Monday, May 21, 2007

How to kill a profession

Last week, I found myself in a fascinating discussion on SayAnything regarding what kind of person is qualified to call himself a journalist, and under what conditions that person may operate. As the husband of a fine lady with a journalism degree, and as the great-nephew of a fairly prominent journalist, it's a subject that means a bit to me.

Kenny died before the Internet became big, but I wonder what he'd think of the state of his profession today. Certainly he knew that television was making inroads, but I'd guess he'd be appalled to see, for example, what's become of the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune.

What's to blame? My take is that it's become too much of a "profession," just like teaching. Where it was once sufficient to have curiousity, writing skill, and the willingness to work odd hours, now it seems that one generally needs a journalism education (the kind Ernie Pyle mocked) and the willingness to interact with an immense bureaucracy.

In other words, the profession has been redesigned to stifle the very creativity that needed to be a decent journalist. I wish it were the only profession so stifled, but sad to say, that's not true.

PS. It probably also doesn't help that my wife's journalism law textbook doesn't even member the Peter Zenger case--and this at a "good" journalism school, Michigan State.

5 comments:

pentamom said...

Well, if it's any comfort, my daughter's public high school journalism textbook did mention Zenger. Maybe MSU's text simply assumed they'd had it in 9th grade?

One can only hope, though not very much....

pentamom said...

Of course, the very concept of a public high school 9th grade journalism class points up the problem. At my daughter's school, you don't even get a place on the newspaper staff (though you may get an article published now and again if the j-teacher knows and likes you) until you're in third-semester journalism. Too bad for the kid who finds something out and writes it down well but hasn't done all the required study! In my day (ha ha) there weren't even journalism classes in high school, and somehow we still managed to have a school paper. OTOH, I do have to admit the quality of my daughter's school paper far exceeds that of my own school. But that may simply be a function of the relative importance of the paper within the school (funding, getting school credit, using class time rather than after school, and other things), rather than a reflection of greatly increased ability of the students resulting from "journalism classes."

Bike Bubba said...

I remember learning about it in history class in high school--and knowing its importance, I was shocked that there wasn't any mention in Connie's textbook. It's like a history of Anglo-American law without the Magna Carta.

But I think you nail it with your other comment as well; when we train people in AP style instead of history and such, we end up with...well, people trained in AP style but deficient in history and science. Yikes.

pentamom said...

Well, to be fair, the particular school I'm referring to is a magnet school that has a track record of excellent preparation in all that other good stuff (history, science, etc.) that you refer to. My daughter's tenth grade brain is stuffed way fuller of history, science, literature, etc., than mine was at the same age, even back in the good old days. ;-) (Then again, she's choosing to accelerate some of her "good stuff" courses at the expense of no longer taking journalism classes! Ha!) Still, I agree with the basic point that it's better to teach kids to know a lot and how to write about it, than to write a lot and hopefully get around to knowing something.

Jack said...

Having worked in a "modern" press room within the last decade, as well as in the Communications departments of two major corporations, I saw my fair share of both "vintage" and "contemporary" journalism. The only person I can compare my old newspaper editor to is the crazy editor-in-chief in the new Spiderman movies; that Hollywood caricature just about nailed the kind of guy that ran the newspaper I worked for in college ...

There are still good journalists out there, as defined by Bert's criteria, but there are a lot more people who are merely good writers with no common sense or understanding of history, politics and current events. It seems that any one who can correctly construct a sentence can be a journalist in today's world -- they get their education from the stilted media they work for. I think that's part of the problem: a broken-down media teaching future journalists ... A classic case of the blind leading the blind.

Jackie