By the 1990s, the landscape in newsrooms across the
country clearly was changing. Longtime reporters and editors
retired, and increasingly were replaced by second- and even
third-generation college graduates who had little in common
with “the underdog,” that handy euphemism we
employ for those who suffer in silence and anonymity until
we step in.
Some of us detected a growing resistance of newspapers to
covering these stories.
The economic turmoil of the last two years has changed
much about America, including the rank and file of
newsrooms. There is not a newspaper in the country left
unscathed. Journalists lucky enough to still have jobs are
now full of their own stories about slashed wages, lost
colleagues and abandoned desks.
Shared experiences nurture empathy, and that’s a
handy skill when you’re capturing in words, pictures
and video the essence of another human being. Our
privileged, arm’s length status from the people we
cover has evaporated, and the view from common ground is
fueling some of the most poignant journalism in years.
Possibly the reporters in Cleveland are privileged and wealthy. I wouldn’t know. The top salary for a reporter at most papers where I worked barely cracked $40K. That’s hardly “at arm’s length” from an auto worker or police officer. Not everybody’s making $100K and to assume all reporters are is just as bad as assuming (as Schultz does earlier in the piece) that all bloggers are senselessly tearing down journalism out of spite. The whole column is full of fail, but this bit drove me over the edge.
This argument that college graduates all suck and aren’t “real” with the “people” and whatnot just enrages me. In my journalism career I interviewed people who jumped out of planes into Normandy and Holland and somehow managed to do it without getting any closer to skydiving than driving by the airport. I did stories about priests while being a woman, about soldiers without ever having served, about mortgages before I had one, about gang violence and racism and sailing and art. And I wasn’t the first person in my family to go to college, I was the third. I managed not because I was a born and bred underdog but because I had people around me in the newsroom from all kinds of places who had all kinds of stories, and because I had bosses who would challenge any assumption I had on any given day.
You don’t need to experience something before you can credibly convey that experience through your words. You just have to fucking listen and keep your own head out of the way of what your story is about, and you need your bosses to actually know you and know what you’re about, which is really the problem here. Newspapers didn’t lose touch with the “common man” because their reporters were too well-educated or too well-compensated. They lost touch with the “common man” because their owners said, “You know, enough with these stories about poor people. Why isn’t anybody buying waterbeds anymore? Let’s write about that.” And the owners aren’t being hit with the economic crisis. They aren’t getting any lessons in compassion and identifying with the downtrodden. They’re just passing on down the bullshit so that old-timers like Schultz can bitch about Kids Today instead of directing her ire at its proper target.
I get that sharing an experience CAN make one better equipped to listen
to those having those experiences, and that diversity of experiences is
necessary and good in a newsroom as in any environment. But to
disqualify everyone who went to college as not being as authentic as
the romantic old-timers of the best days of our lives is such complete
crap. You do yourself no favor, whatever your profession, in dismissing
the contributions of an entire generation, especially one coming to your profession with energy and enthusiasm.
Good journalism is not dependent on the journalist mirroring, in every way, shape and form, the story. In fact, some of the laziest and most self-indulgent journalism comes from reporters feeling they have a personal connection to the subject, because it blinds them to the reality of the situation and gives them the false impression that their readers give a shit what they think. Think David Brooks and George Will and the like columnists, talking about how they’re just so bored with policy. Think Sheilagh Murray talking about how lame it was that the Minnesota senate race dragged on so freaking long. In fact, think local sports reporters considering the high school coaches they cover friends rather than sources. Far more journalistic sins have been committed through too much identification with the source than through too little.
And quite frankly, saying out loud that it took the economic crisis hitting newspapers to make newspaper reporters care about the economic crisis is appalling and parasitic and fucking SICK. You finally get it now? Well, GOOD FOR YOU, announcing to the world that it took being hungry to make you understand why being hungry was a bad thing. I’m sure everybody who’s been laid off thanks God every day their misfortune became part of your education. Talk about privileged and oblivious.
There is no perfect way to make a journalist who listens to the source rather than the boss, who sees stories everywhere and not just among the rich. Good journalists, like good firefighters and good cops and good congressmen and good artists, can come from anywhere. Even from the Internets, about which Schultz is so dismissive.
P.S. Deploring college graduate journalists? Fucking passé.The Front Page is from 1931, and there’s a line in there in which a crusty old reporter admonishes a young eager beaver, dumb as rocks, with “I bet you went to college, didn’t you?” The world did not begin when you noticed it, honey.
P.P.S. As Mr. A pointed out while I was explaining this idiocy a moment ago, if you don’t want college graduates at your papers anymore, there’s a really easy way to get around that: STOP REQUIRING A COLLEGE DEGREE to get an interview, much less a job. Stop requiring a master’s degree to advance (not a universal practice, but still common). Just go out and don’t suck. It’s that easy. Not quite as easy as writing columns about problems you have no intention of solving, but easy nonetheless.