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Does this make me a horrible journalist?

Quick, can you identify all of the people Mindy McAdams names in her post, Do you know who this is?

  • Vannevar Bush
  • Ted Nelson
  • Alan Kay
  • Vint Cerf
  • Bob Metcalfe
  • Tim Berners-Lee
  • Ivan Sutherland

I can’t.

I’m going to take one for the team here — the young’uns that is — and admit I didn’t know most of those names even in passing.

And please don’t shoot me, but Mike Royko was only vaguely familiar. (That’s the subject of the original post over at Newsosaur, re: a journalism student who didn’t know Royko’s name.)

Does that make me a horrible journalist? Should I hand over my reporters notebook and pen now?!

I’m 22. I didn’t take a “journalism history” course in college. Those lessons were interspersed among my Intro to Mass Comm, Law, Ethics, Magazine Publishing, Beat Reporting, etc. courses. And the famous journalists I did and do know are probably more happenstance than concentrated effort.

So someone give me a list of the top 10-15 greatest journalists of all time, and I promise I’ll memorize those I don’t know at the risk of looking dumb and being chastised down the line by some high-brow editor. No, seriously.

But therein also lies the problem. I’ll memorize it. Like it’s for a test, which I guess it could be. But who knows if the names I’m given would be the right ones. It’s kind of subjective.

I understand the usefulness of having historical context to understand where you have been and how it leads to where you are and will figure into where you go from here.

But am I a worse journalist for not knowing those names? Well, am I?

Does it make your 30-year veteran a worse journalist that he’d look at me like I was from Mars if I asked him about Rob Curley or Adrian Holovaty? They’re paving the future as much as any journalists have paved the past. Is it better to look forward or behind?

Or is it more important that my classes in j-school taught me and emphasized tangible things. I remember and use every day the practical skills that allow me to do this job competently not necessarily the names of those journalists before me. I can understand knowing important rulings like Times v. Sullivan. I can understand needing to know when newspapers started to mass publish and the impact cable had on broadcast TV. I can even understand and appreciate reading great journalists of the past to make my own work stronger.

But in the end, if I had to choose, I choose real-world application over historical context. That’s just me.

10 Responses to “Does this make me a horrible journalist?”

  1. Ryan Sholin Says:

    It’s always such a funny feeling when a reporter (a young one, even) asks me if I read so-and-so’s column in a local Major Metro.

    I sort of tilt my head a little to one side and try not to say out loud “I have 300 RSS feeds in my reader. I read all sorts of writers on all sorts of topics, but no, I give no value to the fact that so-and-so has a column in a local Major Metro, so please don’t look at me like I’m supposed to know who you’re talking about.”

    Instead, I just say “Nope. What’s the column about?”

    And nod and smile. Which is probably what they’re doing when I tell them what Dave Winer or Jeff Jarvis or Jay Rosen wrote about something we were talking about.

  2. bob stepno Says:

    Nah… You won’t hear much about those guys in all the journalism history or media history courses.

    They’re part of Internet history… well covered in “Revenge of the Nerds” PBS documentaries and books about communication technology. If you were covering a technology beat, you might want to find out about them… If you were doing research on the usability or origins of hypertext and the Web, you’d recognize their names.. If not, thanks to the practical research skills you picked up in J-school, you’d know all you need to know in a hurry.

    It’s great to know the traditions, culture and legendary figures of the news biz… or of printing (check out Mergenthaler’s Wikipedia page… pretty slim for a guy responsible for so much information overload!)… or of cyberspace.

    As for “being a journalist,” if your J-school courses concentrated on good writing and research skills, you’re heading in the right direction… asking questions… doing plenty of that nodding and smiling Ryan mentioned, raising a skeptical eyebrow now and then… and taking notes.

    PS May I borrow the phrase “paving the past” sometime? :-)

  3. Adrian Holovaty Says:

    I can’t think of a single journalist today who tops Royko. He is absolutely the best.

    Instead of memorizing names, here’s something genuinely productive you could do: Read the Royko anthology called “One More Time.” It’ll take you about a day, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Then read “Boss,” his book about the first Mayor Daley. Then read the second “greatest hits” anthology (I think it’s called “For the Love of Mike”) and work your way into the back catalog by reading his various anthologies from the ’60s to the ’90s.

    I have a modest collection of Royko books and try to reread them at least once a year. It’s not because I want “historical context” or any other academic BS. It’s because they’re entertaining and inspiring.

  4. grace Says:

    I don’t think it’s horrible to not know those specific seven people. I mean, how many hundreds of stellar journalists and editors are out there? Part of what I love about journalism is that we can become experts in the areas that we love. When I think of writers that I respect and look up to, I can name Sasha Frere-Jones, Meghan Daum, Chris Anderson, Kurt Andersen, Susan Orlean… But do I expect everyone to know exactly who they are? No way. Where’s the fun in everyone knowing the exact same stuff?

  5. Mich Says:

    What’s interesting for me is that I only recognize those who’ve commented on the post: Ryan from his tweets; Bob from AEJMC; and Adrian from Chicagocrime.org. Mindy, I picked up from everyone else’s blogroll and also, AEJMC.

  6. Meranda Says:

    @Ryan — When I was in college, I made a concentrated effort to read the Akron Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, my own student newspaper and the local city paper every day — in print even! (And when I had time to stop for lunch, I’d pick up and read my free copies of NYTimes & USA Today.) But even then, with one exception (the woman whose beat/job I would love to take over at the Beacon someday) I knew the names but was never an avid reader of any columnists. I’m not sure city columnists hold the same influence they once did. (Though, I do admire Connie Schultz at the PD.)

    @Bob — Glad to know those are names I wouldn’t have come across. And I didn’t realize I’d coined the “paved the past” phrase. lol.

    @Adrian and @Grace — Thank you for the ideas. I’ll have to check into the names. And Adrian, my books are due back at the library this weekend. I’ll check and see if they have those books. (We’re not terribly far from Chicago, so you’d think they would.)

    @Mich — I know more currently working “big names” in journalism than most journalists toiling in today’s newsrooms are even aware of. Because I blog and read blogs widely, I am aware of the awesome things going on elsewhere and where my job and company fits into the big picture. So maybe I’m not well versed in the past, I feel I have a strong grasp on the present and an eye to the future.

  7. bob stepno Says:

    Speaking of columnists, Mindy pointed out a link to a Jimmy Breslin column that I hadn’t read in years. It even survives the most godawful web layout this side of MySpace:

    Royko was terrific, too… even if he wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Bob Dylan or computers. I hate to have you postpone enjoying him for that trip to the library. He won his Pulitzer back in ’72, before they started putting examples of winners’ work online. But here’s a good teasing sampler from his publisher:
    The publisher also included Mike’s line about the Internet:
    “Trying to use the Internet is like driving a car down a narrow road in a snow storm, a car in which the windshield wipers and headlights don’t work. All of the signs along the highway are backwards and upside down and of no help at all. Finally when you see someone along the side of the road and stop for directions, they can only speak to you stuttering in Albanian.”
    But that was before Django

  8. Teaching Online Journalism » Do you know who this is? Says:

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  9. Nick Says:

    Royko’s writing is fantastic and an early influencer in my early journalism career.

    Read the tribute he wrote about his wife. It’s incredibly moving and incredibly well written.

    Knowing his work isn’t a litmus test that makes me a good or bad journalist, but it sure makes me happier to have read his stuff and read about his life.

  10. casey Says:

    My favorites — Anne Hull, Rick Bragg, JR Moehringer, Andrea Elliott