AJR  Columns
From AJR,   April/May 2009

A Time of Transition   

Changing times for an industry and for the Merrill College

By Lee Thornton

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a late-night sort of person. But years back, I was habituated to late-night TV, to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." And I was watching that final night, the night Johnny said goodbye. Perched casually on the stage, relaxed, but with the faintest touch of emotion, he said these words: "And so it has come to this."

I tucked that line away somewhere, thinking I would borrow it some day. That day is here. After a mere 10 months as interim dean of one of the nation's leading colleges of journalism (what part of "interim" did I not understand?); after 10 months as president of the venerable American Journalism Review; after 10 months of coming up with topics for this column, it comes to this, my last one.

We are in the midst of tremendous change here at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. After an extensive national search for a dean, we found Kevin Klose, who also becomes president of AJR. He's a journalistic Renaissance man who believes that "news reporting based on the facts is the oxygen of democracy," and that "democracy thrives on independent, non-partisan, non-polemical information."

Kevin's is a brilliant journalistic background: He was a longtime local, national and international correspondent for the Washington Post. He is the author of five books, including his Overseas Press Club Award-winning "Russia and the Russians: Inside the Closed Society." He's a visionary who took Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from a Cold War focus to programming that served the newly independent states. Then he did it all again, remaking National Public Radio for the digital age. Under Klose's leadership, NPR gained the largest weekly audience of any American news organization. He joins the college from his last public radio role as president and trustee of the National Public Radio Foundation.

Besides all of that, he's a heck of a nice guy.

To lead a journalism school today is no small undertaking not that it ever was. To anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention, it should be more than clear that newspapers are struggling mightily to stay alive. The drumbeat of bad news closings, bankruptcies, massive layoffs, reduced content is coming so regularly now that we are stunned, almost numb. With due respect to the many industries hit hard by this deep and ugly recession, the news business emerges among those suffering the most.

So, didn't anybody tell our bright, young journalism school applicants all of this? We did, and yet enrollment at Merrill remains strong. Don't they know that as technology transforms news delivery, they will be standing on ever-shifting sands? Well, yes, in fact, they do. But unlike so many of us, they're not intimidated by the apparent meltdown in the field, by what's happening now in journalism and by whatever is to come. Obviously, that has a lot to do with the optimism of youth, but I think it also has to do with the fact that, unlike older generations, they are digital natives. They have never known life without the Internet and the many ways of accessing any information they need on digital devices. They come to us with digital skills down pat and with the expectation that they will learn how to fuse their considerable technological skills with the bedrock principles of accurate and ethical reporting.

Young though they are, most actually hope the old methods will be around a good while yet. We find that the fondest hope of most of our journalism students is to work at a good old-fashioned newspaper or magazine, or to make a career in a television newsroom. Sure, they want to know online journalism as well, understanding inherently that those who can work on multiple platforms are those most ready to succeed. They want to be grounded in the standards and best practices of the profession something they know many purveyors of information on the Web don't have and don't realize they need. In their new dean, they will find an energetic and enthusiastic individual who believes that "journalism is a fascinating, enriching contact sport of the mind," a man who wants them to learn to "bear accurate, timely, intelligent witness."

That is the kind of reinforcement that will likely be needed because these truly are sad times for journalism and for journalists. But they are exciting times, too, as we give this new breed of student a passport to a profession in transformation. We at Merrill can think of few more capable of leading them than Kevin Klose, who knows well that we must spare nothing to give them what they need. The future of journalism and of our democracy may depend on it.

It's come to that.