Elmhurst College In Depth

What's the Story?

American journalism is in dire straits, except on college campuses, where life is tweet.

Last February, right around the time the Elmhurst College Leader was winning the third in a string of Illinois College Press Association awards as the best small-college newspaper in the state, some other newspapers were making their own, decidedly grimmer news. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, launched in 1863, stopped publishing. The Rocky Mountain News, launched in 1859, shut down in Denver. Closer to home, the owners of the Chicago Tribune, founded in 1847, and the Chicago Sun-Times, with roots that go back to 1844, operated in bankruptcy. Even Editor & Publisher, the bible of the newspaper industry, suspended publication after 125 years. That litany is troubling but it is hardly complete. At least 120 newspapers, large and small, shut down in the last two years, as both advertisers and consumers gravitated to online sources. At the same time, the American Journalism Review estimated that 15 percent of the nation’s newsroom jobs disappeared. In a single quarter last year, newspaper advertising revenue dropped 29 percent. The metropolitan daily, the emblem of journalistic enterprise in America, is an endangered species.

Yet one of the most remarkable things about this transforming moment in American journalism is that it coincides with a surge of interest among American college students in studying journalism. Last year, enrollment at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism increased by 44 percent. At the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, it was up 20 percent. Over the last decade, undergraduate enrollments in journalism programs have grown by an average annual rate of 4 percent, according to a University of Georgia survey. At Elmhurst—where the journalism curriculum consists of two courses offered by the English department—some 60 writers, editors, photographers and graphic artists contributed last year to the College’s best-in-the-state paper.

All of which prompts a few questions: With daily newspapers disappearing and a new generation getting news from online sources such as Facebook and Twitter, why are so many students working so hard to master the journalist’s craft? How should journalism education change to respond to the new realities of the industry? In a wired world where anyone can get abundant information from a multitude of media, what exactly is the journalist’s role, anyway? Like most journalist’s questions, these are more easily asked than answered.

Eric Lutz was barely into his first year at Elmhurst when he began learning one of journalism’s hard lessons. Lutz had written for his high school newspaper at York Community High School, where he specialized in what he calls “longwinded, pretentious essays.” It was a niche he hoped to fill at The Leader as well. “That idea got knocked out of me pretty quickly,” he says. “I’d go to pick up The Leader on Tuesday and look for the piece I’d turned in, and it wouldn’t be there. I learned that The Leader wasn’t so interested in printing 1,000 words of drivel about my favorite band.”

Lutz, who was The Leader’s editor-in-chief during the 2009–2010 schoolyear, was ready to quit the paper until the faculty advisor, Ron Wiginton, intervened. “Ron told me that I was a good writer, but my writing was all about me,” Lutz says. “I kept bringing my ego into it. Journalism is not really about that. Journalism is about creating something for the common good. It was a life lesson, really.”

Journalism demands that its practitioners learn lessons like these early on, which is one reason why so many pros can tell you stories about their own humbling rookie blunders. It’s part of reporters’ lore that you learn your job by doing it—and sometimes by failing at it.

On the Elmhurst campus, that education happens largely on The Leader. The paper has been on an impressive run. In all, The Leader picked up 14 awards for writing, photography and graphics in last year’s Illinois College Press Association competition. In 2008, the paper took fourth place nationally among colleges with fewer than 4,000 students in the national newspaper competition of the Associated Collegiate Press.

On a Tuesday afternoon last fall, not long after the latest edition of The Leader had appeared in neat piles around campus, Wiginton was attacking the paper with a black pen. Each paragraph he circled, every story he decorated with Xs, represented another job his students could have done better. On days like these, The Leader staffers file into Wiginton’s office to ask him what was wrong with their stories. For some, these one-on-one sessions make up the bulk of their undergraduate journalism education.

“Half of these students never take a class with me,” Wiginton says. “They’re not journalism majors. They’re speech pathology majors and special ed majors and business majors. But they put a lot of effort and time into the paper. It amazes me that they do it.”

For Lutz, putting out The Leader means 40-hour work weeks and marathon weekend sessions fueled by junk food and catnaps on the floor of the paper’s office in the Frick Center. The staff works under an ostensible Sunday midnight deadline, but it’s not unusual for last-minute rewriting and editing to drag on into the small hours of Monday. Lutz recalls working overnight on one of last fall’s issues before finally sending the last files to the printer at 7:30 a.m. Monday. That gave him a little time to prepare for his 9:15 a.m. class in medieval history.

