Commentary

#Let’sfixjournalism

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Commentary

Journalism as the old generation of journalists knew it is dead, and it is time for the cash-strapped University of Alaska to take the lead on the new path forward.

It can start by killing the journalism degree. There is no more worthless diploma coming out of any U.S. university today, and it’s not because the job market for journalists is bad. That is a problem, but it is not the real problem.

The real problem is that the entire journalistic model of old, which involved a lot more than universities, is broken. And every news consumer pays the price because so much journalism today is crap.

There is no other word for the garbage produced by people clueless about the subjects  they cover.

As a technology driven world has become smarter and faster, journalism has become dumber and slower. It would be easy to blame the young journalists of today, but it’s not their fault.

No OJT

Reporters today learn that which is taught in journalism departments and journalism schools. They learn to  arrange words, proofread copy, take photographs, produce video and “edit” in  various forms.

None of that makes a good journalist anymore than a worm-drive saw, a framing hammer, a 25-foot tape measure, a square and heavy-duty pencil make a good rough-in carpenter, or a fancy-ass bike and a syringe of EPO makes anyone the next Lance Armstrong.

All those things are only tools. Skills are what make the difference.

And skills are what journalists once acquired on the job. They gained knowledge and background, sometimes even some smarts.

This is how the system worked:

Young reporters fresh out of school with their shiny journalism degrees went to newspapers, sometimes television station, where they were assigned what was called a “beat” and supervised by an editor who pretty well knew the beat.

As beat reporters, they were immersed in the subjects and issues they covered. It was a learning process. Within a few years, some reporters became experts on the beat for the simple reason that they spent all their time studying the subjects and the material.

Over a period of decades, Don Hunter – a first-class beat reporter from the now-gone Anchorage Daily News – came to know Anchorage city government better than the ever-changing cast of people who ran city government.

Hunter, who prematurely retired because he couldn’t take what was happening to the news business, was an editor for a time after that. He taught a few reporters how to do the job as editors before had taught him.

This doesn’t happen anymore.  Beats are largely dead. Today almost everyone is a “general assignment” reporter covering whichever of a daily flood of press releases some often over-worked editor decides must be covered.

Must why? Because every other surviving media entity will be covering it.

Ask a reporter what he or she covers these days, and you’re likely to get this: “Whatever press release I’m told to cover.”

Whether the reporter knows diddly about the subject matter in that press release is irrelevant. They are thrown into the breach as if just a little “common sense” will help you understand nuclear physics or even the drilling of water wells.

Case in point:

Down the wellhead

“Two construction workers were taken to the hospital Tuesday evening after they deployed dry ice in a wellhead… and suffocated.

“When the two men introduced the dry ice into the six-foot-deep private wellhead, the dry ice displaced the oxygen and the men could not breathe.

“A swarm of fire, police and medic vehicles arrived on scene. The men were not responsive. One man was pulled out of the wellhead….”

These are lines from an actual story produced by an actual Alaska news organization last year. The copy has been edited to disguise the media organization and especially the reporter, because this  isn’t about the failings of the latter.

It’s about the failings of the system.

“One man was pulled out of the wellhead…?” A wellhead on a water well is 5- or 6-inches in diameter.  A normal man would be hard pressed to get a leg down the pipe, let alone enough of his body to make it necessary to pull him out.

But that’s only  one of the many obvious problems with the story. A wellhead is not six-feet-deep; a wellhead is “the top of or a structure built over a well.”

And once you have “suffocated” your are most decidedly “not responsive” because you are D-E-A-D. Suffocate means “to die because you are unable to breathe.”

The story should never have made print, but it did. After that happened, it could have been turned into a learning experience, but it wasn’t. The reporter was told to follow the story. It never got much better.

“Two construction workers were taken to the hospital Tuesday evening after they deployed dry ice in a wellhead…and suffocated,” the next version of the story said. Dead men were taken to the hospital?

Another version or two later, all versions nearly as confusing as the first, the news organization in question just abandoned the story. The dead men were never identified, although the wife of one later started a GoFundMe attempt to raise the money to get his body flown home to the Lower 48. The contractor for the project was never named. The unusual circumstances of the accident were never spelled out in a way the average person could understand.

Why?

Nobody knows nothin’

Because apparently the reporter and editor on the story knew nothing about well drilling or suffocation, and no one else in the news organization cared about the story or thought it their place to speak up to get it corrected.

The editor might have been as young and inexperienced as the reporter, which is often the case in these changing times, or a muddle-brained senior still hanging on. Journalism has witnessed a brain drain of smart, seasoned professionals over  the past decade. They moved on to better opportunities in related or sometimes totally different fields.

Some of the people who’ve stayed are no longer at the top of their game. It’s not a good situation, and there’s no sign it is getting better. By and large, the now internet-dominated market is working against journalism, not for it.

The internet has driven down the value of news.  Newspapers have been hit especially hard. The work force has shrunk nearly 40 percent in the past 20 years. They had to shed those costly bodies just to stay alive. Newspaper revenues have fallen by about a third in just the past decade. 

Newspapers will never die. There will always be some demand. You can still buy a horse and buggy today, but most people don’t. A car is faster and more convenient. The same can be said for the internet as near as your smart phone.

Throw in the fact the internet is free, and who wants to pay for news in an oldspaper?

Television news face a similar but different threat. It’s selling point was always immediacy. The internet has eliminated that. You can now get breaking news faster online than on TV, and though often of marginal quality, the online news is at least as good as most television news.

