It's a Confusing Moment To Be a Young Journalist

Young journalists straddle an interesting divide: we understand well and often trumpet the virtues of traditional journalism, and yet we sheepishly get much of our news online or via.
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It's a terribly confusing time to be a young journalist, but you won't hear many of us complaining out loud. Jobs are too precious, corporate owners too fickle. "It's witch-hunt city around here lately," a young Los Angeles Times staff writer emailed me yesterday, when I mentioned this post. "I'd prefer you didn't use my name. You know, buyouts, layoffs, new owner, etc. Not a great time to be a public malcontent."

I was myself a young staffer at the Times (I'm 25) until I left to take a fellowship at Occidental College last year. I exited the paper before the latest round of cuts, which our much-beloved former editor Dean Baquet had refused to preside over, leading to his resignation and return to The New York Times. His predecessor, John Carroll, one of the most respected editors in journalism, had likewise taken a stand against a prior round of cuts, and likewise resigned in protest.

The subtext to any conversation about journalism, these days, is the effect of the internet on newspapers and on society in general. There's little question that the web will prove deadly to major newspapers unless we figure out how to make real money from online content. Among journalists and media watchers, there's a tendency to either bemoan this development as the end of days, or to worship the ambiguous phoenix emerging from these ashes. The Net is either a democratizing force that will transcend fractious boundaries and borders and move us toward Buddhist-style interconnection, or a barrage of contagious subjectivity masquerading as objectivity and undermining the very concept of truth.

As young journalists, we straddle an interesting divide: we understand well and often trumpet the virtues of traditional journalism, and yet we sheepishly get much of our news online or via The Daily Show. We have MySpace accounts, write blogs and read them, and have come to view Google as an extension of the brain. At this very moment I'm ignoring the advice of a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist friend, who maintains that writing for The Huffington Post without getting paid is a bad use of time and energy. My inky side understands the problem with journalists working gratis -- it devalues the trade -- while another part of me thirsts for the immediacy, the intimacy that this venue provides.

I am outraged by corporate owners who, with little understanding of how journalism works, of the deep resources necessary to maintain an effective Fourth Estate, approach the uncertain future with their eyes strictly on the bottom line. By folks like Charles Bobrinskoy of Ariel Capital Management -- an investment firm that owns 6 percent of the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times -- who suggested recently on a PBS documentary that the Times abandon expensive national and international coverage in favor of enhanced local reportage. How, Mr. Bobrinskoy, shall we operate an effective democracy without the journalistic resources to spot corporate and political malfeasance, be it local, in Washington or in Iraq? We need more newspapermen and women covering these issues, not fewer, and padding your wallet isn't worth sacrificing the public good.

This is clearly the worst of times.

On the other hand, I sometimes find myself delighted by all this chaos and ferment. The point could be argued that the invention of the quill and scroll, the printing press, the typewriter, the mimeograph, the ballpoint pen, the personal computer, and so forth, are in sum only half the equation in a large transformation to a written and shared conception of self and world. Now that the Internet has completed the circuit, given everybody access to an audience, the point could be argued that society has been so dramatically altered that traditional journalism (and with it, the opinions of people like Mr. Bobrinskoy) has been rendered largely moot.

Could this be - dare I say it - the best of times?

I suppose the truth is quite as Dickens phrased it: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

In any case, it's a confusing moment to be a young journalist, and so I invited a few friends and former colleagues to weigh in on these crosswinds, off-the-cuff. Maybe others will join the conversation via comments. What's the current milieu, and what's the future?

* Daniel Hernandez, 26, a reporter with the LA Weekly, formerly with the LA Times: "It's all pretty sad. There's a lot of talented journalists and thinkers shackled to the Old Media machine and I don't see how that machine can reinvent itself in time. Like other media industries -- music, movies, television -- it's hard to shake the sense that the print news industry is still run by executives and money-handlers who spent too long being afraid of the Internet or fighting it in court, instead of innovating, adapting, or just buying it out. Media truly democratized, right under their noses. Now all the raw media innovators are online. And they're maturing, finding ways to make money while staying independent, fresh, and fearless. So in the end it's an exciting time for people who want to make interesting stuff happen."

* A young LA Times reporter who, like her colleague quoted earlier, wishes to remain anonymous: "Newspapering today can be an exercise in frustration. While rookies like me are curious and eager when it comes to bloggery, shooting online video, exploring viral media or posting news updates at a newly frenetic pace, we often end up stuck with the status quo, hampered by creaky newspaper bureaucracy that is slow -- if not downright hostile -- to change. Innovation and creativity must be vetted through officially approved channels, and the transformation of print outlets into limber online news portals is lumbering at best. As the industry struggles to redefine itself, cub reporters are left to wonder at their diminishing relevance in a changing media landscape. Does what we do even matter anymore? To whom?"

* David Downs, 26, National Web Music Editor, Village Voice: "Bloat, sloth and feeble-mindedness characterize the state of the United States journalism industry. Think of it as a huge triceratops meandering through a marsh when suddenly, [ZING!] the light of a million suns ignites the horizon. The trike ignores the far-off flash and continues to eat, but over the months, the air cools and food grows scarce. What he can't grock is that he has entered his industry's K-T boundary. Everything big will be wiped out by our Internet comet. The small, nimble and hearty shall inherit the Earth. Some call it downsizing, I call it evolution. The good news is -- life will go on. News always does."

* Kathleen Nye Flynn, 25, reporter, Los Angeles Downtown News: "I have wanted to be a newspaper journalist since I was 12 -- my goal has never wavered -- and ever since then I have worked for some sort of publication. Now I am a reporter for a local paper, paying my dues quietly while others my age have zoomed to the top. It's worth it, I tell myself, because, after all, I'm in this for the long haul.

"Now, they tell me, it looks like there won't be a long haul -- newspapers are dying, and the LA Times, every little local journalist's paper to aspire to, is shedding all the reporters that I have waited for so long to work with. Well, hell. If only I could tell my 12-year-old self to go into advertising, right?

"But I hold out hope -- I have to. Try to tell me that journalism is a thing of the past, that now bloggers do it for free and I'll never make enough money to support my future family, that if I do end up working for a big-boy paper one day I'll just be spewing corporate jargon a la Fox News -- and I won't believe you.

"I can't. Call me blind or stupid, but I can't give up on something that I have so much invested in. At 12-years-old, I wanted to be a journalist so I could dig up the facts, spread the word and effect some sort of change. So, as long as there are facts to dig, people to tell, and words to use, I have a purpose.

"Whether or not I will have a paycheck, I'll have to see."

* Marisa Lagos, 26, reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle: "I'm pretty convinced that the only sure thing in journalism right now is that nothing's for sure. I think that large papers, the so-called 'mainstream media,' will survive, but I think the model is going to change. I think newspapers are going to have to offer a more round-the-clock model of news, and that we're going to have to figure out a good way to do that without sacrificing quality. I hope that newspapers won't be entirely replaced by the web, but I think it's a possibility. We need to react more quickly, but with newsroom staffs being cut I don't know how we'll do that.

"One of my biggest fears as a young journalist is that the reasons I got into print journalism - the quality, the fact that you don't sit behind a desk all day, the expertise that experienced reporters bring to the table -- won't exist. I also fear the possibility of all papers becoming local. I think that, as Americans, we already lack the worldview that the citizens of many other countries see as necessary, and that cutting out our coverage of national, world events will only make that worse. I foresee smaller newsrooms, more specialty journalism. I see more news on the web faster."

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