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Journalists' Rites

What could keep a reporter on the righteous path in these dismal times?

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I attended a Lutheran ordination last weekend. "Will you give faithful witness to the world?" the candidate was asked. "I will," she said. There was a laying on of hands, and someone spoke. "Bless Jennette's witness and work among us that it may further understanding and reconciliation where there is fear and estrangement." Someone else said, "Discipline yourself in life and teaching that you preserve the truth, giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope. Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people." The ceremony, which ended in applause and cheers, was as moving a rite of passage as I've seen.

There was much more to the ordination, but the words truth and witness pierced me, and I found myself wondering if the time has come to swear in journalists. The idea of any sort of induction has always struck me (and most journalists I've known) as completely wrong. We're no guild; the First Amendment protects us not because we're special but because we're not. We piggyback on the freedom of speech guaranteed to everybody. A reporter becomes a reporter by reporting.

Of course it's never actually been that simple. The best journalism schools have encouraged their students to think of themselves as secular seminarians; on graduation, a job offer from a good newspaper used to be comparable to a call to serve from a parish church.

Despite earlier reports, God still isn't dead, but newspapers may not be as fortunate. Students now learn that news has become content, rendered a half dozen ways, as if it were the innards of a cow, and dished out onto an array of media platforms. The Internet is awash in aggregators, regurgitators, and fulminators. Old-fashioned journalists like to think those multitudes would be helpless without the handful of reporters who actually dig up a few facts, but they wonder: if that tap were turned off, how long would it take for the Internet to notice? On my desk as I type is a new book of essays whose title is tailored to the moment, —30—: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper. The essays were selected by Charles M. Madigan, a splendid Tribune writer who a few months ago took early retirement.

There's plenty of blame to go around in —30—, and Chicago essayist Joseph Epstein blames the victim. Epstein mulls the "casual disregard" in which newspapers are held, not merely by the hoi polloi but by himself. The business has been blighted by too many university-trained journalists, he proposes, who "emerge from their schools with locked-in [liberal] political views.... Even as they employ their politics to tilt their stories, such journalists sincerely believe they are (a) merely telling the truth and (b) doing good in the world."

Sacraments are surely the last thing Epstein would wish on journalism. But he does wish for a "few serious newspapers to take the high road: to smarten up instead of dumbing down, to honor the principles of integrity and impartiality in their coverage." He goes on, "In all likelihood a newspaper taking this route would go under, but at least it would do so in a cloud of glory, guns blazing."

The spines of kamikaze pilots were stiffened by sake and ritual. Journalists who are doing (a), telling truths that truly need telling, are surely also doing (b). They are hewing to the Lutheran injunction to "witness faithfully in word and deed to all people." In a disdainful world, they might find that easier to keep on doing if united by an oath.

Hold that thought: I want to say a word or two here about the twin prophets of Chicago journalism, Sam Zell and John Lavine. In photographs they look more than a little like each other—bald, glowering, their chins not so much bearded as bristling. Here are a couple of guys tough enough to scare the future into behaving the way they want it to. Imagine if Zell, with his billions of dollars and supreme self-confidence, actually cared about journalism—loved newspapers and wanted them around forever. What a strange, exciting ride the Tribune would be in for once he gets his hands on it. But the only reason Zell gives for taking over the Tribune Company is to make money from it. For words of inspiration, Tribune people will have to settle for something he says in a profile in the November 12 New Yorker. "I've had offers on every single asset in the portfolio," he told reporter Connie Bruck. "For a dead industry with no future there are an awful lot of schmucks who want to take it away from me!"

And maybe it's OK that Zell doesn't give a damn about newspapers. The people who like them a lot are beginning to resemble the people who really like passenger trains.

Since Lavine took over Medill early last year, the curriculum's been rewritten, popular professors have been run off, and Northwestern's General Faculty Committee has unanimously passed a resolution condemning Medill's "suspension of faculty governance." Last week a petition signed by about 80 recent alumni, protesting dramatic changes at Medill without so much as a faculty vote, was sent to the board of trustees, along with a two-page letter in which alumni Andrew Bossone, now working in Cairo, and Camille Gerwin, working in Boston, declare themselves "appalled at the manner in which these changes are being implemented. Because faculty governance has been suspended," it continues, "Dean Lavine has been making changes unilaterally or with staff members that support him indiscriminately. Those who have expressed dissent have been demoted or forced out."

At a contentious Q and A with students on November 12, Lavine shrugged off the criticism. He was asked to comment on an article about him in the September issue of Chicago magazine, where he asserted that it was "immoral" (his word) for journalism schools to (in the magazine's words) "continue to turn out journalism students the old-fashioned way, preparing them for disappearing jobs in print publications and giving them little knowledge of the changing demands of consumers." Reporter Dirk Johnson described Lavine as preoccupied with "marketing" to those consumers. Lavine told the students a better article had run in August's Chronicle of Higher Education. He said the reporter there "made clear that when we talk about marketing... what we mean is audience understanding.... What remains the same is, can you find, and tell, a better story? That's what's important. I thought that the writer from the Chronicle got that."

"It's not enough to train reporters to write for the evening broadcast news show or for the features section of a daily newspaper," Lavine told the Chronicle. "Our job is to create journalists who can win and hold the attention of media consumers faced with limited time and abundant media choices."

Instruction in how to "win and hold" the public's attention wasn't part of the syllabus when I was in J school. We weren't missionaries; the world as we understood it consisted of those who thanked God for a free press and those who desperately wanted it. We expected the worthiest among us to take seats in the newsrooms of institutions like the New York Times and CBS News. Journalism was a trade, and the trade was admired and would go on forever.

J schools teach the trade, though students and professors like to tell each other they're all up to something more scholarly. The case against Lavine includes the perception that he doesn't hold students in proper regard. Last June, when I wrote about Medill on my blog, this was a typical reply: "How can we refine American journalism when we're simply taught how to fit into the current media market...? Under Lavine's reign, we weren't required to take proper writing classes, but rather were drilled in test classes. We were instructed to write for an 'audience,' and weren't challenged to think critically about the world around us."

In a clear minority was the alum who responded, "I think Lavine is simply trying to narrow that gap between the ivory tower and the real world in a place that has been falling behind the times for years."

Nobody can say for sure what the "real world" of tomorrow will look like. But Lavine's concluded the old world is history. Journalists must assume that journalism will survive; we have to believe that a halfway decent society can't exist without it. But even if journalists are necessary they won't necessarily be employable, which is why the most important skills for young journalists to learn are survival skills. They need to acquire the self-reliance of ronin, the masterless samurai who live by a code and are loyal only to it. Which is why, when their schooling ends, it might not be a bad idea for them to be sworn in by their elders. Other reinforcements will be few and far between.

According to Connie Bruck in the New Yorker, when Sam Zell was talking to a group of Tribune reporters about his deal to buy their company, he told them, "It's not going to change my lifestyle no matter what happens. It's likely to change yours significantly." But their lifestyles were already changed. A snug life in the cloistered confines of the tower that looks like a cathedral had turned into life on the brink.

Correction

Last week's column contained an error regarding the Equinix data center, whose security system I compared favorably to that of oft-penetrated C I Host at 900 N. Franklin. Security at Equinix is as I described it, but that company is a tenant of the building it occupies at 350 E. Cermak, sharing it with other data centers. Digital Realty Trust owns the building and employs the guards I mentioned whose instructions are to challenge cars that so much as linger outside.v

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

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