The media apocalypse series: a calm Tina Brown visits an anxious j-school

Columbia School of Journalism’s weekly Delacorte Lecture, which brings in magazine luminaries during the spring semester, is increasingly turning into the media apocalypse series.  Last night, Tina Brown, the controversial former editor of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Talk Magazine came to discuss her new webzine, The Daily Beast and to take up the unrelenting narrative of the 2008-09 j-school year that the media as we know it is imploding.

Like many other speakers who have visited the school this year, she assured us that our class will live long and prosper in this new environment because of our youth and web savvy.  Brown also made some fair points that the laments over the demise of the best aspects of old media are overblown.  Sure, television networks have shuttered foreign bureaus, but when they were up and running, their main function was to send reporters to the crisis spot to do “stand-ups against palm trees.”  She nevertheless assured her audience she is still committed to those old standards of putting out a publication with unique story angles and quality writing.

It must be the apocalypse if Tina Brown, who I had long held responsible for corrupting the New Yorker–not that I even read the magazine pre-Brown, as I was 9-years-old–starts making sense.  It was not even so much about what she was saying but what she was doing–or more, that Brown was doing at all.

In these calamitous times, it is tempting to want to sit and predict the future and find a successful model to weather it.  Brown certainly offered her prescriptions last night: be a business journalist and go to India where a new and incredibly lively English media market is emerging.  I have heard these before many times and can think of counter-arguments to both: what will happen to the business press now that there are far fewer people in finance?  And India’s media will probably experience contractions with this economy.  Moreover, I met a grad student at a mixer afterwords who was a former journalist himself and said the writing in the Indian press was awful, contrary to Brown’s lavish praise of publications like Tehelka.  In today’s climate, bureaus with abundant media jobs offer jobs that are drudge-work by a journalist’s standards.  I can’t imagine that Indian media that are trying to lure young English-speaking Americans are any different.   What often goes unsaid in the fretting about all of the outsourcing to India is that they are getting the worst of our jobs.  (Read Katherine Boo’s The Best Job in Town from the July 5, 2004, New Yorker if you can get your hands on it).

But I digress.  There is no successful model.  We just gotta to do what we gotta do, to paraphrase a Nina Simone song, rather than figure out what the successful journalist of the future will look like.  Will s/he be a Flash maven?  A camera-toting, freelancing, globetrotting adventurer?  Will s/he bring back the glory days of Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer?

During the Q&A, a woman who many in the audience clearly thought was insane stood up to urge the students to “hook up” instead of spend time trying to figure out what the future will look like.  Even though Tina humorously responded that the people in this school probably don’t need to worry about failing to hook up enough, I thought that woman had a point.  We’re too caught up here in worrying about the great Unkown to a degree that is almost absurd.  I mean, don’t we all make fun of psychics?

The great thing and the problem with academic institutions like the Columbia j-school is they engage in a lot of this soul-searching.  To quote a line that Vice President Nixon once posed to President Eisenhower, “General, there comes a time in matters like this when you need to either shit or get off the pot!”.”

About elainemeyer
I'm a writer and editor. I work in communications at the Columbia School of Public Health, where I write about epidemiologic research. In the past I've worked as a reporter and studied journalism and history in school.

2 Responses to The media apocalypse series: a calm Tina Brown visits an anxious j-school

  1. Davis says:

    Interesting to hear, as my college-bound son considers a career in journalism

  2. elainemeyer says:

    Cool, Davis! Thanks for commenting. Let me know if your son has any questions about journaism.

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