Not getting it (at a young age)

Speaking at the National High School Journalism conferenceHigh School journalism students and their advisors are caught in a real conundrum over changes in the media landscape and what the future might hold. My heart goes out to instructors these days, because it ain’t a‑goin’ where they’re a‑pointin’.

I got an earful of this Saturday at the JEA’s “National High School Journalism Conference” in Nashville, where I led a session on the personal media revolution. I went through all the basics and was delighted to find that the audience was pretty up-to-speed on new media. Many had blogged or published something online, and a majority had uploaded a video to YouTube. A dozen or so of them knew what RSS was. They liked the videos I played and were fascinated by my charts and graphs.

At one point, I mentioned Kodak, and a gentleman who appeared to be an instructor pointed out that most of the kids in the room had never had a film camera. I felt so old. We had a nice time until the bogeymen of objectivity and tradition reared their ugly heads.

Near the end of the Q&A session, a young man advised the audience to continue to press forward with careers in “real” journalism with its ideals of ethics, fairness and objectivity. I got a little upset with this, because here I was telling them what’s taking place in the real world, and he was negating everything I’d just said. His argument was simple but very wrong, and it’s one I run into everywhere I go. Blogs, the blogosphere and citizen journalism, the thinking goes, are fine, but it’s mostly just opinion, and people need the facts. That, he believes, is the job of the trained expert reporter.

We got off on a tangent about Bill O’Reilly being an “opinion journalist,” whatever that is. I wouldn’t defend Bill O’Reilly, but I won’t play the game either. I argued that people need argument, not opinion, and that this was lacking in traditional, allegedly “just the facts” journalism. You should have seen the looks on faces as I challenged what was being said. You’d think I’d just landed from Mars.

The young man continued by saying he was a web developer and “knew all this stuff,” but that if we’d all just look at the links from blogs, we’d find that they all point to mainstream media outlets. This, in his mind (and in the minds of many), proves that there will always be a need for what he and others believe is “real” journalism.

And that is what these young people are hoping to be.

One young man asked how a citizen journalist (I hate the term, because it attempts to differentiate pros from “those awful amateurs.”) could go to Iraq to do the job of fact-gathering. Too expensive. Access is only granted to credentialed journalists. By this, he was validating his illusion that only big media can do “real” journalism. I argued that, in fact, some of the best reporting about Iraq had come from the fringes and that Iraqi bloggers had done an outstanding job of reporting what others wouldn’t.

We got off on the always-fruitfulless issues of accuracy and credibility and how that’s what people wanted and needed. “What credibility?” I asked, pointing out that all of the measurements available put public trust of the media at an all-time low. “What accuracy?” I argued, noting that bloggers are continually fact-checking and outing examples of inaccurate reporting in the mainstream.

What amazed me in all of this was that these young people actually believe there will be jobs for them in the promised land of mainstream media when they get out of college five years downstream. I’m sure that at least a few of these people felt I was a complete jerk for arguing against their dream, and perhaps I got a little testy. I feel very passionate about young people and even moreso about the business of news, and I’m tired of fighting the same battles over and over and over again.

I don’t have all the answers to questions about where journalism is headed, but I do know that so-called professional journalism is being turned on its ear now, and I view this as a good thing. I think there’ll probably always be top-down news outlets who continue what they view as the gate-keeper function, but as long as the bottom line dictates the dos and don’ts, they won’t be serving the public interest that’s assigned to the fourth estate. Who and what will have that authority is being written even today, and nobody knows what it’ll be.

“Go forth and make media,” I told the group. “You want to ‘be’ a journalist, be one! There’s no badge that makes you one, no degree, no license (thank God and the founding fathers), no credentials and no special anointing from the New York Times. So just do it.” This again drew a few moans and rolled eyes.

Sorry, but journalists are not a special class of citizen.

I got a lot of good feedback when the session was over. One young fellow asked for my e‑mail address, and a young lady told me it was the most beneficial session she’d attended, but I came away just shaking my head. Clearly, our education system has its collective head up its butt moreso than even the most obstinate of traditional media moguls. And this is profoundly sad, because the primrose path of a one-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four formula to get into “the biz” isn’t as flower-lined as it once was. You can’t buy your way into the club anymore, because the club isn’t taking new members, regardless of your pedigree.

Meanwhile, circulation falls, news viewing falls, and people are turning to each other for knowledge and information. New citizens media efforts, like NewAssignment.net, are being launched, as smart people try to find ways to blend the old with the new.

And these young people think there will be traditional jobs out here for them when they leave the cocoon of academia.

Comments

  1. This was a very good post — kept me reading. It’s always interesting to see how some people react to the changes that are looming in the air. I find it particularly strange that young people, who are typically skeptical of the main stream media, were under the impression that working for the MSM was the only way to make it in journalism. The journalism profession that they enter in a few years will be very different from … well… probably from how it is even in these changing times.

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  2. […] Terry Heaton riffs on the same theme, after talking to a group of journalism students who didn’t get his contention that “professional journalism is being turned on its ear.” […]

  3. […] Over at the Pomo Blog, Terry Heaton has an insightful commentary about a recent experience he had while speaking to high school journalism students. I encourage you to stop by and read his thoughts. He’s an expert on trends in today’s media. […]

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