Journamalism Qualifiers

Romenesko’s readers continue beating up on that half-bright self-described critic, Willy Stern.

Still, do I have my concerns about the future? Most assuredly, yes. But my fear about the business isn’t that the degree-heavy elite whom Stern holds so dear aren’t entering journalism. (If anything, it’s the brilliant MBAs who carve out penny-pinching budgets and the brilliant consultants who create focus groups and craft readership surveys who have driven us into the pit we’re in.) What I see lacking in the business are the Jimmy Breslin sorts who truly know the world they live in and chuckle at the concept of focus groups as a conduit to revelations about what a community wants to read or hear. I admit, I have no knowledge of Jimmy Breslin’s collegiate history, and I’m not going to take the time to wade through Google to see whether he does have a PhD. But, when I think of Breslin (and many others like him), I think of someone relentless and empathetic. Give me those qualities in a reporter any day, even if he or she has never set foot on a college campus.

And you know, really, yeah. Look, there are mechanics that can and should be taught no matter in what medium you’re practicing your journalism. Blogging, column-writing, whatever, you still need some basic ideas of how to write and if not AP Style, you need to know what to do with your commas. Would I benefit from having an editor hereabouts? Absolutely, if only because my love of fragments and run-ons gets so out of control even I start to notice it. Not to mention my tendency to start paragraphs with “and” all the time. The entire Internet could use a spell-checker. Charles Krauthammer, regardless of what his resum might say, needs a fact-checker like I need oxygen. There are safeguards for a reason and I think everybody could benefit if they were used across the board. For you, too, Judy Miller. Nobody’s exempt.

But to pretend there’s some kind of magic formula that produces good journalists, and that only that formula should be followed, is the worst kind of elitist crap. Send two kids through the same journalism school, same classes, same profs, you’ll still get vastly different journalists. Put two reporters under the same editor, and one will thrive and the other have a crackup. Shitty journalism appears on the front page of the Times and great journalism is done by The Smoking Gun. The boxes don’t fit the purchases anymore.

I’m a big proponent of practical journalism education, on the assumption that if you do stuff, you won’t be scared of it anymore. I’ll never forget sitting across the newsroom in college from a guy interviewing a candidate for mayor. Paul had his feet up on the desk and he wasn’t even taking notes anymore, he was just shooting the shit with this mayoral hopeful, who was running on a marijuana legalization platform. “So,” Paul says, as if it’s a perfectly reasonable question, “are you high right now?” It wasn’t the best “truth to power” moment I ever saw, but it was a lesson: don’t be afraid to ask anybody anything.

But that newsroom produced just as many crap journalists as good ones. We had a plagiarist, a serial sexual harrasser, a guy who watched pornos on the work computers, people who talked to themselves, all kinds of assholes and insects just like everywhere else. It wasn’t foolproof.

Nothing is. So you have to evaluate the work, not the pedigree. You have to evaluate the person, not where he or she went to school or even if. If there was a factory that made fantastic journalists without a glitch I’d be manning the assembly line, because nothing’s more important to me than bringing worthy stories to those who will listen to them. But there’s no such factory, and until there is, we’ll all just have to work a little harder to make sure we get ponies instead of piles of manure.

The backstory of Willy Stern’s idiocy.