Other problem trade educations

Today Above the Law pummeled a University of Seattle Law professor who was quoted criticizing trade schools in the article I linked to yesterday. To whit:

How can you fix your mouth to criticize “trade schools” for setting up their students for financial ruin when you teach at Seattle School of Law? Seattle is ranked 77th by U.S. News, but the school charges $35K – plus for tuition.

Part of the problem is that this law professor is in an entirely different place than the young law school graduate who comes into the worst legal job market in years.

I see the same thing in journalism. Last year, countless speakers came to the school to tell us young grad students we were going into journalism at the most exciting time in years. I was skeptical then, but now that I hear stories from friends with tough job searches and low-paying jobs that don’t seem to lead anywhere, I can’t believe these industry people told us we were going into journalism at an exciting time. Maybe they meant exciting in the vein of that ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.”

Speaking of which, I just fulminated a little about this over at the Nieman blog, which featured words that I suppose were meant to be encouraging from a veteran science writer to young journalists. (“What a fabulous time to get into journalism!”) I am so sick of older people who have achieved what they wanted from their career telling young anxious folks like me we are entering at an exciting time, during the worst economy in decades.

In fact I think our elders were in the industry at a much more exciting time — one where journalists got paid a relatively decent wage, could get health care and were backed by the resources of their publications. I fail to see how an economy that pushes people toward freelancing or launching start-ups that typically cannot get funding is an exciting time. But I suppose I’m risk averse and just like a solid business model that can last for 50 years or so.

Currently, I feel fortunate to have my steady, secure reporting position. I’ll take that right now over exciting.

The journalist’s challenge

I’m reading an interesting article by a pilot who frequently writes for Salon about misinformed reporting around the Air France flight disappearance. His criticisms are somewhat technical, like the following:

Next we have a Reuters piece from Miguel Lo Bianco. He writes, “Pilots often slow down when entering stormy zones to avoid damaging the aircraft, but reducing speed too much can cause an aircraft’s engines to stall.” The danger of flying too slowly is not an engine stall, but an aerodynamic stall — that is, a loss of lift over the wings.

I don’t know whether it is material that readers know the stall is aerodynamic, though it does seem at least worth trying to get right. The following criticism, though, seems less pedantic:

But the big gaffe is the reporter’s reasoning for why a Europe-bound plane would stay “overland” along the Brazilian coastline for so long. This has nothing to do with safety reasons. It’s merely the shortest distance.

I think this needs to be reported correctly, but I think there is a  trade that we make as a public, and that our media outlets make, by having to report expediently and constantly. It happens when journalists do not have enough time to write a story that involves some steady concentration. I know that my biggest hang-up when I’m writing stories is that I’m getting something wrong. Then, I spend quarter-hours or half-hours on checking the veracity of an assertion–because that is what these mis-reportings often are, assertions.

Reporters are outsiders, which often makes them look hopefully in-the-dark to people who have been reported on but makes them necessary for everyone else: because it is much more difficult for insiders to communicate a story–because they know more of the nuances and complications–then it is for people who are hearing it for the first time.

So I understand Smith’s desire for the reporting to be less misinformed. But I also understand the reporter’s pressure to report the story and make it reasonably easy to understand.

David Simon on the newspaper situation

It is hard to go into journalism today, for the obvious reason that jobs at newspapers have been lost and for the less obvious reason that the climate today does not encourage reviving good journalism. What do I mean by that? Well, during my whole year at Columbia School of Journalism, where I generally received an excellent journalism education, many of the speakers who were brought in to talk about the changing media environment–to put it euphemistically– spoke more to the technology deficiencies of newsrooms to explain the decline of newspapers than to what seemed to be the real problem: that newsrooms at some point stopped having as their mission to put out a good product. Why did this happen, and even worse maybe, how have we come to take it for granted?

David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and “Homicide Life on the Streets” and former Baltimore Sun reporter has had a lot to say about it in the past several months. The downward descent began when newspaper owners sold their papers to publicly-traded, shareholder accountable entities that were concerned only with making a profit. Unadulterated capitalism does not work for an organization whose mission in part involves serving the public, he said.  He gave this great talk about this and more that was featured on CSPAN yesterday (go here for it). My uncle who works there pointed me to it. A few highlights below of what Simon said (hardy har):

We’re going to have to start believing in content again. We’re going to have to pay for content to provide it.

I don’t believe in bloggers as anything other than an additional resource…

On whether citizen journalists, like those at the Huffington Post, can replace reporters:

To cover a beat as a reporter: I would not have done it for free, or to inform my blog, or for some sense of civic duty. I did it because the Baltimore Sun paid me a salary that I could support a family on…They paid me to go to the Baltimore Police Department and kiss enough desk sargents’ ass every day to find out what was going on and then to kiss somebody else’s ass to find out if I was being lied to, and then to compare one lie to the other and then to take them out for drinks afterward and find out what else wasn’t in that day’s story that might make it a follow-up story. It was 14, 15 hours a day. Nobody does that as a hobby. And the vanity of the internet having sort of approached the very edge of what journalism is…of this very immature medium is to say ‘We’re already doing journalism. Look, I went to a council meeting…’ Yeah, you went to the public-like, kabuki face of politics, which was the council meeting. But later on, if you actually knew anybody in the bowels of the city administration, you might have actually reported on what’s really going on. But for that, you would have needed to be a fulltime–and you’d deserve to be paid.

During my year at school, I heard a couple of times that there was no longer relevance to covering things like courts and city council meetings. My reporting boot camp class was one of the few I knew of that actually sent us to report a court story. But, as Simon suggests, going to the meeting is not enough, one has to go behind the scenes to get the story. That story will always be relevant.

