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Published:July 6th, 2007 10:00 EST
Hot Copy #28 - You are more than students

Hot Copy #28 - You are more than students

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Transcript of Del Marbrook’s Hot Copy# 28, a weekly podcast)

You are more than students, much more, and I’d like to tell you why. I’ve read a lot of job applications from recent journalism school graduates. They’re always well written. It would be a deal-breaker if they weren’t, because the professors and instructors have edited them. I never based a single decision to hire anybody on the basis of a handful of stories. I never saw a story that really stood out from the others. Think about that. Here you have a veteran reporter and editor getting applications over the transom almost every day, and the best stories the applicants can come up with aren’t very impressive.

Back before the worldwide web, this miserable fact wasn’t so shocking, but today it ought to shock us.

I used to see stories about an issue before the United Nations, stories about the mayor of New York getting into a squabble with his city council president, stories about most of the things news organizations routinely cover. They were supposed to persuade me that the writer would be capable of covering such stories for my newspaper, and for the most part they did persuade me. But so what? They didn’t persuade me the writer had any initiative, any imagination, any independent-minded ideas about which stories really count. They persuaded me that the applicants’ professors probably would have made fair to middling assignment editors.

What I wanted to see were stories I wouldn’t have thought about. I would have liked to see a science story about the future of nanoscience and how much the states, federal government and private sector was investing in nanoscience. I wanted to see stories raising the question of what unremitting suburban sprawl was doing to the environment and the watersheds, stories about how hard it is for small communities to resist being corrupted by developers’ money. I wanted to see stories about insider trading. I wanted to see stories about gerrymandering. Does that ring a bell? Do you know that if state prisoners were counted by the Census Bureau as residing where they came from rather than the prison to which they were sent after conviction, it would transform the politics in some states, like New York? Did you know the balance of power would shift to the cities instead of sparsely populated rural areas with prisons? Well, if not, it’s because the press isn’t paying attention to it. It’s such a long-standing injustice that they think it wouldn’t interest anybody. Are they right? Does it interest you? And, oh yeah, you guessed it, it’s about money again, because in almost every instance it would give the Democrats a leg up. How is that about money you say? Well, see, that’s another one of those long-standing stories that doesn’t get much attention. The Democrats are slightly more inclined than the Republicans—slightly being the operative word—to tax big money. Now, think about this: the way we undertake the census, the way we gerrymander districts is about money. Sure it is, but you could read lots of 21-inch stories about gerrymandering that would never say so. You could read lots of 21-inch stories about the census that would never talk about gerrymandering. The media, you see, are now about tying up loose ends. They’re mostly about entertaining you into a stupor, because only a stuporous electorate lets government get away with what it has been getting away with, mainly taking care of rich buddies at everybody’s else expense.

When I looked at those job applications I wanted some enterprise, some hustle, if you will. But what I saw week after week was the promise of bland competence. So here’s a question:

With all the great power of the web for research, with all the media organizations on the web, like The Student Operated Press, starved for content, what’s your excuse for not coming up with the big stuff, the hot stuff, the unusual stuff? Do you think that when you join a news organization they will hand you tools you don’t have now to undertake these stories? Well, they won’t. Do you think they’ll hand you the time and freedom from supervision? They won’t. The stories will be just as hard to develop as they were when you were on the outside looking in. True, you may have more guidance, but you’ll also have more pressure. So what are you doing with your time? Interviewing Miss East Chondroitin? Or digging up some radioactive stuff that might really enlighten someone? You think you’re not ready for that yet? Why aren’t you? What are your professors teaching you? Trust me, getting a job isn’t going to make any more ready. You need to be thinking long and hard about what isn’t being covered and then you need to get out there and cover it, and if you can’t find an Internet outlet willing to publish it, I’ll be truly surprised, because at this moment the Internet is a lot more free than the traditional print or electronic media. But hold onto your hats, because the telecommunications industry is hard at work trying to buy the worst Congress money can buy and rope it into handing the Internet over to the commercial censors that I talked about in my last podcast. So take advantage of the Internet now, because its freedom will be short-lived if these greedy moguls corral it.

Let’s look at how you might approach this challenge I’m trying to lay down in front of you. Ever since the Gulf War of 1991, surgeons have been performing brain surgery using computer models. Again and again they perform the same virtual surgery. By the time they walk into the real operating room to perform the real surgery they can practically do the job blindfolded. They adapted this technique from Navy and Air Force pilots doing virtual bombing runs. Medical advances are often made in the military field. That’s how the Arabs in Spain centuries ago discovered the modern antiseptic hospital. Of course hospitals still aren’t as antiseptic as they need to be, but that’s another matter, and another story, a story you might cover.

