The question no longer is whether the newspaper will endure but whether the kind of news that is essential to a functioning democracy will survive. Studies of the reading habits of the young conclude that the drift from print to screen is steady and irreversible and that the interests of the 18-34 demographic may well generate a news budget heavily slanted to the popular culture and the quick read.
Whether this key demographic group will have an interest in “a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context that gives them some meaning,” as the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press described the obligation of journalism, is uncertain. Equally uncertain is whether the new generation of journalists, most of them graduates of journalism programs, will be able to supply the public with a meaningful news account. Sower and reaper are locked in a troubling embrace.
Journalism is “the quintessential knowledge profession,” says Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which recently funded an effort to improve journalism education, and as such “deserves the best educated and trained practitioners.” Less clear to Gregorian is “whether our graduate and undergraduate programs in journalism provide adequate intellectual and technical preparation to meet those challenges.”
The technical preparation is more than adequate. I am not as certain of the intellectual preparation.
Journalism training, to which I have devoted the past 40 years, increasingly centers on the techniques and the technology crucial to news delivery in this electronic age. Students are being taught to prepare news for a variety of platforms. Writing is aimed at the two-line/sentence screen reader. For reporting, pad and pencil will be supplemented, possibly replaced, with a megapixel still and digital video camera, digital audio recorder, laptop computer, digital cell phone, and half a dozen other pieces of hardware. Given the cutbacks in staffing, the future reporter cannot count on being accompanied by a photographer or any other technician on assignment. He or she will have to go solo, which adds further emphasis to the need for wide technical training. Since the journalism curriculum is limited by its accrediting association, this additional technology instruction squeezes out content, subject matter.
The widening of instruction in technology by many programs recalls Thoreau’s warning about our becoming the tools of our tools, or T. S. Eliot’s observation, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
The reporting process centers on the knowledgeable reporter who is able to develop ideas that guide his or her questions and observations. Despite all the sophisticated equipment reporters might haul to an assignment, they are limited by the background knowledge that guides their reporting. The British scientist W.I.B. Beveridge said that developing ideas or hypotheses helps a person “see the significance of an object or event that otherwise would mean nothing.” Or, as a former editor of Time magazine, Thomas Griffith, put it, reporting is “conjecture subject to verification.” The political writer Irving Kristol said, “A person doesn’t know what he has seen unless he knows what he is looking for.”
Without wide-ranging knowledge, journalists are forced to rely on flacks or, at best, engage in “he said, she said” journalism.
Journalism educators are in a state of disquiet, if not distress, at their students’ lack of the broad background essential for independent journalism. An instructor told me she listed Charles Darwin in a quiz in which students were asked to identify the subject and tell why he/she is in the news. “Out of 10 students, only two identified Darwin — both said he had something to do with ‘survival of the fittest.’ Nobody mentioned the theory of evolution. In a follow-up discussion, most knew nothing about the brouhaha over intelligent design.”
Another instructor suggested I drop a reference to Walt Whitman in a section on writing in the next edition of my journalism textbook. “Keep Stephen King,” he wrote. “Drop Whitman. My students have never heard of him.” From another: “I expend precious time explaining such matters as the fact that World War II followed World War I.”
David T.Z. Mindich, a journalism instructor at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, begins his book “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News,” by recalling a quiz he gave his students when the Supreme Court had ruled on the Florida Bush-Gore vote count and John Ashcroft was nominated for attorney general. He writes: “Of 23 students, 18 could not identify even one Supreme Court justice. Only one could name the attorney general nominee. Most revealing of all, four wrote that the attorney general was Colin Powell; it is likely they homed in on the word ‘general,’ reflecting a total ignorance of what an attorney general is or does.”
Mindich observes that “young people no longer see the need to keep up with the news.” The result, he continues, is that “America is facing the greatest exodus of informed citizenship in its history.”
Textbook publishers are aware of the state of the student mind. They consider today’s freshman the equivalent of a high school junior of a few decades back and want textbooks simplified. The author of a copyediting textbook told me that her publisher asked that in her next edition she reduce the “reading matter” and try to make it more “skimmable.” As it is, student reading matter is confined to textbooks, many of which nowadays are accompanied by a CD-ROM that duplicates the text, and to the screen. Andrea Panciera, online editor of The Providence Journal, says on her visits to campuses “nobody is reading the newspaper.”
Not to worry about the decline of the newspaper, argue the optimists. There’s cable TV, the insatiably curious bloggers, and many excellent magazines whose correspondents do a good job of digging. To which a journalism instructor in Nebraska responds, “But I defy anyone to show me how I can get reliable, thorough, unbiased information about my schools, my city, my county, even my state government if my newspaper has abdicated its responsibility to provide that. Where do I find that on the Web? On TV?”
The answer might lie in a comment by Andrew Heyward when he was president of CBS News: “There is a broader, new definition of news that we will need to develop for this next generation.” This new definition may be closer to the observations of Rupert Murdoch than to those of Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times:
Murdoch: “[Young readers] want control over their media instead of being controlled by it. … Too often, the question we ask is: ‘Do we have the story?’ Rather than: ‘Does anyone want the story?'”
Baquet: “It’s not always our job to give readers what they want. What if they don’t want war coverage or foreign coverage or to see poverty in their communities?”
Does any of this really matter in the scheme of things? Associate Justice Stephen Breyer thinks it does. He writes that the First Amendment should be understood “as seeking to facilitate a conversation that will encourage the informed participation in the electoral process.” But then there is the observation of John G. Roberts, Jr., now chief justice, then a White House associate counsel in the Reagan administration. In a memorandum dated August 28, 1985, Roberts said he favored relaxing the standards established by the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan libel case.
Forty years ago, which Mindich dates as the beginning of the decline of interest in news, the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire worried that we were heading for an “ice age of not caring … passivity and nonattachment, in a general spreading coldness.” Perhaps the cold wind blowing is what many of us now feel.
Melvin Mencher, a 1953 Nieman Fellow, is professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. The 10th edition of his book, “News Reporting and Writing,” was published by McGraw Hill Higher Education in 2006.