The Revolution Will Be Blogged

Journalists are not what they used to be. The profession and the news industry have changed dramatically over the past few decades, reshaped by information technology and new media innovation that googles the mind, literally. It remains to be seen if the public is benefiting from this evolution, even as its buying habits help to shape it.

ImageNo, I’m not mourning the loss of the “ink-stained wretch” of yesteryear’s newsroom or the film editor in the broadcast booth. Journalists generally have adapted just fine, learning to love multiple platforms for story telling, or they move into another field. Some may feel like Rick Redfern of Doonesbury fame, the former Washington Post correspondent pushed onto a blogging platform … or is it a plank? Many blogs reward contributors with celebrity rather than hard cash, as Redfern discovers when word surfaces he’s out of print.

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As the industry shakes out, working journalists shake with it, incurring some bumps and bruises along the way. My friend Roger was in his mid-50s when he was mustered out of a newspaper job in North Carolina. He languished for more than a year before accepting a one-year assignment teaching English in rural China. For his perseverance, Roger got a tryout and regular copy-editing gig at The New York Times. May we live in interesting times.

These changes not only dramatically affect the lives of working journalists, but also those preparing for careers as journalists – or new graduates who are searching for work in the industry. How do you prepare young journalists for a field in flux, when the job market is moving farther away from the traditional news-gathering and reporting exercises? And how do you retain the integrity of a profession founded on the public trust to inform and educate in a Wiki world?

These are questions being raised today in many Journalism schools across the nation, including my alma mater, Indiana University. To stay current, IU is creating a new Media School, combining Journalism and Broadcast with Communication and Culture (Film, TV and Digital Media), and affiliated with Computer Science/Informatics and other departments through the College of Arts and Sciences. The reorganization is not without critics and skeptics among IU Journalism alumni, a long and distinguished list of working and retired journalists.

IU-trained journalists want to know what happens to the legacy of Ernie Pyle, the legendary Hoosier war correspondent whose name graces the longtime Journalism building – and what happens with that building, long in disrepair? How will IU attract top-notch J-school faculty and scholars if it is diluted with nonprofessional communications studies, and administered through the huge liberal arts school?

These were some of the questions that the IU Media School’s Associate Dean Lesa Hatley Major and Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Larry Singell sought to answer during a “Media Roundtable” held recently at the National Press Club. I joined about 50 alumni during the informal briefing, which featured finger food and a full bar. Everyone wanted to know if IU would be able to provide the same sort of quality education that journalists across the country have come to expect.

“Well, to be perfectly candid, we haven’t been providing the quality education we have in the past,” said Major. “We have fallen down in key areas, particularly in keeping up with new media platforms, new ways to gather information and tell stories. That’s what we hope to fix with The Media School.”

Singell promised the housing of The Media School within Arts and Sciences wouldn’t diminish the principles and values of IU Journalism education. “Let’s face it: everyone is publishing today,” he said. “All you need is a PC and you can broadcast to the world. It’s the quality of information that we are concerned with, the highest standards for storytelling, and our Media School is dedicated to that.”

I am going to trust these administrators with their words, and the promise of this new Media School. I’ve read the proposal and the step-by-step plan to create the J School of tomorrow, Media writ large. It makes good sense.

Change is inevitable, so let’s get out ahead of it, anticipate as best we can. But Indiana University must build on the tradition that makes the program great – including the daily news coverage through the Indiana Daily Student and other campus and community outlets. New media platforms can enhance the IDS and other fine media already serving the IU community.

Friendships and East Asian studies were the catalysts for my interest in IU, but the IDS sealed the deal. The award-winning daily newspaper was the perfect platform for practicing daily news journalism. Most of IU’s finest alums honed their editorial skills in the IDS newsroom at Ernie Pyle Hall. I wrote editorials and columns, and some feature stories, including a 1973 interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of my fondest memories, when he was giving a commencement address, getting an honorary degree, and effectively dismissing all his characters with the publication of “Breakfast of Champions.”

Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis and studied journalism for two years at Cornell before shipping out to World War II, the life event that haunts his fiction. Although he worked as a Chicago police reporter after returning from the war, and his journalism training is evident in his spare declarative writing, he grew to dislike how the profession was evolving – particularly in its pursuit of celebrity.

Quoting Ralph Nader, Vonnegut told one interviewer that “reporters have given up on their jobs and instead are causing us to focus, as long as possible, on stories like O.J. and Princess Di,” he said. “But they never get around to having us consider what the real problems of the country are.”

