Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All the News...

At The Nation, Columbia University journalism professor Dale Maharidge writes about something people have probably not been noticing: The erosion of age and experience in newsrooms across the country.

Maharidge points out that as newspapers continue to downsize and close, the people that get let go or bought out are the ones that cost the company the most money. And those people are the ones with the experience, in life as well as reporting and writing, that fueled what most people think of as journalism. They investigated things and wrote about them so that other people could learn what they had learned. Sometimes "things" was a city council meeting, sometimes it was a corrupt government official, sometimes it was a single mom with three jobs barely keeping her kids clothed and in school, sometimes it was some other kind of hero or some other kind of villain.

But, Maharidge says, online journalism doesn't have the time or the patience for things like that, and the middle-aged grumps who used to epitomize the trade are instead the dinosaurs and fossils of a gone time that doesn't have any archaeologists interested in exploring it.

Since he's writing for The Nation, Maharidge throws in a couple of digs about how the modern American system does this sort of soul-sucking thing to the downtrodden everywhere and creates the trodding to boot. And the headline -- "These journalists dedicated their lives to telling other people's stories" -- is the kind of mawkish starry-eyed stuff every journalist older than 20 laughs at. Plus, you might wonder why Maharidge still teaches journalism, if he's convinced it's on its way out. Columbia University ain't cheap, and if the people it graduates can't find work, then why be part of that problem? At the very least find a less expensive venue and minimize the debt your students incur to gain the wisdom and skills of a dying profession, if that's what you believe it to be.

All those aside, Maharidge's most important point remains clear. Even if some kind of online journalism develops that spends time on things like state legislature budget meetings -- and no clickbait headline is ever going to make one of those appealing -- will there be anyone around who knows how to bulldog the selfless public servants spending our money into saying how it's being spent? Journalism may be the only profession that's predicated on being a pain in the everybody. What happens when the only people who write just know how to do long form first-person celebrity profiles? Or can diagnose fifteen different kinds of patriarchy in a budget press release but can't ask a coherent question about where the money goes?

If Donald Trump had actually run for president in the mid-90s, for example, newsrooms across the country would have salivated over the idea of telling people about his bankruptcies, ridiculous spending habits, whacko political positions, lack of serious thought to his policies and so on. Sam Donaldson would have taken a truckload of No-Doze in order to have been at every Trump public appearance possible and shout questions at him until security dragged him outside. Some journalists would have done this because they disliked Trump, of course. But many more would have done it because it was their job to be a pain in the ass and there are fewer asses larger than Donald Trump.

We don't have that today. We have Hitler comparisons and twenty paragraphs on Trump's coded racism and dutiful snickering over his implications about the functionality of his genitalia. It's not that today's news folk like Trump -- although when CBS chair Les Moonves chortles about how good Trump is for his ratings, you may wonder -- it's just that they really don't know how to go after him on anything of real substance. Years of Bush/McCain/Romney/Palin/Insert Name Here are eeeeevilstoopid! work, combined with supine worship of President Obama's pants crease, March Madness bracket and supergeniuscoolestever-ness, mean that news outlets that want to seriously investigate the emperor's wardrobe can't find the people to do it.

Maharidge's piece touches on what happened to some of those people, with an eye towards the pathos of their situations, which I guess is OK. Had I not heard a particular call upon my life, I might have been among their number. I kind of wonder, though, if a story about the erosion of journalism that focuses on some of the journalists left out of the picture -- with some requisite breast-beating about an -ism, in this case ageism -- wouldn't be better replaced by a story about what's not going to be known because those people are doing other things. It's troubling that these people are out of work, but such a thing happens, all too often.

In the most elementary terms, I think Maharidge has done a decent job of who, what, when, where and how, but he's kind of skimped on the why. We'll find out soon enough, of course, why we should care that some of those ink-stained misanthropes we call reporters are out of work. It's just that we probably won't know it when we do.


Brian J. said...

I've commented on the phenomenon myself.

As part and parcel of the youthification, we get a couple of products. First, so much 'investigation' for the story is simply visiting people's Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and reporting that. Second, we get a lot of cut and paste in follow-up stories, where one story adds a sentence or two to the previous story and fills the space with the old content plus the new tidbit. Third, we end up with a circular pattern. Here in Springfield, we're a market for those starting their careers, so the turnover is great, and we get the same Theme stories year after year: Children in poverty is a big one, and it's always fresh to the new kids writing it. Fourth, the kids coming out of J-school don't have any experience in the real world, so they don't know anything but what they've known their whole lives, and they tell us it as though it were fresh and new.

I think papers could do better with more stringers from older people writing news stories for a hundred bucks a pop, turning out two or three a day.

But I'm not in the industry and not likely to enter it.

Friar said...

Well, I'm not likely to go back unless the UM church goes under, but for what it's worth I think you're right. Our local is actually pretty well-served by its recent grad, but she's a little older than the traditional student and she grew up here.