Let summer begin

I’m a neurotic person. I’m getting better. I try not to be one of those people who frets aloud about my future when there is nothing to fret about, for instance. I try not to fret aloud in general. I’m pretty good at that. But other neuroses, all of the ones I keep internal, are kind of funny when I think about it. Many have been borne of a year of being immersed in my journalism school program, focusing on writing longer, hopefully well-informed articles.

If I can give advice to my youngers, I would say, don’t spend too much time worrying about what you need to do in the future if you can’t do anything about it at present. It’s hard to live this advice though until the “worst” has passed, but at least now that school is over for me, I can appreciate all of the things I can do without anxiety about time wasted.

Some things I have more peace of mind doing now that I am done with my journalism school program:

  • Watching “This Old House”
  • Watching TV in general
  • Reading fiction (just finished Kate Chopin’s Awakening, now onto Ian McKewan’s Atonement)
  • Reading the newspaper (ironic, isn’t it)
  • Staying up til 4 a.m. with friends
  • Long outings
  • Vacations (thinking of the Pacific Coast, weekends nearby NY)
  • Watching movies (my Netflix account has been dormant for months. what a waste of my own money)
  • Getting my new bike fixed up

Things that it might take me awhile to do again with some joy

  • Read The New Yorker (I managed to get through an article about the guy who owns Charles Shaw today. One piece at a time.)
  • Reading The New York Times
  • Calling someone on a Brooklyn community board
  • Entering the Columbia journalism school building
  • Seeing the word “Pulitzer”
  • Debating about new media
  • Listening to anyone talk about the demise of newspapers
  • Listening to anyone talk about how much they like to hold paper or the alternative, how everything will be on a Kindle soon enough
  • Entering the Columbia gym
  • Reading newspaper editorials
  • Talking about writing

Isn’t there some quote about how it is hard to talk about what you love? Or not to watch sausage get made? Well, I have been in the sausage factory for 9 months and it was great, but it is time to get back in touch with the rest of life. Summer, naturally is the perfect time to do it. And I’m sure I’ll be able to read the New Yorker again cover to cover, once I have gone a couple months without hearing about Joan Didion and gotten past John McPhee-induced river rafting acid flashbacks (that being a figure of speech :-).

Book review on the education site

I have yet another item on our class’s School Stories site. Check it out.

Put this in your new media mindset

One of my journalism school deans likes to say that we journalists ought to have a new media mindset and not just a new media skillset. I often harp on this phrase cheekily, but I’ll tell you today what I think of the new media mindset, after all of these months of hearing about “Flash” and “Final Cut Pro” and “Photoshop” and “Twitter,” and all the rest (which, incidentally, are pretty easy to learn, except Flash), and in honor of my coming graduation. I think none of it is that big of a deal. I mean it is and it isn’t. Of course, new media is redefining how people write somewhat–often more opinionated and shorter–and definitely resulting in waning attention spans. But when I see all the ink..er bandwidth..devoted to talking about something as simple and silly as Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, I wonder, what on earth does it have to do with journalism besides facilitating source gathering and promoting oneself?  Those things are important, sure, but they are hardly worth the time some people spend thinking and talking about it. It would be akin to me getting more excited about a magazine’s cover and glossy pages than its content.

This does not make me a Luddite–hardly, I WISH I could tear myself away from the computer and all of its attention-stripping applications, and in truth, social networking apps are not the devil and photo and sound editing is fun–it just means I don’t think it’s that big of a deal when it comes to making journalism better or more interesting or more significant.

I also think there is a bit of a conflict at my school in terms of what they think they should teach us for being employable at a fulltime job at a large news organization right away and what they should teach us to be better long term journalists. This often puts technology and a more reporting and writing-focused curriculm at odds. It need not. Truthfully, it hasn’t worsened by education at all. I have learned a lot and maybe avoided new technology to my detriment. (I’ll learn this summer though). I almost think talking about it is tired, except that I cannot avoid it anyway, and it will persist as an issue here.

New article up on education site

My involved, labor-intensive article, “Teaching Away from the Test” just went up on my education reporting class website, School Stories. Feel free to check it out and comment.

In flight magazines

Last night I had a dream where there was a pernicious rumor going around the journalism school that all of the students in the business journalism program in the 1970s worked for an in-flight magazine. What I wouldn’t do to work at an in-flight magazine these days.

New blog entry on the education blog

I have a new entry on our education reporting blog, here. Check it out…

Most common journalism school phrases

You know how the there are lists put out of the most common words and phrases of each year? Well, I’d like to do the same for journalism school. Classmates or people from other j-schools, please help me.

“What it’s about and what it’s really about”: usually the opening question from a professor teaching a magazine writing class. What it’s about refers to the more obvious–what is described in the article (e.g. some nutty lady named Lois Weisberg, a murder in California) while what it’s really about refers to that transcendental theme that your professor really wishes you could articulate a lot better than you do (e.g. how people are connected in ways different than we had long thought, the ennui of family life in California and the darkness behind the sunny surface).  Guaranteed to make you feel really stupid if you give the totally wrong answer for either one.

“the elephant in the room”: For some reason, I find my friends and I saying this a lot. It comes out in particular when we talk about the glaring problems in our j-school curricula that no one mentions (e.g. they’re teaching us how to write a straight lead in Reporting and Writing 1, but the elephant in the room is that print is going under).

“a new media mindset”: Everybody knows what it isn’t, but nobody knows exactly what it is and how it will make us better journalists. Is it being able to use Google Docs? That’s pretty easy. Is it thinking Twitter is the cat’s pajamas of journalism? I hope not. Is it being an expert in Flash? Then we’re all in trouble.

This is me!

