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Published:December 7th, 2006 05:25 EST
This is the time to know...what we don't know  - Hot Copy #11

This is the time to know...what we don't know - Hot Copy #11

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

This is Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook.  
 

When I was a kid in West Islip, Long Island, I wrote a six-paragraph report about a baseball game. I have no idea what I said, but I`m sure it wasn`t very good. A local weekly ran my story and gave me a byline. I thought I was in heaven. 

That`s the kind of mystique even small-town weeklies had back in those days. But today even the big national dailies, like The New York Times, don`t get that kind of admiration. And with few exceptions they don`t deserve it. Their owners have cut them to the bone at the very time when society needs better reporting than ever. 

One of the reasons is the Internet. Websites like Craigslist have siphoned off advertising lineage, weakening the print dailies and weeklies, even the specialty journals. But the other reason is greed. The families that used to own newspapers have given way to big conglomerates that answer to shareholders.  It used to be that these families would take profits up to twenty percent of earnings and put the rest back into improvements, salaries and benefits. Today the conglomerates take much more profit and return much less for improvements. 

I don`t want to paint too rosy a picture of the old days. They weren`t all that great. A newspaper might pay for your health care and give you a pension when you retired "something you can`t count on these days "but the salary was lousy and the demands on your time were exorbitant. For example, when I started reporting I routinely wrote fifteen to twenty stories a day. There would be weddings and obituaries, notices of meetings, advance stories about important meetings, features about women who grew begonias, accidents, fires, hearings, hundreds of different kinds of stories. Reporters today are horrified when they hear that. But it was darned good training. 

So what can you make of all this? What should you make? Well, if I were a young journalism student today, or even a recent graduate, the first thing I`d do is type the search words Cyberspace Studies into my computer. You`ll be amazed by what you find. Online essays, discussions, curricula, whole institutions devoted to the subject. The list is almost endless. Hold that thought. Now remember what I said about the little kid who wrote a wretched baseball story back in West Islip. He thought working for a weekly would be wonderful. He thought working for a daily, smelling printer`s ink and listening to the presses roar, would be a career. And he thought working for a great daily, like The Providence Journal, which I once did, would be heavenly. 

But that was then, and this is now. Now there`s an Internet, and we haven`t even begun to tap the potential of the Internet. We haven`t developed good business models to make money from it. And that`s where Cyberspace Studies come in. You can jump way ahead of the curve by listening to and reading the best minds as they explore this new invisible world. 

There are individual bloggers who have figured out how to make money from their blogs. There are online newspapers, journals, research organizations, libraries, books, magazines. You name it and it`s probably online. You can hardly make a single cyberspace search without coming up with more ideas in a few minutes than most newspapers have been willing to entertain in decades. 

This poses a dilemma. Should newspapers cut news staffs, which they are doing, or should they cut fluff and beef up news staffs, which they are not doing? Do they have a future at all? There are already some print newspapers that have converted entirely to cyberspace. There are good arguments for doing this. Killing trees is not good for the environment. Trees play an important role in the world`s ecology. The paper that comes from trees has been getting more and more expensive, driving up the costs of producing books, magazines and newspapers. These are all good arguments for moving news operations into cyberspace. 

On the other hand, there is an entrenched rearguard resistance to e-newspapers and e-books and e-journals. Part of this resistance is sentimental, and there`s no reason to discount it just because it`s sentimental. Human sentiment counts. But the resistance has more practical concerns, as well. For example, as long as cyber operations can`t figure out how to make a great deal of money, the way newspapers still do, they can`t afford the staffs necessary to research, vet and edit the news. This in turn means that a great deal of defective information, bad language and misleading information finds its way into cyberspace, into our computers and hand-held devices. This is bad. There`s no other way to look at it. 

You can see it in the blogs. Some are written well, researched well, and presented thoughtfully. But others are wretched, illiterate, and intemperate. 

