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Thursday, February 17, 2005

... but I'd like more of them in my journalism classes, too

Picking up right where yesterday's quote from Steve Yelvington left off, The Wall St. Journal's Peggy Noonan does a great job of taking the "MSM" (MainStream Media) to task for giving bloggers little respect.

We'll skip over the fact that she is about as mainstream "elite newspapers and magazines" as you can get, being a WSJ and Time-magazine-based former Reagan-Bush staff member. That's all spelled out in the "author biography" section of her page. She does get the spirit of blogging right... Even Dave Winer, who has been explaining blogging forever, says her article "explains blogging better than I've ever seen it done."

Bloggers on the left or right can make a powerful combination with professional journalism, keeping reporters and editors on their toes by checking facts, pointing out mistakes, laziness, bias -- and, if we're lucky, filling in some of the gaps in public service reporting left by the staff cutbacks and media consolidations of big-business corporate publishers.

They can help the cause of journalism, and it's a shame to see the professionals and amateurs snarling at each other. That's the main thing I agree with Peggy Noonan about.

Deeper into her article, I noticed this paragraph:

Someone is going to address the "bloggers are untrained journalists" question by looking at exactly what "training," what education in the art/science/craft/profession of journalism, the reporters and editors of the MSM have had in the past 60 years or so. It has seemed to me the best of them never went to J-school but bumped into journalism along the way--walked into a radio station or newspaper one day and found their calling. Bloggers signify a welcome return to that old style. In journalism you learn by doing, which is what a lot of bloggers are doing.

Although I teach at a journalism school, I agree -- particularly if her "best of them" list goes back 60 years, or even 30. Today, however, it's tough to walk into a newspaper or radio station and ask for a job without presenting a portfolio tape or fistful of "clips" -- usually from a student newspaper, internship or part-time job.

If someone has cultivated a passionate curiosity and has learned to write clear and concise English, an imaginative editor shouldn't insist on a journalism degree. A degree in economics, politics, anthropology, computer science, international relations or Urdu would be fine. But if the same person managed to fit some journalism courses into his or her schedule, he or she would be in better shape to land (and do) a reporting job -- or write a better weblog.

Today's journalism schools make students more conscious of media ethics and the importance of accuracy and fairness, not just the basics of libel law that I was taught 30-some years ago. Journalism students learn to find and double-check their facts, to use the skills of computer-assisted investigative reporting, and some learn to tell stories with the latest tools of multimedia publishing.

J-school graduates should be able to sort out facts from opinions, including their own opinions and ideologies, or those of their editors and publishers. They should be able to separate truth from spin, and provide well-informed, balanced stories -- either in the personal style of columnists (and weblogs) or in the more impersonal style of traditional news reports.

Back to the finding-a-job angle: Traditional clips are also easier to come by if you've let kindly journalism professors whack the excess adverbs out of your vocabulary, done your AP Stylebook drills, and practiced writing on a deadline. There's no reason "clips" couldn't be from a weblog written in a style that looked good to the hiring boss. Writing style is something you can practice and polish in J-school.

A couple of years ago a newspaper editor rang my phone to ask about a student who had brought in "clips from a paper called the Boston Beanbag." There was no such paper, just an in-class webpage I'd set up so that students could see each-other's work. They covered neighborhood beats in and around Boston. The student who used her Beanbag printouts as a work sample got that job. And she stopped by my office with a fistful of page one clips a couple of months later.

(If anyone's curious, the silly website name was inspired by Mr. Dooley's observation that "Politics ain't beanbag." He didn't go to J-school, either.)

Update note: The subhead, italic second paragraph and some other bits and pieces were added about an hour after the original version of this post went out on the RSS feed.

4:58:24 PM    

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