Why teach journalism if newspapers are dying?

I feel guilty training kids in a trade for which the market is disappearing.

Published March 17, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a college journalism professor. When I got into this field a half dozen or so years ago, after 17 years as a journalist, I was excited to enlighten young minds and inspire them. And I have, and hope I still do.

The problem is this: I feel like I'm teaching them something that will be as useful as Sanskrit when they graduate. I am trying to get them involved in learning the latest technology as well as teaching them important writing and life skills, so they will be employable. But every morning I read stories about how huge, venerable newspapers will likely be shuttered by the end of the year, and it absolutely freaks me out.

What the heck am I doing? I feel like I'm a participant in the theater of the absurd.

I feel horribly guilty, wondering what will become of them. I'm already hearing from former students how they've been laid off and are aimlessly trying to pursue anything to survive.

I know it's tough all over, but how can I get past the guilt and continue feeling good about what I do? I still firmly believe there will be journalism -- it has to survive -- but what about all these poor kids who are caught in this awful transitional period?

Feeling Existential

Dear Existential,

Journalists find things out and tell people about it.

If you are teaching your students how to do that, you are not only doing your job, you are giving them the gift of a lifetime.

It is not your job to guarantee them stable employment.

I'm not even sure that stable employment is good for young journalists.

Journalists exercise power. Ideally, they exercise that power on behalf of the powerless. If they know nothing about what it is like to be powerless themselves, they may come to exercise their considerable power on behalf of the already powerful. 

As to the conventions of story form and lingo that are often taught in journalism school, and as to the many artifacts and customs that make up our lore, we are tradespeople and we are proud of what we know how to do. We like our tools and our lingo. But we must be smart and nimble, and if we remain sentimentally attached to the artifacts of our trade in the face of massive technological change, then we are no better than GM.

So I do not think it is such a terrible thing that your journalism students are entering an uncertain world. It's the kind of world that is ripe for enterprising journalists. It is the kind of world that needs to be reported on and explained.

Where information is kept hasn't changed all that much. The information is still in people's heads and in official records. How to get it remains much the same.

Leave it to your students to create new modes for the buying and selling of this information. Their generation will do this. I feel confident about that.

Teach them how to find out what is true and what is hidden, and how to say it so others can understand what it means and why it is important. Then you will have done your job and given them the gift of a lifetime.


What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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