There’s no reason student reporters shouldn’t be doing the same thing as the surgeons. It can be argued that they are doing the same thing, but I think you should be asking yourselves that if I never saw an applicant’s story that really bowled me over, it’s not likely that many irresistible stories are being developed by students. So what changes between the time a student graduates and gets a degree and the time a news organization hires him? Nothing changes, except that he’s out of the hothouse and has about three months to prove he can do the job. Those are not great odds, but they could be improved a great deal if the student seized upon outlets like The Student Operated Press and accepted the challenge of really difficult and important stories.

Twenty or thirty years ago new reporters got all the routine stories and beats. Veterans got the really hard jobs. That’s still true, but because newsrooms are not as well staffed as they used to be and because competition is tougher, there is no more incubation period. You either perform or you’re out. There is little time to get your feet wet. But there is nothing in the world stopping you from launching your own website and undertaking your own stories. Or groups of you can do it. That will get your feet wet in a hurry. Put the pressure on yourselves. Confront the challenges posed by demanding stories. Don’t think many news organizations are going to tell you how to cover these stories. If your professors didn’t, your media bosses aren’t going to either. Those days are over.

I read high school newspapers once in a while. Some of them are pretty good. They perform a useful service, because a high school is a community and it generates a lot of information. Now you might ask yourself why don’t these high school newspapers—or college newspapers for that matter—go out and cover the communities in which they play such a vital role? Oh, gee, that wouldn’t be good public relations, would it? They might stir something up. You get the picture, right? That’s censorship. You can call it self-censorship, you can call it chicken, or you can call it good business, which is what the school administrators would call it. But it’s censorship, and it’s not a good example, because we live in a society that likes to claim it is uncensored. Those students, particularly the high school students, because they come from the community they’re studying in, are citizens, and the decisions their communities make affect them vitally. Why shouldn’t they be encouraged to look into community affairs? Because it would make somebody mad, right? Yeah, well, that’s exactly how commercial censorship works. In a democracy you can’t help but make people mad. You try to be polite. You try to listen to the other side. You try to be balanced and fair. But in the end somebody is going to be mad, and what the schools are implicitly saying to their students is, Don’t make anybody mad because it’s not good for business (or the principal’s job). Well, fascism was pretty good for the businesses of the military-industrial complex. The schools are unfortunately and ludicrously in the business of pretending that their students don’t have good antennae for detecting baloney. They are teaching the students by example that in this particular democracy it’s not good to stir things up. If you keep teaching that long enough, pretty soon you don’t have a democracy. You have a society where we’ve all agreed to be taken to the shed and whipped.

So here we are at an incredible moment in the history of communications, a moment when we can actually shake off many of the commercial restraints on a free press, and what are we doing with it? We’re writing the usual baloney. What do I think is not the usual baloney? Well, I’ve listed quite a few uncovered or poorly covered stories in previous podcasts, but if you don’t like them, drop me a line and I’ll give you some more.

We’ve arrived at a momentous point in the history of communications with the web to help us find leads to stories. Don’t sleep at the switch. Don’t let this occasion, this exquisite opportunity, slip through your hands. The Internet belongs to you. Big business has done everything it can to make us forget that the airwaves belong to us. Don’t think that your story is important only if it has the masthead of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times dignifying it. Don’t believe that for a minute. The truth has a way of showing up in odd and inconvenient places, and it doesn’t require licensing or authorization. You can write a story that will change many lives and many circumstances right here for The Student Operated Press or for Newsblaze or for one of the other hundreds of web sites. Or for your own web site. But you must think big and think deep, and you must have courage, because the important stories often get reporters in trouble. As I’ve told you before, read people like Seymour Hersh and Greg Palast to see what I mean. And as you read them, ask yourselves why these stories are not being covered in general press. But let me add a caveat, just to keep things in balance. Every once in a while a reporter comes along who breaks the mold, and every once in a great while his editors let him do it. Such is the case of Michael Ware, one of CNN’s reporters in Iraq. Listen to him and you’ll see what I mean. When the brass over there are clueless he actually says so: Once he said the power went out at a press conference, to which he added, “leaving them in the dark, where they’ve been all along." Considering how quick his network has been to beat the war drums, that’s saying a lot. Don’t think for a moment that doesn’t take courage. He knows the score. But he’s clearly determined to say something, to make a difference by departing from the authorized version of everything that we usually get from or about Iraq.

And just in case you’ve forgotten what that might be, let me refresh your memory. The authorized version is that we’re fighting terrorism, that we’re grappling with it over there so that we won’t have to grapple with it here. Oh yeah, sure. But what about the claim that Saddam Hussein was actually one of al Qaeda’s worst enemies? What about the fact that nobody ever heard about al Qaeda in Iraq until we arrived and made such a mess that even people who liked us now loathe us? The war in Iraq, not that you would know it from the news, is about money. It’s about feeding the military-industrial complex. It’s the corrupt lining of the pockets of the people who have bought our politicians. And if you have trouble fathoming that, just take a close look at the astronomical costs of this presidential campaign. Don’t think anybody spends that kind of money unless they’re fixing to make a lot more of it. They’re talking about public service, but they’re thinking about money.

This is Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.