Anyone tempted to unqualifiedly deplore the state of language or the unreliability of cyberspace information should take a look in the archives of the kind of journalism that was going on when our nation was founded. It will prove refreshing if not disquieting. Dyspeptic diatribe and libel were pervasive. It was in many instances disgraceful journalism, but our Founding Fathers were used to it, and they used it for their own purposes, just the way today`s politicians do. It should be said, however, they had in general considerably more class. 

These are all the very issues that cyberspace studies sort out and explore. If I were a young journalist, before I jumped into the industry, I`d want to see just what kind of industry I was jumping into. In the 1950s, when I started out as a journalist, it was a fairly stable, predictable industry. Yes, changes were around the corner. For example, Gannett had already shown that packaging was as important as content, and newspapers were waking up to the idea that photographs were stories all by themselves and not just tombstones to break up sheets of gray type. Newspapers were also waking up to the fact that they had to compete with television, not just for news but for advertising. But these changes were minor compared to the breathtaking advent of the Internet. 

If I were young again I`d be asking myself if I really know what kind of opportunities await me in this age of information. For example, could I found my own Internet-based news business? What kind of news? How would I make money? I don`t know, but I sure would want to know. So I`d want to find out where the best minds were thinking about such matters, and then I`d go listen to them, go study with them. 

The need for specialized information is immense. And the Internet is a fabulous vehicle for conveying information. It`s in its formative years. It`s a baby, in spite of its prevalence and topicality. We haven`t even begun to learn how to use it well. 

And not just the Internet, but other technologies as well. For example, did you know that right now at certain beta sites you can download an entire book into your Sony Reader and walk into a store and transfer the book to a machine no bigger than the average copier and turn it into a finished book? What does that mean for journalism, for communications, for literature, for our future? If you like the questions, but, like me, don`t have the answers, then maybe you should consider what I`m recommending: Cyber Studies. 

Let me make my point another way. This is the time to know how much you don`t know. And, by the way, it`s when you really start thinking about how much you don`t know that you begin to become a good journalist. Journalists who go around strutting full of all they know are just full of it, even if they are regular guests on Washington talk shows. Remember that. Having a good grasp of what you don`t know is essential to decent journalism. Don`t aspire to be an insider. Insiders are just co-opted swell-heads who`ve traded in their ideals for notoriety. Journalists are quintessential outsiders. They need to be. 

You`re standing at a rare threshold, because the gates into cyberspace have been swung open. It would behoove you to think long and hard about this country you`re entering. You wouldn`t walk across a waterless desert wearing wading boots, would you? You`d try, if you could, to know everything you can know. You`d try to get hold of maps and study them. You`d try to know what`s out there. You`d make a checklist, like a pilot before he takes off, or an astronaut before the rockets boost him into space. 

Journalism and communications are changing under your feet. The earth is moving under your feet. Don`t be beguiled by traditional college curricula, by your desire to get on with your career and your life, by what you see on television. Don`t be conned by appearances. The industry in which you hope to make your living is changing. Don`t get your degree only to find out it hasn`t prepared you for a new industry. Find out who is thinki9ng about cyberspace. Find out what they`re thinking. Find out which schools are exploring it. Study the available business models, the available career models. Do your own research. Don`t depend on your school. Your school is wed to what it`s already doing. Think ahead of this curve. Change the course of your studies, if you have to. You`re in on a revolution. Don`t keep preparing yourself for the one that`s already happened. 

For example, the University of Texas at Austin has a Center for Business, Technology and Law that studies the relationships between information technology, business strategy, law and public policy, and electronic commerce. 

Or check out the Terry Heaton blog. He`s a man who thinks every day about where journalism is going and how it`s getting there. 

The Missouri School of Journalism offers a two-year masters program in journalism models.

I could go on and on, but the point is so could you, and you should. For starters, just start searching the web, using keywords like Cyberspace Studies, new journalism models or media studies. Then get more imaginative. Use some search phrases like the end of newspapers or No More Dead Trees. You`ll be amazed at what you find. In fact, it may just be your career. 

You have been listening to Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook.  If you`d like to know more about what I think, go to www.djelloulmarbrook.com