on the notion that, if and when newspapers meet their maker, journalistic excellence will effortlessly migrate to new platforms on the Web. He was especially pessimistic about the survival of local trench journalism.
“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning-board hearing,” said Simon, “is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of equilibrium.”
“There’s no glory in that kind of journalism, but that is the bedrock,” he added. He predicted that with local coverage dwindling, “the next 10 to 15 years are going to be a halcyon era for corrupt politicians.”
As a citizen, I am deeply interested in the issues Simon raised. And as a journalism professor, I have an additional interest. That is, with the cosmos of journalism shifting before our eyes, I have to decide what to teach my students. My decisions will not be based (in any significant way) on predictions about the fall of print, or the rise of the Web, or the viability of any particular economic model. Neither I nor anyone else has a clue about how the years ahead will play out in this regard. But I do have a basis for predicting the journalistic skills, concepts, and forms that will endure, and that is how I’m making my pedagogical decisions.
Take the genre Simon was talking about: the zoning-board story. He was dead on about its critical importance—and probably also about its near-term bad straits. But precisely because of its importance, and because it’s buttressed by the Constitution, by a long tradition of practice, and by the American DNA, I’m confident that it will eventually find some kind of appropriate forum. And so I continue to include in my classes units on how to cover local meetings.
What about the rest of the newspaper? To address that question, I conducted a thought experiment: I read a recent Sunday edition of my local newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, divided its contents into categories or genres, and decided which will survive and which will die.
Following the optimistic logic of the paragraph before last, I predict the long-term viability of (and will continue to teach the investigative skills demanded by) watchdog journalism exemplified by two front-page Inquirer articles. One laid out systemic problems at the local Veterans Administration hospital. The other, based on interviews with numerous Philadelphia public-school teachers, was about the pressure they felt to pass students, even unqualified ones. Those are examples of what-the-people-need journalism. I would also place in that category lots of other stuff in the Inquirer: reports on politicians’ actions and statements, on criminal and judicial matters, on significant international happenings (the last all picked up from wire services or other newspapers).
Optimism isn’t needed to forecast the survival of what-the-people-want stuff. In the Inquirer, that consists of opinion and commentary pieces, local obituaries, and dispatches about subjects significant numbers of readers are passionate about, or at least interested in: dining in, dining out, sports, entertainment, celebrity gossip, real estate, travel, health, technology, gardening and other “lifestyle” pursuits, and personal finance. The big and steady demand for this suggests to me that it doesn’t require much classroom instruction. Just look at the Internet, which is overflowing with it. Compared with print, the online stuff is generally snarkier, shorter, less factually reliable, less accessible to the noncognoscenti, and less carefully conceived and processed. But the best of it also bears a more authoritative voice and smarter prose. Let’s hope (we’re back in optimism mode) that in coming years, the state of the art will gravitate toward the best and away from the worst of the two worlds.
At the moment, there’s no real place on the Web for leisurely, witty articles like one on the front page of the Inquirer: the food writer Rick Nichols’s fly-on-the-wall description of a pizza-research road trip—with stops at Pepe’s in New Haven and Lucali’s and Franny’s in Brooklyn, among others—taken by the local restaurateur Stephen Starr and his posse. Will the Web develop to accommodate such prose forms? And will I keep teaching them? I say yes to both.
I suppose my thinking here is based on the robustness of art. For the same reason, I see future incarnations of two other stories in the paper, the Metro columnist Daniel Rubin’s deft and touching account of a road trip with his 83-year-old father and the Pulitzer Prize feature writer Michael Vitez’s long account (this is the first of three parts) of a local collegiate swimmer’s recovery from a very bad accident. In any era, excellent narrative about human beings will find a home.
If Snark and Art represent two sorts of newspaper features destined to get out alive, I’ll add a third name: Mabel. The reference is to the “Hey, Mabel” story, named for the tableau of a guy looking up from the paper and calling for the missus to get a load of this. Judging from most-viewed lists on aggregators like Yahoo and Google, the market for this sort of piece, sometimes called a “bright,” is still robust. An example is the top story on Yahoo News as I write, an Associated Press article entitled “Dead Sea Peril: Sinkholes Swallow Up the Unwary.” The Sunday Inquirer has one too, also from the AP: “She’s Hot on the Trail of Nuisance Gators in Florida.” (Funny how the titles of these stories pretty much say it all.)
By the same logic, there would also appear to be a continuing demand for Hey-Mabelish lifestyle/trend pieces, along the lines of grandmas are now getting tattoos, teens are getting off Facebook because their parents are getting on, tweens are having co-ed slumber parties, and so on.
That covers everything in the Sunday Inquirer, right? Wrong. Two articles remain. Both are well reported and well written, and represent venerable genres, but neither has a future, and I’m going to stop teaching them both.
The first appears in the Metro section of the paper and is called “Comics Convention Draws a Colorful Crowd.” The genre here is the scene piece—think the mall on Black Friday, or outside the arena of a Phish concert. The idea is to go to a colorful event, soak up the atmosphere, fill up a notebook, stitch together some quotes, color, and characters, and close with a “kicker”—a pithy quote. The author, Matthew Spolar, has done all that at a fantasy/science-fiction/comic-book exposition called the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic-Con. It is all well done, as I say, but I cannot imagine anyone really caring.
The second story, “Rachel Simon on Homes and Hearts,” is a leisurely profile of a local author with a new memoir coming out. Again, it has all the requisite elements: catchy lede, a “nut graf” (sometimes called a “billboard”) that briefly explains what the story is about and why we should care, well-chosen factoids about the writer and the book, sound-bite-style quotes, and, again, a kicker. And again, it does not scream, “Read me!”
Some other types of features, which don’t happen to be represented in this edition of the Inquirer, are toast as well. The weather story, where, after an day of extreme meteorology, the reporter goes out and gathers some quotes and anecdotes. The anniversary story—commemorating the 50th or 100th birthday of Jell-O, or iceberg lettuce, or whatever. The lame holiday angle—the Christmas piece about the mall-Santa-training academy, the one about sexy outfits on Halloween, the one about unusual jobs on Labor Day.
Generations of journalists have been schooled in the protocols of those genres; they have amused and instructed, in their fashion, for years. I have devoted much time to them in my feature-writing class. But there will be no Congressional hearings bemoaning their demise, nor should there be. They are the kind of thing Marshall McLuhan was talking about when he said, “People don’t actually read newspapers—they step into them every morning like a hot bath.” They will soon be as antique and superfluous as copy paper, glue pots, and symbols like