He went on about USA Today and the rise of “no-below-the-fold” journalism (i.e. articles not continued past page 1):

‘The idea that you can cover something well enough to explain it to the mythical seventh grade-educated reader… I don’t want to write for that guy. To hell with that guy.

Trying to anticipate what readers want–that’s what got us into this mess. Go out and get the story.

Opinion is not the same as news, Simon says, though it appears to be where media outlets, like Newsweek, are going. Blogs like this one simply do not fulfill the same role.

I hope I get a job someday where I can do what Simon talks about, and I hope the hyper-local reporting that is going on is a start of a renewed good journalism, but I believe Simon is right that good journalism needs money. The price of not investing? Well, not to be dramatic, but democracy, or at least decently-functioning democracy. It’s too bad there are not more 1970s-style idealistic folks who still talk about how good journalism keeps the powers that be in check.

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 :-).

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.

Q&As are dubious

In doing research for an article, I came across a Question & Answer session with Kathy Griffin. (Don’t ask).  I am starting to hate Q&As.  I think they give the subject too much time to be mastubatory and are never as interesting as an article.  The only thing I like about them is getting to see the types of questions interviewers asks, but even those seem a bit cheesy.  Reporters are supposed to be filters, after all, not enablers!

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!”.”

Envisioning a green economy in NYC

Here is my newsy report from a conference I attended tonight.  I am posting it because it is the sort of event that does not seem to get picked up by the NYC press, perhaps because it seems wonky.

A group of self-proclaimed “strange bedfellows” gathered in Lower Manhattan on Monday night to offer up a definition of green jobs that they hope will be durable.  Representatives from New York City’s labor, industrial development and environmental justice communities convened with the Apollo Alliance, a national group of environmental and labor interests that wants the Obama administration to devote $50 billion a year of its $800 billion-plus stimulus package to green jobs, in a forum that emphasized combining green jobs with fair labor practices.

“I visited with the President Thursday and his opening statement was, ‘Labor, welcome back to Washington,’” said Jerome Ringo, the president of the Apollo Alliance.

Participants said that New York is already in place to create labor-friendly jobs, suggesting that a green economy in the city would build atop the existing structures of labor, industry and the environmental movement.

Construction is all ready to take up the work, said Steve McInnis, the political director for the Carpenters Union, which has 25,000 members, and said the union could recruit more.  The New York City Housing Authority is another builder that commits to greening housing stock and has prevailing wage standards in place, said Mijin Cha, the director of campaign research for Urban Agenda, the group that convened the night’s event. Read more of this post

Overscheduled is a half-a–ed way of life

Was there a day when people made appointments and kept them?  That’s what I wondered today after two school-related appointments were canceled.  Still catching my breath from a really busy month, I did not really mind.  It was just one of those instances where I want to stop, shake everyone around me and ask, why are we so over-scheduled?  Why don’t we call a collective detente: stop emailing each other on weekends and after work hours–unless we’re friends–make fewer appointments and commitments so we don’t have to cancel on each other, make an effort with less rather than pack in as much as possible?

I used to be a gung ho about some aspects of digital culture, particularly blogs and online magazines like Slate and Salon.  Then, like many of us, I got blog fatigue.  I realized I would never ever see the day when every folder in my Google reader was not bolded with unread entries, and the idea of skimming everything just to achieve that seems like a pretty daunting way to live life.  Now, I see incessant updating and reading of blogs as part of our attention deficit disordered way of life.  Lecturer after lecturer glows about the possibility of “integrated” “content” of “multi-media.”  But who on earth has time to read it all?

By the same token, who among the purveyors has time to juggle all of the ambitious projects, the “expansions” and “integration” that media set out to do to give the impression–whether true or not–that there is something dynamic going on.  The 24 hour news cycle seems unsustainable to me, if only because people burnout. Read more of this post

Learning about the world is done…in the world

As a bookish person, I used to be skeptical toward a saying of older peers in college that “I learned more from the people than the classes.”  However, I returned to the saying throughout college, usually after I got to know someone and understand how both knowable and unknowable s/he was.  Still, “bubble” or “Ivory tower” I think are pretty apt descriptions of universities.  Of course, each of us live in a bubble of some kind, but there is a certain distance one gets when one only lives in a relatively comfortable space around people pretty similar to him or her in general life goals (i.e. material and professional success) and socio-economic class.

I can say today that I have probably learned more about the world in the few years after college than in all of my years of formal education, and the more I learn, as a high school teacher of mine once said, the less I know.  I do credit my education for teaching me how to work hard and to love learning, but I think in some ways, the tendency toward approaching problems like a Western “rational” thinker rather than a human being that is inculcated in college has been limiting to me.

There are many instances when I see theory limiting common sense thinking in the broader public.  Take the barometer that commentators are using to measure Obama’s cabinet choices: from liberal to moderate.  How rarely does a politician, even the most doctrinaire, hew to an ideology?  Usually, I find that moderate often means someone in the establishment–a Joe Lieberman type–while liberal is someone farther out.  If the media wrote mostly about politicians not in terms of their ideology but in terms of their actual, tangible interests–usually determined by their friends, their campaign contributions, their past line of work–I think we would get a better picture of our politicians.  Certainly even politicians have worldviews, but I think these are more complex than left vs. right, as most people’s are, and even the least charitable right-winger can usually find some charity in him when something bad happens to his family member (think about all of the law and order politicians who have gotten their kin out of trouble). Read more of this post

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