As newspapers across California and the nation continue to shed record numbers of staff, the profession of journalism seems to be headed toward extinction.The implications this has on a democracy such as ours is both sobering and obvious.
When there are no professionally trained reporters left to watch the proverbial "cash box," (e.g. government), guess what is likely to go missing? Democratic governments remain democratic only when a free press is there to report on what they do and how they spend the people's money.
Make no mistake, the newspaper industry has mostly itself to blame for what is happening. Combine a lack of leadership, an inability to embrace new technologies and delivery systems (like acknowledging that the Internet really does exist), board-driven greed, mergers, massive debt and you have a caustic brew that is dissolving an industry right before our very eyes. So given this apocalyptic vision you'd think that the last place a self-respecting college student would find him or herself would be in the halls of a college journalism school.
After all, there's no future in newspapers, right?
Put the tarps over the equipment, cue the crickets and would the last one out please turn out the lights?
While newspapers themselves appear to be headed the way of the dinosaur, increasing numbers of undergraduates are flocking to the nation's journalism schools.
Check out this piece in the Baltimore Sun. And for those of us who like our government(s) covered the way we like our steaks -- well done -- this is a good thing.
The fact that these kids get the importance of the business and want to do the hard work of learning the craft is reassuring. What will be different for them is the delivery vehicle.
The last real "print' newspaper experience they're likely to have is the one they're involved with now in college. Most will learn that it doesn't matter whether their work is read on newsprint, a computer screen or some kind of handheld device. What does still matter is the words they use.
What does still matter is the reporting techniques and research methods they employ.
What does still matter is the ethics, depth of sourcing and interviewing skills they display
These are the things that matter in journalism. So while these young charges go through their classes and get aboard their college student papers, Web sites or broadcast labs, it's my hope that they really will be put through their paces by their professors.
Digital formats or not, it's imperative, after all, that they learn the basics of orthodox, competitive, shoe-leather-based reporting early on.
If they survive this school of hard knocks and don't wash out, then they will have a chance of making it in a profession where practitioners question authority and speak truth to power. As a good number of these kids will find out, journalism isn't a job for everyone, but it is a job that our democracy depends on.
And that makes it pretty special.
Jeff Mitchell is a longtime (long in the tooth?) California journalist and political observer.