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From AJR,   April/May 2009  issue

Bullish on Journalism   

A young reporter is excited, not discouraged, about the future of his profession. He urges his contemporaries to feel the same way.


By Kevin Rector
     

On December 20, 2007, I gave a speech at my graduation from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism framed around Hunter S. Thompson's quote, "Buy the ticket, take the ride."

"We all just got our tickets into the journalism world," I told my classmates. "The question is whether we're going to take the ride."

For many of us, it was a question I knew was sadly up in the air.

Bad news about the journalism industry was everywhere. Conversations among journalism students about the dismal chances of landing a job were commonplace. Nobody knew if their years toiling away at the student newspaper would pay off.

In closing my speech, I made a promise I've made good on this past year: I would be "taking the damn ride."

And what a ride it's been.

A few weeks later, I began a crash course on the state of the journalism industry as an editorial assistant at AJR. It certainly wasn't a forget-your-troubles gig, as many of the stories I fact-checked and wrote had to do with bad news for news. But I loved it.

Last summer, I saw the writing on the wall as an intern at the Baltimore Sun. Buyouts and layoffs were turning parts of the bustling newsroom into mini-graveyards of cubicles sans accoutrements. But I felt all the more valued, and not once did I have to get someone coffee.

In October, I became one of the lucky ones among my peers and got a full-time reporting job with Patuxent Publishing Co., a conglomeration of local weeklies within the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Two months later, I cringed as Tribune Co., the Sun's parent, filed for bankruptcy. My small satellite office was consolidated into Patuxent's headquarters. But I watched as people all around me, people twice my age and older, adapted, dug in their heels and kept working.

Now that I'm well into my second year out, I look at my journalistic trajectory with some awe.

I realize I spent my first year in a journalistic whirlwind I never could have expected at my graduation. I realize that, if a honeymoon period exists in journalism, it is definitely during college, in the clubhouse-like atmosphere of a student newsroom, and not in the real world.

Most important, though, I realize I'm still taking the ride and doing well and that's a message I think should be shared by young journalists more often these days.

It's one that has been lost in the barrage of doomsday declarations made by angry journalists and media observers, many of whom keep asking, "Is Journalism Dead?"

I know this is a devastating time for many journalists. I've witnessed the pain and experienced the tension in two different newsrooms in the past six months. I've also read countless stories about people losing their jobs and newsrooms having their top talent depart.

But I haven't read anything chronicling what I've felt this year, which is a tremendous sense of opportunity.

I think people my age should be looking at our role in journalism with far more optimism than skepticism. Journalism isn't dying on us. We're helping to give birth to a new journalism, journalism as it will be when we take the reins.

According to "The Changing Newsroom," a report by Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, "New job demands are drawing a generation of young, versatile, tech-savvy, high-energy staff as financial pressures drive out higher-salaried veteran reporters and editors."

While there is plenty of sadness inherent in that statement, there is also a promising transition depicted. Having young, tech-savvy people enter the field is a good thing. Call it the silver lining, but it is there. And not enough people are talking about it.

The chronic pessimism that has bled into journalism and grown with each new round of cuts and each new report on revenue has also managed to convince those suffering from it that all of us are doomed when we're not.

Although my colleagues have been overwhelmingly supportive, at times I felt pitied by them as someone who had made the mistake of getting a journalism degree a journalism degree?! so late in the game.

Usually I sensed a paternal or maternal concern for my well-being when these colleagues asked if I had considered getting out of the biz before I got myself too far in.

And that makes sense. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's "State of the News Media" report, only 63 percent of national journalists and 53 percent of local journalists said they would want their sons and daughters to go into the field.

Of those who said they wouldn't want their child to be a journalist, 45 percent cited industry decline as their reason. Ten percent said the profession was no longer noble or effective.

But for me, hearing of a young peer another member of what should be the industry's vanguard abandoning the trade is far more frustrating than hearing about another veteran taking a buyout.

And that frustration turns to anger when I think older journalists urged the departure. Now is the time we should be sticking together, when young journalists should be encouraged more than ever to stick with it.

Luckily, we young people are stubborn.

On December 15, almost a year to the day of my graduation, I visited Romenesko and read this headline: "Journalism is an increasingly popular college major."

I laughed, then smiled, then said, "Right on."

The Albany Times Union story said students "who grew up online" may be seeing their shot at helping "transform the increasingly Internet-focused, multimedia field."

Of course, that doesn't mean more young people are getting journalism jobs, but it does mean they haven't completely given up on the field.

The more I think about that and my own experiences so far, the more hope I have in journalism's and my future.

Journalism is not dead. While the financial construct it is encased in might be collapsing, so are plenty of other financial constructs these days. My generation has a lot of work ahead of us, but nothing will be solved if we let ourselves become discouraged.

We have an extremely strong base of journalistic integrity to build on, established over the years by all those veterans who are now departing. But that base isn't going to mean anything if we allow ourselves to become jaded about its existence and its availability to us.

One year plus into my career, I've never been more convinced that journalism has a strong future and that people my age are needed more than ever.

And I want more people those my age and those at the top to become convinced as well. Any other belief simply kicks young journalists while we are down, pokes holes in the industry's talent pool and relegates the Fourth Estate to a future controlled by my age group's second string.

We young journalists are the future of journalism, and we should be damn proud of that.

We need to start realizing that this is our ride to take. It is not anyone's to take away.