“People think it’s great to have this on your résume, but that’s not really a good reason to stay awake for 24 straight hours,” Lutz says. “There has to be something else. For me, it’s about having the chance to talk to 3,000 people through the paper. Not many people are lucky enough to have a chance like that.”

The effort is all the more remarkable given that journalism at the moment might seem like a less-than-promising career path. Wiginton has helped organize Illinois College Press Assocation job fairs, which as recently as five years ago regularly attracted three dozen newspapers looking for talent. At the last such fair, about 120 students lined up for two jobs in the field. The next such event, Wiginton says, will likely be cancelled.

Then again, journalism education isn’t best thought of narrowly as vocational training. Journalism educators like to point out that students who learn to think critically, write clearly, research quickly, and meet deadlines will find themselves well prepared for any number of careers. Law schools, Wiginton says, love journalism majors for their ability to make succinct written arguments. Moreover, for a generation raised on instant messaging, the idea that communication is the key to the future is not a hard sell. Some journalism school deans have taken to pitching their field as a kind of Liberal Arts 2.0.

As Lutz found out early, learning to be a journalist teaches you lessons that transcend journalism. Echoing Wiginton, Leader staffers like to refer to the field as a kind of public service, driving societal debate and discourse. Promoting what Lutz calls “the common good” has long been part of journalism’s appeal for idealistic young people. It’s a function that appeals to the urge to service that is considered a distinguishing feature of the rising generation.

“For my students, this isn’t about hanging out,” says Wiginton. “A lot of them are smart and savvy. They want to make a difference. They see this as a way to have an impact. This is a culture of expression, and such a culture demands the skills that a journalist brings.”

Students who grew up in a world where everyone can be a blogger may see mass communication as a broader enterprise that transcends the troubles of print. But even students who are willing to roll the dice on a journalism career recognize that the field is changing so fast—with ever more investment in online editions and greater emphasis on new media—that it’s hard to know how to prepare for it. “I’m not sure they even know how to teach journalism anymore in graduate schools,” says Leader writer Jake Scott. “It’s almost like a history class.”

It’s not just that traditional revenue streams have dried up as advertisers and consumers discovered sources like Craigslist and Google search ads. Nor is it simply that the old, daily offering of print news has been challenged by a constantly updated, 24-hour digital stream of updates, tweets, and rumors. It’s that the journalist’s job description is up for grabs. What is more highly valued: an Olympian objectivity or a blogger’s brashness? Is journalism about communicating to an audience or interacting with a vast social network?

Christopher Callahan, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, told The New York Times last year that journalism deans themselves are trying to figure out where their field is headed. Most have reformed their curricula to prepare students to be multi-platform professionals, able to shoot a video, build a web site and crank out blog posts. DePaul University went so far as to introduce a class on Twitter in its journalism program.

Carlin Romano, a lecturer in philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania, outlined a different approach last fall in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Romano urged colleges to adopt a “more classical, full-bloodedly philosophical approach to journalism” that teaches a “respectful skepticism” rather than focusing on “the bells and whistles of new technology, as if tweets shall save us all.”

It’s clear that the same questions that vex industry executives—questions about innovation and sustainable business models and new kinds of relationships with audiences—also generate debate in journalism schools. The answers, Dean Callahan said, won’t come from his generation of educators but from their students.

That’s not just because today’s students are tomorrow’s editors and publishers, but also because the industry is bent on courting young consumers—consumers who are said to prefer online to print, and alternative news sources to the mainstream media. According to the conventional wisdom, a technological generation gap has opened, with students much more plugged into social and new media than are their professors. (Wiginton says he first heard of Twitter a few years ago, when a student asked him if he liked to tweet.) After all, who would want to bother with inky newsprint when you can find news for free on your iPhone or Blackberry?

Even some of the Leader staffers said they are more likely to get their news online than in print. Senior John Garcia, the paper’s former opinion editor and new editor-in-chief, said he gets a daily news feed from Yahoo by email, but doesn’t regularly read a daily newspaper. “It’s a bit of an inconvenience, really,” he said, “with all the books I carry around.”

