So you want to be a journalist?
The news that journalism admissions are up at many schools this fall -- even while news outlets are in economic distress -- should surprise no one.
Not if one understands the powerful dream journalism holds for many would-be members of the Fourth Estate and the way that dream is shifting drastically as journalists are forced to take buyouts in once-prized industry jobs. Some number of these young journalists will find work in the field, but others will need to write and report on the side as freelancers while pursuing other income.
The most trusted man in America is dead. Woodward and Bernstein are an important part of American history, but fading. Also gone are more of the readers of physical newspapers, the kind delivered by paperboys.
Many large newspapers are dying off or struggling to stay afloat. Even as the public may lose its newspapers, they remain largely disenchanted by the press, according to a recent national survey.
Amid this complicated picture, there is renewed hope for a journalism that is far more receptive and connected to readers, viewers and communities than ever before -- on the Internet.
"The Woodward-Bernstein myth, as powerful as it was to a previous generation, is spent," declared Ken Doctor, a former Knight-Ridder executive in his blog. "The best evidence of that may be today's rehashing of the Post/Times Watergate saga; how yesterday to anyone born in the last 35 years. We need a new myth. We need tales of spirited multimedia reporters bringing back the news from Iraq and Indianapolis."
Doctor suggests a national News Corps, not Rupert Murdoch's media empire, but legions of idealistic young people bent on journalistic storytelling with a new set of digital tools -- audio and video and text, with the blogging style that invites reader interaction. Today's journalists enter "what should be an optimistic time, not a time of mourning," he wrote on September 27.
Doctor is correct about his call for optimism, yet there is no reason to throw out the Watergate story. It is still fundamental to our national fabric. It also teaches young journalists great lessons about investigation, persistence and the importance of accuracy. Those things have not changed, even though technology has.
We long for a past -- imagined or not -- when we could rely on heroes to rescue the nation from its problems, whether financial, social or political. Fragmentation of readers and viewers is the new reality. The public wants news whenever and wherever they are ready, delivered in the most convenient and speediest way possible. News consumption is no longer a communal act.
The reason young people still believe in journalism is that they want to make a difference, even as they text, blog, post shared videos and photos, use social networks and otherwise act as multi-tasking millenials. Perhaps especially so. They helped elect Barack Obama the first African-American president, and he was buoyed by the fact that he was savvy enough to harness the Internet. He promptly complained to Barbara Walters about the job's potential impact on his ability to use his Blackberry.
Today's students know journalism can still contribute to the public discourse and thus, reshape the world, but such stories require intense focus on the issues important to Americans, the collection and analysis of material from sources not easily assembled, the intelligence and patience "to follow the money" and never give up.
The time when everyone watched the evening news is gone and we cannot go back. Young people find print newspapers bulky and messy. News on the Internet makes so much more sense to them. In this era where many people are choosing to broadcast themselves on YouTube or snap photos on their mobile phones that they can send to I-report, everyone has access to the virtual printing press. Everyone is a potential journalist. This makes the job of a journalism professor more difficult but no less important.
A study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted July 22-26 found Americans still mostly get their news from television and see reporters as politically biased and unwilling to correct errors. The public has more choice and input now, but we are still in a time of transition. Journalists do not fully comprehend how to maintain rules of ethics and accuracy, even consistent grammar, on the Internet. Should they maintain a blog and what should be in it?
Only 29 percent of Americans say news organizations generally get their facts straight and 63 percent say news stories are often inaccurate. By comparison in 1985, Pew reported 55 percent of people said news stories were accurate while 34 percent said they were inaccurate.
If they want to stick with their profession, young journalists must grow accustomed to the fact that most people still can't stand them -- often they tell people what they don't want to hear -- but they also must learn to correct errors and admit failures. Growing journalism school rolls are a good sign. New entrants must be ready to have a tough skin for democracy's sake. They also must get used to working directly with the public on stories, the same people they once scoffed at as gadflies for wasting their time with irrelevant phone calls.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of press dedication to the public good, but blanket cynicism is destructive. There are many examples of outstanding journalism that has changed people's lives and it is that journalism we should celebrate and honor.
It is because of the best, most thoughtful examples of journalism that we should happily send our young people to join the ranks of the press.