Mediocrity—the J-school way

When I was growing up in Chicago, there were four daily newspapers: the Chicago Herald-American, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times. The first two went under years ago, and the other two are bankrupt. Newspapers have been going down the tube for some years all over the country.

I used to read daily newspapers—you probably did, too—at least one a day. I don’t know when that started to change, but by the time I had a DSL Internet connection at home, those days were over. A newspaper is obviously not the place to look for news. Newspapers are too slow.

Newspapers and other print media put me in mind of a story about a company at the beginning of the 20th century that made the best product of its kind. This company’s product had performed better than any other for many years, but the company was steadily losing money with no end in sight because it made buggy whips.

Much of what corporate media, print and electronic, offer is guesswork and speculation, useful for fear mongering and useless otherwise. Hard news—that most likely to engender fear or awe—is expensive to produce and has been losing credibility for a while anyway. Mindless reporting on imaginary weapons of mass destruction and corporate financial scams is an example of what corporate media do for public discourse.

Even if you somehow still believe what you read in newspapers, dealing with a wad of paper that needs at least handling and recycling is way more trouble than closing a browser on your computer. Same drivel, less waste.

Having done no research whatsoever, I’m gonna imitate a journalist and speculate that newspapers are dying all over only partly because of the clear superiority of the Internet as a source of current information. I think the other reason that newspapers are fading out and journalism generally has lost status is that most journalists went to an accredited school of journalism.

Journalism is a profession because its practitioners profess to think the same way and to approach things the J-school way. That way may actually involve a standard that was once thought to be somehow higher; it may not.

The only thing certain in any profession is that a lot of people are invested in a particular way of thinking about what they do and believe that what they do is the best thing that can be done, especially if they’ve been at it a long time. The Roman priests who read chicken entrails were the same way. So is the medical industry, where new ideas are dangerous unless they’re patentable. And, of course, education.

On the Web site of a Northern California daily four days after Michael Jackson’s death, this was the “TOP HEADLINE”: “Jackson still had pulse when found.” All the editorial staff could think of to put on the home page was trivia about a dead singer. Brought to you by professionals.