Friday, December 02, 2005

The death of City News, the birth of something else

I suppose we'll see lots more of this type of thing -- a venerable institution of the old media falls, and journalists of a certain generation will write grandiose obits for the lost days of the hard-bitten reporter.
And today's Chicago Tribune has the perfect example -- a pompous ode to the soon-to-be-defunct City News Service.
Look -- I remember the good, old days of City News too. I lived, worked and reported in Chicago. A good portion of my teachers and bosses over the years were graduates of City News. I've listened to long-winded men repeat the myths of the place for my entire career.

I'm not saying that there wasn't value in City News. There was. And that value was that City News was more interested in producing great reporters than it was in producing great writers. That's a worthy endeavor, and one that is pursued less often than it should be.
But I am saying that the value of City News ...or more correctly, the values of City News, are outdated.

If you've been around journalism for more than a week or so, then you've heard the mantra of City News -- "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." That's a fine sentiment for a reporter to learn. Skepticism is part of who we are.
And if you've been around journalism for more than a month or so, then you've been exposed to the cultural myth of City News -- you need to pay your dues.
But that, I'm afraid, is nonsense.

Every newsroom that I have ever worked in has at least a few senior staffers who pray at the church of City News. They were comfortable with a slow, steady climb to positions of power. They are uncomfortable with ambitious young people, suspicious of new ideas, and dismissive of new media. They adopted the persona of a curmudgeon -- often while still in their 30s -- because that's what their first managing editor was like. And they spend too much energy trying to keep things from changing too fast.
For years, that style of journalism manager was fairly harmless. Because although they could make it difficult for a talented young person to try something new, the simple truth was that the businesses wasn't changing very much at all. Old media was the only media. And the only way to prosper was to adhere to the values of old managers.

But in the past few years, these old-timers -- these devotees of City News -- have become very dangerous people to have at the top of the masthead. Because as the world has changed, as new competitors have emerged and new technologies provided both threat and opportunity, the City News faithful have grown more insular.
And in any religion, insularity leads to a misunderstanding of the teachings.
So we've found ourselves in a world where far too many publications are run by people who have been blinded, not enlightened, by the doctrines of their faith. They have moved from skeptic to curmudgeon to cynic and ultimately to crackpot.

Like I said earlier, skepticism is a fine sentiment for a young reporter to learn. But it seems to be an unwieldy weapon for people my age and older. We seem too quick to use it on others, and far to slow to use it on ourselves and our beloved institutions.
Might I suggest the following? Let's try to apply a little skepticism in those places where it is hardest. Let's ask:
Is a you-don't-know-anything-yet system the best way to train a new journalist?
Do we really still need a print product?
Have I been standing in the way of better journalism?
What if the teenagers are right, and newspapers are boring?

Then let's try a little less skepticism and a little more optimism. Let's listen to the kid who doesn't know anything. Let's consider the possibility that everything is changing for the better. Let's ask:
What if I could start my own business? or help some young reporter start one of his own?
What if something new and wonderful is coming, something that will replace print and the Web and email and everything else? What if I embraced this coming change?
What if I altered my religion? What if I no longer revered the past and feared the future? What if I believed that death was always followed by birth?

For more on rethinking journalism training, read this essay, titled "If your journalism school says it knows what's best for you, check it out. "

For more on what happens next in journalism, read this essay on Slashdot called "A recipe for newspaper survival." (Thanks to my fellow B2B blogger David Shaw for pointing me to that piece.

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