To compete, television is trying to do what newspapers did after television stole the market for breaking news. Television, or at least some television, is trying to add value to the pile of facts that comprise news by adding analysis and explanation that makes sense of it all.

There’s only one problem.

“Explanatory reporting,” as The Pulitzer Prizes now call it, takes people with skill. It’s hard to find people with skill willing to work for peanuts. When pay is low, what news organizations sometime end up getting are people like Charlo Greene. (Warning: That you-tube link contains profanity.)

Low-pay plagues most news organizations today, most especially in smaller local markets. Many of these organizations are so busy fighting for their economic survival, or bleeding money in the hopes something will somehow change. These organizations simply can’t afford to pay much. And there’s no sign this is going to change any day soon.

To counter it, what  is needed is a new kind of journalist.

Think citizen journalists and part-time journalists.

A new university

Enter the University of Alaska, where the journalism programs are already struggling as bad or worse than news organizations.  When Rob Prince, then the chair of the Journalism Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was early this year asked how many journalism graduates the program had, he didn’t know.

The rest of the discussion went like this:

“Well, how about a ball-park figure?”

“Ball park?”

“Yeah, you must have some idea.”

“Ballpark, I’d say maybe five.”

Any university department with a staff of five professors, plus adjuncts, producing only five graduates a year ought to be eliminated based on poor performance, but then UAF shouldn’t be producing any journalism majors at all so graduation rates shouldn’t matter.

What UAF and the University of Anchorage Alaska, which also has a Journalism Department, should be producing are bunches of engineering, biology, political science, business (most especially business), arts, nursing and other majors with minors in journalism. 

Journalism isn’t rocket science. Many people can be trained to do it. Some people are naturally gifted writers, but most of us aren’t. Still, we can learn to write simple, declarative sentences and build of them paragraphs people can understand, and then string the paragraphs together to make a story.

There was a time when I worked as an editor. I was kind of a picky jerk about it, but years later I got a thank you note from a woman who’d gone on to a very successful career in the business. She didn’t start out as a great reporter, but she became one. She was not alone. I watched a lot of people go from barely competent (if not actually incompetent) to very good.

There are a small number of people who can’t write worth a damn and never will. But there are many, myself included, who can do an adequate job of it if they try.

And the writing is only a bit of the reporting. Some of the best reporters I’ve ever known were not particularly good writers, but they had quick minds, determination and a solid understanding of the basics: Who, what, when, where and how.

Old time journalists called the first of those the 4Ws. They were always important. They still are, but the how might be now more important than ever. In our advanced society, people want to know how things work.

Most journalism grads have no clue to how things work. Some don’t even seem to understand how you go about doing the research to figure out how things work. Newspapers used to have librarians to help with that. Those days are gone,too.

Today’s journalists are left to research on their own. Too many don’t know how.

The system for training people in journalism needs to adapt. Sadly, that’s not going to happen with universities and new organizations doing the same old things in the same old ways. But change is possible.

Universities could teach dozens or tens of dozens of people how to gather and organize information and treat it in a fair and honest way. Help them simplify their writing (usually a key.) Give them a course in journalism ethics and history. Explain the legal restraints so they don’t libel anyone. And send them on their way.

News organizations could bring into the process smart people who though they are not journalists per se understand what journalism does and are capable of delivering that product. The television networks now do this regularly. They have expert analysts on call.

As a reader, wouldn’t you prefer the-not-so-well written or voiced report of someone who knows what the hell they are talking  about over the beautiful prose of the clueless? Wouldn’t you trust it more?

Journalism shouldn’t be a business that leaves one afraid to read the reporting about any subject known well for fear the story will be a litany of misconceptions, half-truths and mistakes. Journalism should be a business that helps people understand how the world around them works, be that the world of politics or science or business or fashion or art or, or, or, or…

Simply put, today’s journalism should be better. And given the current market situation, the only way that’s really going to happen is if people with good educations and good paying jobs start contributing as journalists on the side.

 

 

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4 replies »

  1. Journalism just doesn’t pay well enough. The best and brightest leave the field for bigger paychecks. I would literally pay money to get the news, but it is too easy to get it for free.

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  2. The idea of smart and rational people being journalists on the side runs into the same issues as smart and rational people getting into politics. It’s not worth the hassle for most of these people. If a person is smart and rational, there is a good chance that person is a centrist, is analytical, has common sense and maybe even a moral compass. But in our current political environment, the centrist carries a huge target on his/her back. The radical left will attack them as right wing-nuts. The right wing-nuts will attack them as leftist nut cases. Whether it’s journalism or politics, if you express an opinion these days that is not polarized … you can’t win. No matter if you are reporting on politics or “workers suffocating in a wellhead”, your message will be twisted and you are going to be ripped a new asshole from the left or the right. And most smart and rational people think that life is too short to subject themselves to this nonsense.

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  3. I wonder if one of the courses required to get a Journalism degree from UAF is ‘bias reporting’. I am sure along with the four w’s being taught the students must be learning how to slant their articles, or does that come from the newspapers editors?

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  4. It’s not just your profession. There’s a general lack of skepticism and willingness to dig beyond the accepted view or the press release version of events. The concept of critical thinking and proving things to yourself seems to have been bred out of the latest crop young professionals and replaced with a heavy dose of social conformance. I find it distressing that in most cases we never see alternative points of view presented. Maybe this is the “Age of De-Enlightenment”

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