When I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I majored not in journalism but in something called the Honors Program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences. (You try cramming that in the “Major” space on a hand-written job or grad-school application sometime!) Many MMSS majors went on to careers in business consulting, investment banking and law. To my knowledge, I’m the only one from my years in MMSS who went into journalism, despite the program’s outstanding training in what journalists would call computer-assisted reporting.
The program was brutal. All-night homework sessions, mind-twisting mathematical models, hard-core computer work. To this day, the word eigenvector persists in my mind, not as the description of some mathematical concept, but as an emotional marker for a deeply confusing two-day study session.
Our professor and the founder of the program, the late Michael F. Dacey, could sense when we were struggling too much. On those days, he would walk quietly into our classroom, pick up a piece of chalk and write on the board: “Pep Talk.”
And we would cheer. No new concepts that day, just recollections of top scholars in math and the social sciences and their struggles as students. Or success stories from other program graduates. Anything, really, that Prof. Dacey could think of to keep us motivated and willing to put in the work necessary to stay in the program.
It’s been a brutal few weeks in the journalism business. Romenesko and, locally, LA Observed are filled with reports of newsroom layoffs, buyouts, falling newspaper circulation and crashing news company revenue.
Overall, more than 60 million people a month read newspaper websites last year, according to a Nielsen Online Custom Analysis for the Newspaper Association of America. That’s up from 56 million a month in 2006.
If lousy, short-sighted, uncreative, backward-thinking bosses are running newsrooms into the ground, they are not destroying demand for good, engaging information. More people are reading news, at least online. People are spending more and more money online, and advertisers are spending more and more money there, as well.
People are not apathetic about politics, about civic life and about reading. They are willing to engage their attention spans and focus on detail, if they see the information available as relevant and engaging to them.
The market for good journalism — engaging, relevant, accurate and enduring information — lives. What the market is rejecting is the half-baked, lazy and boring reporting that doesn’t stand the test of time — the sort of reporting that understaffed and under-trained newsrooms too often have delivered over the past generation. (See Iraq, weapons of mass destruction; Housing, prices always go up and Elections, stupid personal questions for a few recent examples.)
That’s the pep talk. Now here’s the challenge: Staying in this field while it transitions from the failing newsrooms of today to the better-managed news companies of tomorrow, the ones that will be able to efficiently deliver the engaging information this enduring news market needs.
Journalists are not without help there. Grad schools are doing some pretty cool things in training journalists for a more specialized future. (Plug for the bosses: here.) Foundations are throwing millions of dollars at training for mid-career journalists. (Plug number two: here.) Entrepreneurs are funding start-ups. Patrons are setting up non-profits. Even individuals are boot-strapping their way into the publishing field.
There’s hope. There’s help. Now… go study. 😉