I bill myself as "The World's Oldest Journalism Undergraduate". It may not be strictly true. I have not polled journalism departments to find out if there are undergraduates older than 63 anywhere. But I'm very old compared to the other students in my classes.
Going into the field of print journalism under today's conditions may not seem like a rational decision, even for a young person. The industry is not financially well off. The Pew Research Center's yearly State of the News Media has been depressing reading over the past ten years, a relentless story of declining ad revenues and newsroom layoffs.
So why would I go into this field?
Because I love writing. Because my retirement income gives me the luxury of changing careers without worrying about how it will affect my family's economic state. But most of all, because professional news reporting is critical to democracy in ways that bloggers and "citizen journalists" can't begin to address in their current form.
I've written online for nearly twenty years, and at one time this blog was reasonably popular among Atlanta neighborhood activists, New Urbanist planners and architects, and smart growth advocates. But it had the usual limitations of a one person, part time endeavor. I couldn't spend the amount of time monitoring government meetings and court sessions, developing inside sources, and doing research, that a professional, traditional, full featured, full time news room could handle.
One of the best observations on the limitations of "citizen journalism", and the effect of layoffs in the newspaper industry, comes from David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and the creator of the TV series The Wire. It is from a blog post about a change in Baltimore police policy that restricted information on the identity of officers involved in shootings. Simon decided to investigate the policy himself. He focused on the performance history of one particular officer, named McKissick, recently involved in a fatal shooting, and had this observation:
There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.
Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.
I didn’t trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that’s the point.
Simon's article is worth reading and pondering by anyone who cares about the flow of accurate information in our society, and the effect of the decline of the daily newspaper on our right to information.
I do not know exactly what I'll be doing, once I've gotten my journalism degree. I'll be 65 years old at that point. My short term plan is to set up a local online news publication, and to buy articles from freelance writers who are already expert in various topics. But whatever I do, I hope to fill one of the gaps left by the current state of the news industry. Wish me luck.