Signs and Symbols of a Shrinking Craft
The picture is poignant. In a New York Times article this week, there's a photo of a handwritten poster illustrating the inverted pyramid for the staff of DeWitt Clinton High School's The Clinton News. The poster is touchingly earnest in the way that things teenagers take seriously are, with bright colors and bold type. It's heartening to see young people eager to learn the basics of journalism, especially at an urban, public high school.
Problem is, this is a fading scenario. Fewer schools publish student newspapers, which means fewer students are learning the values and skills of journalism. Faced with increasing pressure to teach only what appears on standardized tests, many schools are also dropping journalism as an elective course.
'So what?' some may say. Media and journalism are changing, and the background needed for news gathering is changing with it. I disagree. While social media and crowd-sourced information are now critically important to the news ecosystem, we will always need those who can research, verify, interpret, and clearly communicate news, with an eye to standards and ethics. Even if you don't think the shrinking pipeline of young media professionals is a big problem, consider this: people with an understanding of journalism are not just better writers. They are better readers (and viewers). The loss of exposure to journalism in the schools erodes people's ability to think critically about the information they are presented with.
The other problem is elitism. According to the Times article, "a disproportionate number of those without newspapers were urban schools with higher percentages of minority children." Couple this with recent press about the built-in elitism of companies relying on unpaid interns, which in many cases (though not all) means only those with the financial means to work for free have a chance to get their foot in the door, and you have a problem with maintaining a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in media and other industries.
But even those with plenty of advantages can get shortchanged. David Carr, writing last year about disgraced writer Jonah Lehrer, noted that, for bright young people coming up in journalism today, notoriety often comes without proper training in the trenches. "Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you about a come-to-Jesus moment," Carr writes, "when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it."
This is what happened to Lehrer after he was caught making up quotes in his book Imagine—something which I'm guessing would be unthinkable to the news hounds at DeWitt Clinton High School.
Fare Thee Well
This is my last blog entry as managing editor of Publishing Executive. I'm moving on to new opportunities, but my byline may still appear in PE and Book Business from time to time. I very much appreciate the support of all those who have helped me become a better reporter, editor and publishing authority over the last few years.