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Holding fast in stormy times

BY JUDY POLUMBAUM | FEBRUARY 20, 2009 7:34 AM

Sometimes, classes take a timely unplanned detour, and that happened in one of my journalism classes a couple of days ago. Instead of our ostensible focus, commentary and column writing, discussion turned to the changing media environment and the uncertain future of news. Iowa journalism students are concerned, as well they should be.

I grew up with two newspapers at the breakfast table. Many of my juniors and seniors grew up with one and continue to read papers offline. Like me, they appreciate the breadth and serendipity the daily paper offers the reader, whose eyes roam broadly before falling on topics of specific interest, so the brain registers items that otherwise would remain unknown. And despite frayed public confidence in the news media, they also appreciate the sense of reliable inquiry, discerning judgment, and — as one of my students put it — gravitas that the best of the printed press purveys.

These newsprint aficionados represent perhaps the last generation to cling to affection for the tangibility of ink on paper. We all know conventional news outlets must adapt or die. My students and I alike are tussling with how to pursue fundamental goals of journalism in an era of ever-morphing new forms of news delivery. The difference is that I’m the old fogey who gets to leave the problem behind, while young people have to confront and help shape this new world.

The climate of economic instability exacerbates my students’ worries. Our would-be watchdogs are entering the workforce as newsrooms shrink. Yesterday’s journalism revolved around separate bailiwicks — solid reporting and writing skills, or the ability to handle a camera, or versatility with tape recorder and the spoken word. Today’s journalism requires “cross-platform” training in a wide repertoire of technological skills, on top of command of traditional basics. Students know that employers want more from less and will be squeezing them to supply voluminous quantities of “product” in every available format.

My students are not the first to face daunting economic challenges — as my class learned the other day, to land my first rookie reporting job three decades ago, I sent out about 60 résumés and got three interviews and one offer.

Still, I think I had it a lot easier than rookies now. My Social Security records tell me that my first full year’s earnings were $11,263 — but I paid nothing toward health insurance; after an emergency room visit for X-rays and a cast on a broken wrist, I never saw a bill. I’d finished college without loans at a spectacularly affordable public institution, in a big city where my rent was $100 a month, and my summer earnings and family help covered my one-year master’s degree even on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where my digs cost a now unimaginable $150 a month. In the years since, expenses for precisely those essentials that once seemed manageable — education, health care, and housing — have ballooned beyond all sane proportions. Students graduate with more debt than ever, into more stress than ever.

No occupation seems to offer safe haven these days, although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies health care and private education as exceptions to current job-loss trends. Nonetheless, the cultural, economic, and technological ferment in media poses particularly formidable quandaries. As we do each fall and spring, Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is about to take in a batch of new majors, and I wish them well. In times like these, journalism is not for the faint of heart, and young people who stick with it are to be commended.

Venturing into the shifting media landscape, journalism students will need to acquire a dizzying array of new skills along with a depth of substantive knowledge. They’ll also need determination, a sense of adventure, a high tolerance for ambiguity, and an underlying commitment to firm values. That recent class discussion fortified my belief that many of ours possess these attributes.

I find it especially heartening that, in an era when celebrity fixations, snark, and stridency often edge out informed presentation and reasoned conversation about matters of actual consequence, my students care deeply about sustaining institutions that deliver significant and reliable information to the public. They are far from sanguine about the difficulties and unknowns ahead — the room was full of serious faces; but they are heading into this new world in a bold and active frame of mind — as pioneers rather than guinea pigs.

Judy Polumbaum is in her 20th year on the journalism faculty at the UI.


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