Every year, about this time, a former student from one of my journalism courses, or whose writing I've coached, asks that I recommend them for employment at some publication, or as a candidate for graduate school. Most of the time I'm happy to do so, although, in the past few years I've begun to see a common weakness among all the applicants.
Seeking a career in journalism alone has caused me to question their judgment.
I made this observation recently when a grad school application form (they get longer and more involved every year) asked me to identify a shortcoming of the prospective student. My reply: Despite obvious intelligence and talent, this person is about to invest an obscene amount of money, time and effort in pursuit of a career in a declining industry.
Today's report of staff cuts at the Los Angeles Times, and the recent departure of its editor, James O'Shea, are only the latest in a long list of reasons for such doubt. Before O'Shea it was Dean Baquet. Before that, John Carroll. And that's just the LA Times newsroom. The battle of the budget has been going on for years, but the debate about profit margins and public service really began in earnest after the resignation of Jay Harris as publisher and chairman of the San Jose Mercury News. Reporters complain so much that their gripes rank somewhere beneath the whining of wet infants, but when the big guys begin to cry foul, it has to be something far more serious than temporary discomfort. Doesn't it?
Yet, seven years and hundreds of budget cuts after Harris, here we are, with some publications farming out their Fourth Estate responsibilities to freelancers, some of whom are staffers who took a buyout. Last year, a Pasadena paper actually considered outsourcing the task of local reporting to journalists in India.
Where's this going? Well, for a start, since few freelancers are able to afford the cost of liability insurance, they aren't likely to risk upsetting anyone by doing anything more than regurgitating meeting minutes and taking dictation. Of course, some journalists will say a graduate degree ought to rise above this and all but guarantee a staff slot, but then, reporters are also notoriously bad at math.
There's a line in the movie "The World According To Garp," adapted from John Irving's novel of the same name, in which the protagonist Garp explains: "Gradual school is where you go to school and you gradually find out you don't want to go to school anymore." Journalism, likewise, is fast becoming a noble pursuit in which journalists are gradually determining that they don't want to be journalists anymore.
Few non-journalists sympathize with this, which is exactly why the situation is sure to worsen.
More newsrooms will shrink. More newspapers will die. Journalism schools will become fewer. The world won't end, but it will become a more comfortable place for scoundrels.
Thomas Jefferson said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Without oversight, the effectiveness of democracy will dwindle. At some point, the budget cuts will go so deep that non-journalists will feel the pain and demand action, or effect change in the marketplace. But determining when that will happen is about as difficult as predicting how bad freeway traffic has to get before LA drivers simply abandon their vehicles en masse and walk the rest of the way.
Society is the key to salvation, and society currently sees newspapers as businesses, not as the Fourth Estate these publications were always intended to be. Therefore, things have to get worse before they get better, so bad that the issue gets as much attention and prime-time play as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan combined.
Until then, I'm happy to continue writing recommendations, but I'll also continue to list the act of application as the student's most glaring weakness. I have no doubt these students will have a harder time than I did when they try to put that education to the good use for which it was intended. But I also know that every one of them is aware of what's in store, and that's what makes the application a display of strength, too.