Certainly this propensity for celebrity and spectacle has moved onto the Internet, alongside more sober sources of news and information. But like it or not, our media will be driven largely by consumer demand – even if big-money advertisers wield the biggest influence. We can console ourselves that at least we’re getting thousands of channels of information, however cluttered by noisemakers.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that Indiana University will continue to turn out first-class journalists and communicators – such as Suzanne Collins, who in 1985 graduated from IU with a double major in theater and telecommunications, then went on to write The Hunger Games trilogy. There is more to world-class communications than a journalism degree, as this list of IU’s distinguished graduates of arts and humanities reveals. Journalists, authors, playwrights, lyricists, sportscasters, actors, poets, folklorists and assorted other storytellers enhance us all with their gifts, and we can thank the university that stoked their imaginations and refined their talents.

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About Keeping Time

I once had a column called  “Keeping Time,” back in the pre-Internet days – back before personal computers, in fact.  It appeared weekly in the Entertainment section of the Henderson (Ky.) Gleaner and featured reviews of movies and music, with a dollop of commentary on popular culture. I was an expert on these matters by virtue of my passion and the ability to write about them with authority.

That would define much of the writing in the blogosphere, I’d say.  Most bloggers today have mounted their platforms to get things off their chest, or to get thoughts off their mind, or in some cases just simple mindless and heartless unloading. Some make a mark. Most don’t.

In that stream I cast this new blog, 40 years after initiating Keeping Time, an expanded mission. A wiser, more experienced perspective and voice, which has largely been exercised over those years in the service of others. I’m speaking up here, informed by all those college degrees and real-life pedigrees, working in the news business and as a message maven for unions and progressive organizations. I’ve helped raise five kids, evolved from Roman Catholicism to Taoism, and studied the drumbeat of history, of culture, and imagined the next generations. Why not Keeping Time?

Keeping Time is a title born out of my Glee Club years (yes, kids, I was “Glee” way before it was cool), and the idea of keeping time in music without the benefit of percussion – except for the piano or organ that we might have to drag along. Hence, keeping time. I was keeping time at the time, in my way, chasing Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, an Electric Kool Aid Acid Test adventure. I was particularly keen on popular culture, and I retain that interest, although my threshold for bullshit is substantially higher.

That’s the value of experience. I was transformed by the Vietnam War, as were many young men my age. In my case, a tip from the news editor of my hometown newspaper led to opportunities as a linguist and survivor, with transferable credits in a foreign language and the G.I. Bill waiting for me after the four most excruciating and humiliating years of my life.

Well, those were my initial impressions about military life. My view was seasoned after many years of reflecting on learning Chinese and Vietnamese, and spending quality time in both of those countries (the Taiwan side of China), plus Thailand, the Philippines and Okinawa. I learned a valuable lesson about the wages of war, and why they should or shouldn’t be fought.

And I was driven to understand what had happened, and what will happen. What is the arc of history, as it tends toward justice? Or does it? What can we do to prevent the military adventurism that was at the root of Vietnam and so many wars before and since? My mission to understand these challenges led me to Indiana University and its Independent Learning Program (ILP). It was a program so diverse that no one in the program knew anyone else in the program.

For example, while I was designing a course called “The Analysis of Contemporary Events,” my fellow ILP student, Will Shortz, was designing a course in “enigmatology,” the study of puzzles.  The jury is still out on my course of study, but Shortz, now the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, was celebrated in the great documentary, “Wordplay”:

Shortz is the only person known to have graduated with a degree in Enigmatology, thanks to the ILP. And I am the only person I know to have graduated with an undergraduate degree in “The Analysis of Contemporary Events,” combining history and literature with all the behavioral sciences – sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science and economics.

Working through the IU School of Journalism, I was also preparing myself for a master’s degree in Journalism, in which I used the analytical tools I developed as an undergraduate to develop my thesis, a critique of media coverage of the terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics, 30 years before 9/11 redefined international terrorism. I use the same systematic approach today to analyze events and ideas, to help develop strategic plans and carry out tactical communications.

Using a systems approach, I tend to see life, the universe and everything through the prism of scientific realism, as imagined in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. We are on a trajectory that favors logic and organization, toward mutual harmony and cooperation. But we must beware The Mutant, the irrational actor whose goal is to interrupt the rhythm and the harmony of natural order, who would impose his will to change the world to suit his ends, and no other.

I see this monster, in another literary form, as John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s paean to the grandeur of greed. Or Gordon Gecko, who epitomizes the modern Wall Street speculator, in it only for himself, to hell with everyone else. And, in political terms, that would be Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and vice presidential candidate, or Rand Paul, the gadfly senator from Kentucky, who are proud to exemplify the notion that “you’re on your own: now, go make money, the American dream.”

You may disagree, or have a distinctly different viewpoint. I don’t mind. I hope to stimulate conversation about current events, culture and ideas. I think I offer a unique voice and critique of our life and times. But without your feedback, dear reader, Keeping Time means nothing.