That’s the kind of attitudinal shift that has been covered extensively lately (ironically enough) in newspapers. For at least a decade now, The New York Times has been noting the phenomenon of smart, engaged young people who get their news not from publications but from The Daily Show. But do young viewers really go looking for their news fix on Comedy Central? Or is it more that they happen to get informed on their way to a few laughs? “When I watch Stewart or Colbert, there’s a part of me that wants to fact-check everything,” Jake Scott said. “I want to know why I’m learning about any particular topic from a comedy show and not from the mainstream media.”

Even among students, you can still find some willing to make a fullthroated defense of print. Sarah Marchmont ’09, a former Leader editor, is now a student in the magazine journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where first-year students take classes like Multimedia Storytelling and Introduction to 21st Century Media. Marchmont is proud to be a partisan of print. “There is supposed to be this generation curve, with people under 40 reading online and people over 40 reading print,” she said, “but I prefer print and a lot of people I know prefer print. We may read online because it’s accessible and convenient, but I read more when I’m reading in print. I tend to skim when I’m reading online.”

Despite the grim prognoses for the future of journalism in general and print in particular, Marchmont said she’s determined to follow what she sees as a calling. “It’s a calling to write, but most importantly, it’s a desire to use this gift of writing to help other people,” she said.

The Leader staff remains squarely focused on the print edition. The paper’s web site is mainly an electronic version of the newspaper, though in recent years editors have added some web-only content, including photo slide shows and audio reports. Lutz and other editors have talked about producing podcasts and video reports and selling online classified ads, but haven’t moved ahead, partly because of a lack of expertise and personnel.

“We’d like to make the online thing a bigger focus. That’s the direction the industry is moving,” Lutz said. “But we have to know what our priority is. We could put more content on the site and do a shorter print edition. That would be great for our site, but it would be at the expense of the print edition.”

In a classroom in Daniels Hall last fall, Wiginton led students in his News Writing class through an exercise in fundamentals. He supplied the class with a set of notes to a hypothetical news story about a boy killed in a sledding accident, then gave the students ten minutes to write a traditional lead paragraph for the story. The students worked from notes that included a statement from police about how the boy had “suffered fatal injuries.” When the students handed in their work, Wiginton was dismayed that so many of his students had parroted the wording of the police statement exactly.

“I don’t want to see any more of this,” he warned the class. “‘Suffered fatal injuries’ is police talk. People don’t suffer fatal injuries. They die.”

For Wiginton, the students had neglected a basic journalistic responsibility when they let the wording of the police statement creep into their own writing. “What difference does it make what words we choose?” he asked the class. “It makes a big difference. Words matter. They matter because we’re deciding what the story is.”

The class is introductory and the exercise is basic, but the exchange got at something important about what journalists do. Journalism, Wiginton was saying, is about choices: word selection, story placement, the gravity communicated by the size of a headline. This is how the news is shaped. But who needs a journalist to make choices when our news feeds—through some mysterious computer calculus—send us everything we want to know, from Fox News or Ha’aretz or the Straits Times of Singapore? Who needs a gatekeeper in the age of user-generated content, when everybody’s a blogger or a tweeter or prolific Facebook status updater?

During last year’s uprising in Iran, when government crackdowns halted the flow of news, information continued to pour out of Tehran thanks to blog posts and tweets and YouTube videos. Does the trained journalist have a role in this new world? Pros like to talk about the unique values that journalists bring to the new media mix—standards of verification and objectivity, and the ability to synthesize fragments of information into a coherent and compelling narrative. In other words, they bring to their jobs some of the lessons that Wiginton’s class was learning last fall.

Wiginton was trying to get his students to understand that the words they choose matter— which is another way of telling them that the journalist’s role matters. If there is one bit of good news during these most troubled of times for journalists, it’s that, at places like The Leader, there are still smart young journalists willing to learn this lesson, and act on it.

“This is still all about telling a story,” Wiginton said. “It doesn’t matter how fancy or pretty the story is, just tell me a story. That aspect hasn’t changed. The vehicle has changed, and it will change some more. I want to see where it’s all going. But wherever it goes, journalists will still be telling me a story.”

Andrew Santella, who writes the campus blog Quick Studies, also writes for GQ, Commonweal, The New York Times Magazine and other publications.

Photo by Roark Johnson

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