Sixty Years in Journalism: Advice to the Class of 2015 -- and 2019

04/15/2015 01:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015
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The news business seems to have gone back to the future.

In the early days of the American Republic, news media, meaning newspapers and pamphlets, proliferated. They were highly partisan, often nasty, and not necessarily wedded to the truth.

After enjoying an era when respected newspapers and news networks, well written by knowledgeable reporting and editing professionals had audiences and readerships that gave them ample resources for success, many Americans have come to prefer radio and cable commentaries and internet screeds that are highly partisan, often nasty, and not necessarily wedded to the truth.

I had a career that would be hard for a graduate of the class of 2015 to replicate, even if he or she wanted to. I roamed the halls of Capitol Hill, where there are now half as many reporters than there were when news media were flush with profits and regional newspapers and station groups had Washington correspondents. I was a network bureau chief in Tokyo and Moscow, with competitors down the street from the two other national networks. Today they mostly cover foreign news by flying in staff from London or narrating video from the networks of other nations.

One of my current colleagues started his career at an Ohio newspaper, where old hands advised him to get out of the news business while he was young enough to change his life for the better. He persevered and beat the odds. He is now a political reporter in Washington.

You, too, 2015 journalism graduate, might beat the odds. Good luck.

I'm assuming you have the skills of the digital age, which ought to include interviewing, asking knowledgeable followup questions and writing grammatically, stylishly and accurately. The salable skills now equally in demand seem to include a vocabulary of catch phrases that draw clicks, shooting video in six-second clips, and being steeped in pop culture, to appeal to a universe where each web-surfer is his/her own editor.

Fortunately, the new digital news media, as they make money or attract venture capital, are adding experienced editors and hiring journalists with admirable track records. I said recently to the expert hired by a major media company to expand its internet reach that executives I had worked for in broadcasting over the years made many panicky decisions to hold on to the vanishing audience. He reminded me that the audience is not vanishing, it's bigger than ever, as is the wide choice of media. So the challenge has become getting web surfers to click on the serious coverage that is assuredly on offer.

And if it weren't for the inspired creation of the Huffington Post, you might have to be reading these musings in the annual letter that goes with my Christmas cards.

Then there's the matter of money. For increasing numbers of young journalists, it's a free-lane world--minimal payment by the piece uploaded, no insurance, no retirement plan. Radio and TV stations hire journalism/communications grads for a fraction of what consutancies offer newly-minted MBAs, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association's annual survey.

I haven't in recent years attended the annual Radio and Television Congressional Correspondents' Dinner, mainly because most of the journalists I knew have had to leave the business. But I did go this year. The program listed the association's chairs since it started in 1939. There were network correspondents I grew up listening to: Fulton Lewis Jr., Eric Sevareid, Elmer Davis, Martin Agronsky, David Brinkley, Roger Mudd. There were bureau chiefs from the major networks.

In the past few years, the chairs have been staff producers. It is they who do much of the day-to-day coverage for their news organizations, which a thinner coterie of correspondents puts on the air. In my time, the correspondent was also the field producer. And the now-obsolete skills I perfected included knowing when to signal the film cameraman to roll, because a particular Senator might throw a probing question, while the next one was a dullard. A 1000-foot roll of film ran 33 minutes, and took 33 minutes to develop. If I could cram all the highlights into 33 minutes of film without missing anything that made headlines, I was a hero.

Today, digital video records everything, playing back highlights at the touch of a button. The technology, like so much else that's come out of the world's Silicon Valleys, is a boon to us all. However, all the executive producer or correspondent needs now is someone taking notes with a timer at hand, not much editorial experience required. And not much salary.

So to the class of 2019, if you're thinking about journalism: Are you a news junkie? Can you identify Greece or Iraq or Japan on the map? Did you learn in high school the steps it takes to get a bill introduced and passed in Congress? Were you on the school paper? Can you name the Chief Justice of the United States? Or in the digital era, are those the wrong questions?

In any event, are you able to sustain unpaid internships? And can you think in terms of a fallback position, an alternative career, if the news business is unkind to you? Don't misunderstand: we need good people reporting the news. I believe the motto that used to grace the cover of Newsweek Magazine is still valid: "A well-informed public is America's greatest security."

Whatever became of Newsweek magazine?