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‘Contradiction’ for young journalists

This article, Caught in Contradiction, at the AJR is worth reading if you’re a young journalist, teaching them, want to become one or just want to understand how young journalists think.

Even the article’s headline pretty much sums up my feelings. I realized, even in college, that I majored in something — newspaper journalism — that won’t exist in a decade. To a large extent “newspaper journalism” doesn’t even exist now. Luckily, I set myself up with broad and deep experience in student media and supplemented it by teaching myself Web design and every skill or program I could feasibly fit in my overburdened schedule.

To that end, I was kind of torn on what type of job to take when I graduated. I cast my net pretty wide and applied for different types of jobs at all levels of the news industry. And no one is more surprised than me that the job I took ended up being a pretty traditional role as an education beat reporter.

But I realize more than most of my peers, I think, that this is only one small step toward where I eventually see myself. I’m setting up a strong reporting foundation to support my future ambitions. Even if the news’paper’ industry would have me and support me for the next 40 or 50 years, I wouldn’t want to just be a beat reporter my whole career. There are too many other exciting things going on.

There is hope for me and others like me yet, so says Charlotte Observer Editor Rick Thames:

“They have a right to be impatient with us,” he says. “Our industry is slow to change, and it still doesn’t understand itself. There is so much off track that it must be frustrating to be in their shoes and wonder if we are ever going to see straight.”

But he accents the positive. “I’m concerned that young people don’t get the wrong idea about all the turmoil. Whether you work for a newspaper or Web site or something else, what we do is too important to the community to disappear. It won’t. If you enjoy journalism, there will always be a place.”

I’m not sure whether I agree with the prognosis given by the young Observer staffers. I don’t necessarily think newspapers are doomed. Though, I did laugh at the quote about blogs and entertainment features feeling “like the not-cool kids trying to force the cool kids to be their friends.” I can definitely relate to that feeling and haven’t quite known the words to express it, but that’s a pretty good approximation of my thoughts. The next quote in the article is true to my observations as well: “We’re so excited because we have discovered blogs and the ability to tell stories online with pictures. You want to know what my generation thinks? My generation laughs.”

I just think we’re dealing with a finicky generation that demands what it wants, when it wants, how it wants and where it wants it. That’s how we’ve been raised and what we’ve been conditioned to expect. Unfortunately, that’s who we have to sell the news to, not just as a product to produce and consume but for the civic reasons of an informed population. Ready or not, knowledgable or not, tuned-in to YouTube or to CNN and reading The New York Times or relying on Digg for the day’s news, these same kids, my peers, are the ones who will become the next Congressmen, the next business owners, the next teachers, and some day, even the president.

It’s not that we’re not interested in the news. We are! It’s that we’re not interested in sitting down and pouring over the paper with our morning coffee. We grabbed our grande low-fat carmel macchiato at Starbucks on the way to the gym before heading to work for a 10-hour day. We absorb much of our news in headlines and snippets. We want to be entertained and informed not preached at. It’s hard to capture someone who doesn’t sit still for 10 minutes a day and convince him to read the paper in the traditional sense. Not going to happen. It takes me a week to read a magazine because I read little bits at a time. Not that I’m not interested. There’s just so much else competing for my time. But when something compels me enough, I will sit down and take that 10 minutes to read a good, in-depth story or click through every single link on a story that I care about.

I agree with the assessments of the Observer staffers that newspapers need to take more risks. Risk-taking is so overhyped it’s almost cliche. But, I think if you want to grab people standing in line to buy the overpriced coffee at Starbucks, you have to surprise them. Catch them off guard and get them to pick up the paper. Do this routinely, and they’ll routinely come back.

And avoid being the not-cool-kid trying to befriend the cool kids. Don’t do something online or otherwise because there’s buzz around it. Do it because it enhances the story, because it helps get the point across in a different way. Don’t force it. But be willing to try and to fail a few times. Hell, let the younger staff members do this for you. Earlier this week I made a comment about a story I saw on some Web site to my editor, and I was caught off guard that he’d never heard of the site. Then he made a comment that I think puts it in perspective: “I don’t have to read it. That’s why I hire people like you, so we’re all reading different things.” Do that, and then get everyone together to brainstorm what they find.

I don’t have an answer to the stresses facing the industry today. I’m 21. I haven’t been alive as long as many people have been working in this business. Even as a young journalist at the fault line of both the media industry and my generation, I’m still waiting to see how it shakes out and offering my ideas and insight where I can help. Other than that, all I can do is offer my sincere hope that I am able to keep producing stories that matter. Because I don’t care if it’s ink on dead wood or a series of 1s and 0s, there are stories that will always have the need to be told.

3 Responses to “‘Contradiction’ for young journalists”

  1. Adam Says:

    Next time we’re online together, remind me to send you my journalism scholarship essay…I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

  2. Tara Pringle Says:

    Yes, Miranda, I realized earlier this year that maybe I should’ve taken more web courses. Maybe I should know my way around some HTML.

    The web is not going anywhere and I need to embrace that, as much as I love the printed page.

    You raise excellent points. It’s good to hear from a young journalist. :) Keep up the good work.

  3. Cub Reporters' Guide Says:

    Thought you might be interested in CubReporters.org, an online career guide for young
    journalists and college students.