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Old Dogs, New Media: Why J-School Apps Are Up

"New media" is like the Emperor's new clothes: we all pay lip service to Macromedia Flash, html coding and RSS feeds, but no one has any real conception of how they might "save" journalism.
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In my yearlong study at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, I watched with horror as jobs disappeared, bureaus shuttered, and entire papers folded. But nothing compared to the greatest shock of all: applications for next year's class are up a whopping 38 percent.

It's true that because of the recession, applications surged across the board, from law schools to medical schools. But as a profession, journalism is uniquely situated -- and ubiquitously portrayed -- on the verge of collapse. That so many twentysomethings are staking their livelihood on a dying profession might suggest that we're willfully blind, or just plain stupid, but what's happening at the Columbia J-School is the same thing that's happening to American journalism at large.

A lot of what you need to know about the J-School can be summed up in a few words: "I haven't had a single professor under 70," so said a classmate this semester. Indeed, the workshops offered in the final term are courses like, "Producing a Magazine," or, "The Bronx Beat," which prints a weekly paper -- offerings that by most accounts will be outdated within the next few years.

Of course, no one should blame Columbia for teaching the old ways. As has been painfully evident over the past year, no new model for journalism yet exists. Where one can fault the J-School -- and by extension, journalism as a whole -- is in its superficial embrace of "new media," understood at 116th Street as a crash-course in web design as an addendum to the regular curriculum. "New media" -- those chilling words that induce in anyone over 30 a bone-chilling sweat -- is like the Emperor's new clothes: we all pay lip service to Macromedia Flash, .html coding and RSS feeds, but no one has any real conception of how they might "save" journalism.

In point of fact, the clash between outmoded newsgathering and neoteric tech-wizardry is a long time coming. Even in 1922, Walter Lippmann recognized that news was not a standalone commodity. American consumers were no more willing to pay for news than they might be for God-given truth. News, according to Lippmann, "must come naturally, that is to say gratis, if not out of the heart of the citizen, then gratis out of the newspaper."

Instead of paying for news, readers paid for advertisements; in this way, said Lippmann, the payment was, until now, "concealed." Yet in today's world, the classifieds have gone to Craig's List, and online advertising accounts for only 10 percent of what print once garnered. Stripped finally of its profitable veneer by the Internet, the news has been reduced to unsellable truth.

Journalism -- and its preeminent institution -- finds itself fundamentally divided on this issue. In the one corner, the old guard clings sentimentally to a belief in the inherent worth of edited news. In the other corner, the new media-philes espouse freedom of information untrammeled by the bureaucracy of a newsroom. These archetypes are on display at the J-School in the hoary, nostalgic, long-winded professor and the angsty, square-spectacled, hyper-articulate student.

Neither camp has a solution. The newspapers that haven't folded are making the jump online, but it's too little too late; advertisers are long gone, and they're not coming back. At the same time, bloggers talk insider baseball on the inside pages of the Huffington Post, but they're too far removed from the media moguls who still have the wherewithal to make a difference.

The question remains: if you can't monetize the news online, then how do you pay for costly reporting? For now, old media has the content, but it's losing the advertising. New media has the advertising, but not enough to foot the bill for content.

In the final analysis, that's the difference between dewy-eyed fatalists and wide-eyed optimists. Some of us are graduating, while others were just accepted.