08/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beyond Towering Babble: Good Schools, Real News

PARIS - Here's a hair-raising snippet from the towering babble of media debate, signed by a Richard Sine, that argues journalism schools should be abolished:

"You can pick up most media skills on the job, or with a few hours of instruction. If you screw up, nobody dies, and nothing collapses."

Someone fired back a single-word rebuttal: Iraq. Dead right. And that barely touches the surface. The good news is that freedom of the press is no longer reserved to those who own one, as A.J. Liebling remarked years ago. That's also the bad news. Because anyone with fingers can play -- a brain is not required -- confusing noise drowns out the reliable guidance systems we depend on to navigate a perilous world.

We not only need good journalism schools to train competent reporters but also good school-schools, starting with first grade, to teach why this matters so much. Today's kids can pull unlimited words from the ether. But few learn to evaluate sources. Cognitive shortcuts replace critical thought. Some grow up barely literate -- or in desperate need of editing.

Two of my international reporting students in Arizona, seniors, spelled colonel as kernel. You can't lead a world if you can't tell military officers from microwave popcorn. Events that lead to unwinnable wars, unstoppable climate chaos, volatile poverty, and untamed pandemics are plain to see. But we have to be watching to react in time.

Now when we need informed up-close world reporting more than ever, it is vanishing fast. And many young people whose futures depend on it cheerfully speed its demise. Our self-absorbed, entertain-me approach to real news has been evolving for years. We mourn Walter Cronkite, who looked us in the eye and told us that's the way it was. But he was scrapped long ago, too gray and glum for new times.

Many Americans no longer know what real news is. A Time magazine poll tells us the most trusted newsman now, by far, is Jon Stewart. TV and online media depend heavily on the few papers that still have correspondents for hard reporting and background context of breaking news beyond U.S. borders. New ventures supported by philanthropy or "crowd-funding" (small donations by many people, which one analyst likened to tip jars) can never be enough. News that alters our lives occurs in fits and starts, over time. Even the best reporters miss crucial early signs if they drop into a place briefly and then leave.

A basic truth is inescapable: If news organizations -- print or otherwise -- maintain foreign bureaus, someone has to pay. So I asked Sara Peach, a smart University of North Carolina graduate student who runs an impressive world-affairs Web site, how papers might be more attractive.

"I doubt young Americans would pay for newspapers, no matter the quality," she replied. "My generation is accustomed to free leisure activities. Many of us download music illegally, watch bootleg movies and read newspapers online because we like cheap entertainment. And why shouldn't we, since real wages keep falling every decade?"

That is, a fresh generation sees news as cheap entertainment, like music or movies. Few realize that our wages fall because other societies are eating our lunch. Indians buy more newspapers each day than there are Americans, 350 million. Americans, with a lot better access to schools and paper routes, buy only 50 million.

The Times of India
sells 3.7 million. The Hindu, number two, outsells the New York Times. India's profitable newspaper business grows yearly by more than 12 percent. If you look at actual facts, this "dying newspaper" stuff is crap. The World Association of Newspapers reports a 1.3 percent bump this year to 540 million daily sales.

But Americans tend toward ever more dubious guesswork babble. Unless we reverse this trend, the world's de facto leader can only flail blindly as crises worsen. As Peach notes, the main solutions we toss around cannot work. Foundation support is limited and selective. In any case, we don't ask philanthropists to buy our food and gas. Shouldn't we kick in for a commodity of no less import?

Online advertising falls short. Reporters can spend hundreds of thousands on a story; libel suits, even frivolous, can add a lot more. Wars are extra. Paying small amounts for selected items misses the point. News that matters tends to sneak up on us, and its impact is clear only later. You can't order it off a menu. "Perhaps the real problem," Peach concludes, "is stockholders' expectations of earning 20 to 30 percent profit margins from newspaper investments."

Exactly. If many papers' profits are how down, plenty of them are still in double digits, enough to satisfy an Indian publisher. Tim Mather, who studies hard data at the Inland Press Association, tells me some American dailies' margins surpass 15 percent a year. ExxonMobil doesn't do that well. With adjustments to new realities and a little help from a society that depends on them, quality (and I stress that word) newspapers could turn around dramatically.

The operative part of newspaper is news. If changing tastes prefer something different, why not? But online-only options are not ready, and TV hardly takes up the slack. Eileen O'Connor left CNN for law. She misses her old job, she wrote me, but that old job is gone. Talking heads in studios are cheaper than reporters. "Opinion is not fact," she said. "Impressions are not realities. Lawyers know that eyewitness statements can be remarkably unreliable, especially when prompted by others."

Comment based on others' comments simply adds to the confusion. And this is heightened by contradictory reports from viewers. "Before I left, I saw the sourcing standards go from three sources to two to one and now it seems to none, since many of these posts are anonymous," O'Connor concluded. True enough. We make such crucial decisions as who to elect and which countries to evade through a veil of opinion. As this becomes the norm, a new generation fails to learn what real reporting is supposed to be.

In the end, people who insist on free news are like those who don't vote, and that's half the citizenry. The more they opt out, the more others have to step up. So what to do? We can demand more from schools and thump on legislators who cut funding. If kids do not learn critical thinking and world realities early on, all else will fail. We can support journalism schools that teach reporting rather than amorphous "communications." Endow a chair if you can. Mine, for instance. Fund a scholarship at your alma mater. Or just smile at a professor.

In his scoring of J-schools, Richard Sine dismisses outmoded old folks: "If their purpose is really to teach, are these bitter-enders really the folks we want teaching our next generation of media professionals?" Guys like Ed Cody of the Washington Post, eloquent in French, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish, with home numbers of world-shapers who've learned to trust him over 40 years?

Bitter-enders teach new reporters to kick down doors for face-to-face answers and to talk back to kernels (sorry, spell check didn't catch that) who carry our flag? Listen to Sara Peach: "I suspect most people have the impression that facts just float in a swamp of information 'out there.'" And speaking of swamps, who, exactly, is Richard Sine? A tagline says he is an ex-reporter who now does some corporate flack-work. But this is the source-less Internet.

For all we know, someone just signed his name to make him look silly.