Days of Future Passed  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   December/January 2008

Days of Future Passed   

Journalists confront a rapidly changing world.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


When you slipped through that swinging door from the cramped newsroom to the expansive composing room, it was almost like you were walking into a factory. And in a sense, you were a news factory.

Thirty minutes before deadline and it was a noisy hurly-burly, with men ladies need not apply, not that they'd wish to moving about quickly yet gracefully. It was all part of a well-practiced choreography. Big, boxy tables carrying the next day's pages were wheeled around the floor. Copyboys and anxious page editors darted in and out. On the room's perimeter linotype operators banged out type for deadline stories. Cigarette smoke crowded out the oxygen.

Like steamfitters and mechanics, these were men working with metal, and they took pride in that. Metal slivers of type were painstakingly locked into metal pages that would be made into the metal plates that in turn were strapped to that leviathan of metal that was the printing press.

Night after night the compositors went about their jobs, grumbling about this and that. But it was the innocuous grumbling of people secure in their jobs. Not long after he stumbled into this fascinating netherworld, however, even a callow teenager could tell that the vibe in the place was starting to shift. There was a gnawing sense of worry, which in time would give way to dread. It was change coming, big change.

Indeed, soon enough the conversion to "cold type" was underway, and printers were trading in their hot lead for what they derided as "paper dolls." Big guys who could always trust the metal to keep their lines straight, even if they'd had a little drink over the dinner break, now were supposed to do it by eye..with the results that headlines often dove across the page like the Dow Jones chart after a sell-off.

Of course, a few years later the printers would be gone altogether, casualties of the electronic age.

Now many professional journalists find themselves nursing a comparable sense of dread. Will the rapidly evolving news industry one day make them as anachronistic as the compositors they grew up with? As I heard one reporter put it recently, referencing Billy Joel's song about the demise of steel industry jobs, are they on the verge of being "Allentowned"?

It's an imprecise analogy, because in the news biz, news is still the product, and someone still must find and produce it, notwithstanding the changing venues of transmission.

Having said that, it's certainly a fair question whether media developments and the relentless news-business pressures will alter professional journalism beyond all recognition.

Such questions were at the heart of a conference Maryland's Merrill College of Journalism recently hosted in conjunction with the Newspaper Guild and its parent, the Communication Workers of America. The conference examined the ambiguous future of news jobs. It also discussed how today's journalists can 1) better work with management to help shape that future, and 2) ensure that journalists are appropriately trained to make the transition to a digital news environment a world where onetime "print" reporters increasingly are being asked to take photos and video (see "The Video Explosion," page 24), file multiple versions of their stories through the day, and in their spare time produce blogs.

The conference coincided with a survey of Guild workers that will be featured in AJR's February/March issue. But it's not giving away too much to say that the survey reflected a predictable level of angst. For instance, only about a fourth of those surveyed had any confidence whatsoever they would be working at a newspaper in five years, while upwards of half were quite certain they wouldn't be.

One thing the discussions made clear the question is no longer whether journalists need adapt to the new multimedia world; they acknowledge as much, and many are actually enthusiastic about creative new prospects for their storytelling. The question is how to adapt and how to partner with management to ensure that responsible journalism doesn't become collateral damage in the process.

Training, of course, goes to the heart of all these issues. In many newsrooms, training print journalists to multitask is proceeding apace. But such training is often scattershot and almost always inadequate. Indeed, a number of Guild members talked of having editors show up one day, hand over a video camera and a box of software, and essentially declare, "Go forth and multitask." That can't be the A answer.

Mark Deuze, an Indiana University researcher who has been intently studying the evolution of the news media in both Europe and the United States, spoke to conferees several times. His message was both sobering and hopeful. He describes today's news consumers as "fans" with a great appetite for news and information, but also a great appetite for sexy new technologies. They embrace blogs, then YouTube, then whatever cool application arises next. What won't change, Deuze said, is their fan's desire to stay informed.

"It's gonna be crazy, and it's gonna stay crazy for the rest of your lives," he told the journalists about their future world. But that doesn't mean that world can't be satisfying for them, he quickly added. They must simply remain technologically flexible not to mention stay fans of news themselves.

###