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Commentary: An open letter to journalism graduates and faculty members

At first, you can't lose by going into journalism

I think you can't lose by going into journalism.

Particularly if you go to a small paper or magazine where you will have a chance to do everything but ink the presses. A small paper may seem far removed from where you dream to work as a journalist. But to the people of the community it serves, that small paper is even more important than the New York Times.

You can't lose because you will be entering a fascinating graduate school of life.

You can't lose because you will be entering a fascinating graduate school of life. Tuition-free. And probably almost salary-free.

Don't worry. The psychic pay -- the sense of satisfaction in serving the public good -- is likely to be better than at most other jobs. And you will learn more, even if you don't earn more.

A front-row seat on life

As a journalist you will have a front-row seat on life. Unfiltered by the media, because you are the media. Particularly in smaller towns, you'll likely be allowed inside the yellow police tape to see for yourself what violence and grief look like from inches away. You'll be at the scene before the blood has coagulated, much less been hosed away.

You'll see the political process up close, the deals, the poker hand of power, image-building, grandstanding, hypocrisy. You'll be disgusted. You'll also witness the dedication and high-mindedness of many government officials. You'll be inspired.

As a journalist, you'll be at the center of the influence game. The powerful will learn your first name because of your authority to portray them as good or evil, smart or dumb, in the community.

As a journalist it will be your job to interview the most interesting people in town. You'll find that many of them are unknown and work in drug stores or schools and at the police station. You may even get to scrub up and watch a cutting-edge surgery, as I once did. A woman being remodeled into a man.

John McManus

If you spend the next couple of years as a journalist, you simply can't lose.

But after that you can.

If after two or three years, you feel stuck. If the vise of media profit-obsession limits your psychic pay. If your learning curve flattens. Get out. This is an industry that simultaneously pleads poverty to its employees and rising quarterly returns to investors.

When it's time to leave journalism

The news media proclaim the glories of the First Amendment and the noble role of journalism as the forerunner of justice and democracy. But if you find yourself becoming agents of an enterprise so devoted to pleasing and expanding its audience that it no longer cares to pursue the task of orienting that audience to reality, consider another field that will honor your idealism -- and pay you a living wage.

I sincerely hope that most of you won't get stuck. But even if you are able to make your way to news enterprises that still value Main Street as much as Wall Street, you will have to be prepared to fight for quality journalism against the tide of junk journalism. Like junk food, junk journalism is wildly popular, mouth-watering, never-boring, perplexing or complex. But it's empty calories. It distracts more than it involves. It tends to make us civic couch potatoes.

Every one of you will need to fight for the integrity of journalism. But you won't win unless you are organized.

That's the bad news. The corporations that own and control newsrooms are engaged in nothing less than changing the definition of news from what matters most to what sells best to those demographics advertisers will pay to reach, at the least cost. It shouldn't surprise you that when corporations own the media, they seek to reshape news to make it more profitable.

These corporations are not evil, just seeking to maximize shareholder return. Thoughtful, skeptical journalism is expensive and holds power to account. Some media executives consider it a violation of their fiduciary responsibility to pursue such news.

Inevitably, journalism operated to maximize profit will be more entertaining than informative, more playing to our passions than challenging our best nature, and more docile -- a watchdog with teeth for the welfare cheat but only gums for the corporate swindle.

Too pessimistic?

Am I being too pessimistic? I sure hope so. But consider that even the New York Times allowed itself to be suckered into front page "scoops" planted by the Bush administration. Scoops build audience. And the Washington Post trumpeted the heroism of Jessica Lynch killing Iraqi soldiers until her pistol jammed -- all of which was a concoction of the Defense Department. But it was great front-page copy!

You must do what journalists of the past have been too stubborn, naive or apathetic to do -- join organizations like the Newspaper Guild or the Society of Professional Journalists.

Or locally, take the obsession with the guilt or innocence of a certain fertilizer salesman from the Central Valley. The trial of Scott Peterson will have no effect on the prevalence of domestic violence, or the quality of local schools, or the economy, the state deficit, indeed anything that really matters to our communities. It's a reality soap opera. A tragedy from 100 miles away milked for its ability to sell newspapers and newscasts. Yet look how it dominates even good newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle.

Meanwhile local television stations like KPIX spent just 24 seconds a night on issues and candidate positions in the weeks before the March 2 primary. No wonder fewer voters turned out in San Francisco than the state as a whole.

Organize

Every one of you will need to fight for the integrity of journalism. But you won't win unless you are organized. You must do what journalists of the past have been too stubborn, naive or apathetic to do -- join organizations like the Newspaper Guild or the Society of Professional Journalists. Bind together in whatever newsroom you find yourself and make common cause with journalists working in other newsrooms. Forget about distinctions between print, broadcast and the Web. You are all in the same boat.

Those who would redefine the nature of news have vast corporate power, battalions of lobbyists and lawyers and billions of dollars. You will need more than your fellow journalists to have a chance against them. You'll need public support.

Everyone has a stake in good journalism. Journalism functions as the headlights of society. If they shine ahead brightly, they won't smooth a bumpy road, but they may keep us from driving off a cliff. What chance do we have if they are trained instead to the side, illuminating a couple necking in the woods?

Journalism faculty must lead

The allies of good journalism have to organize as well. Journalism faculty should lead the way. I know you teach too many classes and have too many students to advise as well as you'd like. But rather than fretting about the environment into which you send your students, you need to commit yourselves and rally others in support of the journalism we need, rather than accepting the journalism corporations can entice us to want.

My friend and colleague the legendary editor Bill Woo often closes speeches by saying, "it's your media. Tell reporters and editors what you want."

And I always think: try telling that to Rupert Murdock, or even Tony Ridder. The truth is it's their media.

Rupert and Tony need your patronage

But it's also true that as market-oriented businesses, Rupert and Tony need your patronage. With the leadership of journalism faculty, public broadcasters, community leaders and community-building organizations must make common cause. If the public knew what to expect of real journalism and how to recognize the false facade of junk journalism -- a cheap collage of violence, emotion and visuals -- many, though not all, might choose an alternative. Or demand real news.

We need to help the public see through schlock and choose substance. That's the idea behind Grade the News. It's an attempt to create a resource the whole region can use. But it will fail unless journalism educators on campuses from Sonoma to San Jose and civic groups make use of its tools and expand its analyses to local issues around the Bay.

Today markets, not journalism ethics, rule the newsroom.

And all that is necessary for evil to prevail in the news marketplace is for good people to do nothing.

Excerpted from the commencement address to the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University, May 29, 2004.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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