To open my talk to Junior State high school students, I asked how many read newspapers. I expected few hands would be raised in the well-filled Los Angeles Times community room. Wrong. Well over a dozen--maybe more--signaled they read those old-fashioned print communications.
Having spent much of my life writing for papers, I was pleased. It was a change from he negative answer I often get when speaking to journalism and communications classes at USC.
Junior State of America is an organization of students interested in public affairs. They were spending a few days in Los Angeles, taking a look at the uplifting and the seamy side of politics and government in the big city. I was a member at San Leandro High School, when the organization was called Junior Statesmen.
On Monday, I talked briefly about my career, steering clear of the journalistic war stories I know bore young people. I told them how I transitioned from the Times after I retired to three web sites, LA Observed, Truthdig and the Jewish Journal, which has a print edition along with an excellent Internet presence. I talked about writing for the Internet. I discussed the necessity of making posts hot and interesting to attract readers, or as they are known today, clicks. I told them about pressure to be fast—and first.
A couple of the students wondered whether that was sensationalizing the news, slanting it or just getting it downright wrong in the rush to get more clicks than the competition or come up with something that will go viral, racing through the web. They worried whether the people were getting the straight news.
These are important questions. A few floors upstairs, in the Times newsroom, editors and reporters discuss them every day. They’re under pressure to produce stories of viral quality for the web site, and bosses check to see which reporters and editors reach the highest viral scores.
I was pleased that my Junior State audience saw the danger of it, as do many of the journalists who play that risky game. Actually, I played the game years ago when I was with the Associated Press, determined to be first and best so my story would be used by the newspapers we served instead of a story by a rival wire service.
I was also glad the event was at the Times. I always run into friends there. This time it was Bettina Boxall, the Pulitzer Prize winning environmental reporter and Rich Connell, the city county bureau chief, a job I once held.
I left holding my gift from Junior State, a mug with a slogan that’s good advice for journalists and politicians, whether they are veterans or high school students starting out. It reminds them of those they serve: “Be The People.”