#469: The Question

April 27th, 2015

A student of mine asked me the question.

I get the question a lot, or have in the three years I’ve been teaching journalism. Sometimes it’s asked as a gotcha challenge, sometimes it’s just blurted out as if I had mentioned I strangle puppies for a living.

And sometimes it’s asked in a quiet tone before class by a scared junior wondering if her choice of major has been a terrible mistake.

Do I feel bad about teaching journalism?

The student who asked is funny and nice. She’s a front row kid, whereas I was strictly back bench until I realized the front was better for arguing with TAs.

Do I feel bad about teaching journalism?

One friend I told immediately declared the student would go far, that she’s the type of fearless inquisitor the field needs. A few others have just gotten quiet, then asked, “Well, do you?”

I tell them all I hate teaching freshmen.

There’s nothing wrong with freshmen per se. They can be as nice and likable and scared and funny as any of the other students I’ve had the privilege to work with over the last three years, but I get a morally squicky feeling influencing them on their choice of majors.

Once someone is already sold, once someone is already obsessed and no other practice will do in life, then I’m perfectly fine giving them some skills that will help. I’ll yell at them about attribution and what a margin of error really means. I’ll quote Strunk and White on needless words and Mark Twain on killing adjectives. I’ll talk about TIFs, packing, cracking and The Mirage, teach them how to FOIA, teach them how to read a budget, spreadsheet, 10-K, D-2, TSR, FRIS, AG990-IL, EIN, PIN, LLC Certificate of Good Standing and set them loose on the world with a knowledge of tax bills, school report cards, campaign finance reports, SEC filings and a vague hope that somehow knowing this will matter.

But I’ll also show them a slideshow of every journalist I know who has been laid off. I’ll tell their stories. This one had worked there 39 years. This one was about to buy a car. They laid this one off the day after an election. This one needed heart surgery. This one was just a really nice lady.

And I’ll tell them numbers, too. 5,000 new full-time, digital-only jobs compared with the 18,400 jobs lost from 2003-13 in the newspaper industry alone.

I’ll get them excited with “Snow Fall” and “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” and then tear them down with media stenography, innumeracy and why oh why we grab a climate change denier for balance when we don’t feel the need to lavalier mic a flat earther every time NASA releases photos from space.

Journalism has become like art, music, philosophy — nice for society, but a shitty major to have to explain to your parents.

So I want to deal with the obsessed.

Give me the students who get angry over verbs, the ones whose tongues starts wagging when they see something unfair. Give me the students who find citing sources a terribly attractive commodity and I’ll work my ass off to get them ready for day one.

Because that’s the kicker. Their real education hasn’t begun, won’t begin until they create it for themselves, day by day, at the job a godless man prays they get.

There are some really good young journalists coming at you, world. Can you be as good to them as they’ll be to you?

That’s my question for you.

Comment on this story

Read the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2014

A few favorite acts of journalism:

“Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” New York Times

“Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt,” NPR

“The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates,” Chicago Magazine

“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire

“The Mirage,” Chicago Sun-Times

“Broken Bonds,” Chicago Tribune

“Harper High School,” WBEZ’s This American Life

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