How do you change your life in your mid-twenties after years of living with the long unquestioned purpose that what is important is success and proving your smarts?  I could have asked this question, but some other letter writer to Cary Tennis beat me to it today.  Actually, I do not think it is that hard to do, once you shed your fear of failure.

Cary’s answer is that she ought to start channeling her feelings in the place of her thinking and ability to reason.

Also, since this letter writer is a recent college graduate, I think she is probably used to the reward system of school.  You work hard, you do well on a paper or a test, you get a good grade from your professor. You do this under the auspices that it will set you up for success after school, but the workplace does not have the same sort of reward system, and, if you are not interested in your job, there is not an ulterior reward of at least being invested in what you’re doing.  Success in the real world is often awarded more unfairly than we are used to from school, which is why going back to grad school can seem so idyllic.  However, one has to in a sense obey a professor, and I don’t know if there is often a lot of room for creativity and individual self-expression in that environment.  This is why I would encourage the letter writer to challenge herself by shedding the old, somewhat passive feedback system that she knows from school, the system that propels many of us to try to be liked by a teacher. The truth is, being liked is not the key to happiness or success.

I used to believe there was a set of steps that successful people do and that I should try to figure them out and copy them. These steps were at their core based around trying to impress people. Before going to j-school, for instance, I bought the hype that I needed to learn how to blogvideoeditflashprogram, etc. , because that is what everyone was saying I would need to get a job after school  I realized, though, that it is frustrating, after awhile, to only listen to what people think you are supposed to be doing.  It amounts to not trusting yourself and your own whims.  Plus, there is a danger that in our search to prove ourselves to others by following their advice and looking at their paths, as we naturally and inevitably will always do, we can lose…our selves.

So more power to that letter writer for figuring this out about herself now, at a very fortunate age to do so.

Unstable employment might not be a bad thing for young journos

Don’t worry that today’s young journalists cannot expect steady employment, counsels my favorite advice columnist ever, Cary Tennis, to a journalism professor who feels guilty trying to encourage his students about  a dying industry.  In fact, journalists are better off not expecting job security right away.  It seems like a kind of sadistic response at first, but I understand where Cary is coming from:

I’m not even sure that stable employment is good for young journalists.

Journalists exercise power. Ideally, they exercise that power on behalf of the powerless. If they know nothing about what it is like to be powerless themselves, they may come to exercise their considerable power on behalf of the already powerful.

Cary has a point, actually, a rather good point.  Journalists are ideally not spending time enjoying junkets and rubbing elbows with the insiders who already have the big mouthpieces to forward their agenda.  The ease of advancing a message is infinitely greater for those in powerful positions, which, as Cary says, is probably best understood when one is not powerful him or herself.

This got me thinking whether journalism students, especially those at elite programs, expect too much too soon: a stable job, prestige, even a living wage!  I have a theory that these high-achieving young people like myself expect a lot is because their peers who went into finance, consulting, or law after college were put on an instant path to wealth and prestige.  In college, these people were on a recruitment mill: sent straight from the offices of career services to the towers of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs.  We also grew up at a time when many journalists were more famous than the people who they reported on, so the appeal of being Anderson Cooper or Tim Russert might have drawn some of the celebrity worshiper types to the field.

This sort of anxiety bred by peer success need not haunt us anymore.  With all of the lucrative drudge careers like investment banker looking a whole lot less promising, it is a great time to get into a career one has some passion for.  Of course, journalists should try to earn a decent living from what they do, when they do good work, but this is why, perhaps it could be good to be among the less powerful: we learn to appreciate the struggles of other people who are not earning a living wage for the jobs they do.

Is Columbia having an existential crisis, or is it just changing?

Columbia School of Journalism is experiencing an identity crisis, spurred by an internal feud between “new media” people and “old media” people, according to a blog entry from New York Magazine.  As they often do, the comments to this article both clarify and snarkify the situation.  A more nuanced view that I get, though is that Columbia is experiencing the same uncertainty that the entire industry is, and at least from my experience, the so-called “dinosaurs” on the faculty have been trying to learn new technology along with the rest of us. However, these folks are first and foremost at the school to teach us writing and reporting, and if anything, I personally think the attention has shifted away from how to do this really well in favor of perceived market demands for young people who will work on the websites of well-known publications like the Atlantic or the New York Times.

The debate that surrounds the future of the news industry is characterized by the sort of anxiety that leads people to make sweeping assertions about pretty complex problems.  Some of those assertions are just lazy, like the comment that the New York Times is a “sluggish piece of machinery,” which, given that the Times has one of the most visually appealing, depth-driven multimedia sites, can be written off.

What I am interested in though is why people, in trying to understand the industry, feel the need to position the “dinosaurs” against the “innovators” and side with the latter. I can only think that it is an effort to cast about for  a  Great White Hope format of journalism that will save us from the demands of the old one–exhaustive reporting, fact checking, knowing a beat, editing–because the 24-hour news cycle does not jibe with the imperative to provide well-reported and written articles.

Thinking that if only the dinosaurs “got it,” that new media (which is so many different things) is the future, and not only that, but figuring out how to make money off of it and do good reporting is a childish hope.  It is wrapped up in the wish that someone else will solve a problem that we all have to deal with.  Journalists and media owners figure this stuff out, not some invisible arbiter of the journalist success universe.  Our problem is we don’t think people will pay for what we do, and in some ways that is true, in part because organizations, desperate for content, put out a glut of writing that they cannot ask people to pay for, because there is a glut everywhere else.  Then, young people eagerly do the free or cheap stuff for the experience and resume points.  Even worse, websites make less money than print, and they involve more time.  It is certainly not an easy situation, and it is not served by easy, blame the old people-style assertions.

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