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Tim Knight's Watching the Watchdog: Journalists Are Killing Journalism

Today, graduates of journalism school see the profession as just that: a job. A paycheque. A security. They do what they're told to do. They're not journalists; they're employees. They don't buck the corporate system. They're part of it. Newsrooms are turning into mere offices.
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Long ago when the world was young and showed promise, I was in charge of CBC's T.V. journalism training.

My job was to coach experienced, working CBC journalists. Take them away from the daily grind for a week or so, help them sharpen their skills.

At the time, the austere and venerable Globe and Mail was hearing vague rumours that maybe the future of journalism might involve more than simply printing stuff on dead trees. So the newspaper, somewhat reluctantly, sent some of its star reporters to CBC for training.

How to write, perform and interview on TV news. That sort of thing.

Among the chosen was one Margaret (Peggy) Wente, who even then questioned accepted wisdom with a wittily skeptical eye and now has her own must-read contrarian column at the Globe.

Wente recently wrote the column Educated for Unemployment aimed at "Dear Class of 2012." In it, in her customarily caustic way, she warns that:

"I hate to say this, but if your degree is in sociology, psych, art history or much else on the soft side, you are a dime a dozen. Have you heard of supply and demand? Sorry! You're on the wrong side of the equation."

Among the "soft side" degrees she lists is our shared -- and very troubled -- profession of journalism. And she has little respect for the Journalism schools that grant those degrees: "What these schools do not provide is jobs in journalism. That's up to the job market, which, you may have noticed, is undergoing an epic tsunami."

Peggy Wente, as she so often is, is right.

Canadian journalism schools pour out thousands of graduates every year.

If they're really lucky, maybe one in ten of these graduates actually get a job in the rapidly shrinking journalism world.

Many of the remainder, I fear, slide into public relations. The exact opposite of journalism.

There's more. Those graduates who do get jobs in newsrooms are desperate to hang on to them.

They hear the ominous, echoing footsteps of all those other journalism graduates living in parental basements, planting trees and pushing booze in bars while hungering for a chance to grab their jobs.

And they fear. Which, in turn, means that far too many of them simply do what they're told. Their first loyalty is to the boss. Now, journalists who do what they're told by bosses aren't journalists. They're employees. They don't buck the corporate system. They're part of it. They have little dedication to balance, fairness and integrity, and scant sense of journalism as a vital cornerstone of democracy.

Instead, they see journalism as just a job. Like selling shoes (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

Their loyalty is not to any higher cause, but to whoever signs the cheque.

At the same time, almost none of these recent graduates are ready for prime time.

It can take years before they truly earn the title of journalists -- by proving that their journalistic judgment and integrity can be consistently trusted; that they're truly servants of the people; that their first loyalty is to the truth and the people's right to know; that they're dedicated guardians of the free marketplace of ideas.

And there's one more problem. News organizations are lining up to save money by getting rid of senior journalists. But they seldom train graduate journalists coming in. They seem to believe that j-schools already do all that.

As a result, the entire culture of newspaper, T.V. and radio newsrooms is changing.

Newsrooms are turning into mere offices.

Staffed by faithful, fearful, obedient and inexperienced employees who do what they're told.

And I'm terribly afraid that without older, trained and seasoned mentor journalists with wide general knowledge and experience -- who truly believe in the honourable profession of journalism and its ethical base -- free and democratic journalism as we know it will slowly disappear.

And all our democracies will be in very grave danger.

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