The Paleontological Approach

Let's sift through the industry's bones to figure out exactly when things went wrong

I used to want to be an anthropologist, until I realized I wanted to have a job when I graduated. Journalism was the compromise between staying in academia or working in PR (this was about two years ago). But I’ll be graduating from the University of Texas in May, and my job hunt at most newspapers and magazines has already started and ended. Most of my tony connections have been laid off, and I suspect that every job application I submit gets lost in the shuffle of people cleaning out their desks and heading to a bar for a double shot of whiskey.

Perhaps I’ve pumped myself with false hope and excitement about journalism. I currently work in a journalistic never-never land at my college newspaper, The Daily Texan. We were one of the first college newspapers to go online, and though we’ve adopted scads of new media into our workflow with relative ease, our newsroom still holds its printed product in the highest regard. Our paper is a laboratory in which students learn that being a good journalist isn’t about knowing Flash or htmlx—it’s about using your mind and the telephone quickly and smartly, and processing information clearly and truthfully.

Still, many of my peers are struggling to find papers and magazines that are looking for good writers with shrewd judgment. Most places, it seems, want computer science majors who minored in business and finance and who have hopefully picked up a newspaper once or twice. So I’m thinking about alternative career paths, about how can I be a journalist and be employed at the same time.

Perhaps a paleontological approach is best. Young journalists should get together and have a giant newspaper dig—travel around to all the folded entities and sift through the bones to figure out exactly when things went wrong, which attributes we can take forward, and which ones we should toss into the trash heap. The first thing that should be disposed of is Twitter, which I can’t use legitmately without feeling foolish, followed closely by newspaper blogs. If a newspaper respects the twenty-four-hour news cycle online, it doesn’t need blogs—it is a blog.

This past September, I attended the National Conference for Editorial Writers in Little Rock. I was the youngest person there by at least fifteen years. The journalists there were smart, funny, and energetic, but it seemed like they were also paralyzed and humbled by the slow failures of many of their papers. One writer I talked with, a sixty-year-old man who had been working in newspapers since the Vietnam War, said he’d tried to keep up a blog for his newspaper, but he just didn’t get it. He already wrote editorials almost every day, and now a blog, too? It seemed like a cheap, knee-jerk solution to a bigger problem.

For too long, the news business closed its eyes as new, essential tools and channels of information—YouTube, Facebook, the blogosphere—ate away at its audience. While Americans began watching television on their computers and reading the newspaper on their cell phones, the newspaper industry continued to rely on a thin paper product to satisfy its base. The new tools were integrated into old newsrooms too slowly and too late. The system is rejecting them and, consequently, itself. New new new journalism will embrace those tools actively, and understand how newspapers should seamlessly incorporate their offerings into one product.

The journalists at the editorial writers’ conference believed that maintaining the integrity of the industry by upholding the crucial traits every journalist should have was paramount to the industry’s survival. Nosiness is probably the most important personality trait to preserve for the new era and, luckily, it’s pervasive. Whether they’re fast-talking men with cigarettes hanging from their lips and notepads in their fedoras, or pantsless sloths with one hand on a keyboard and the other in a bag of Fritos, the best journalists are defined by an insatiable urge to know everything about everything and tell everyone about it. That’s what makes a good journalist (albeit a terrible friend), and it’s a quality enhanced by the power of new media. After all, it’s the consumer’s job to be the sloth on the sofa. We just have to make him as comfortable with a laptop as he was with a newspaper.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to enjoy my remaining days as the editor of the Texan, one of the last living old-model newspaper laboratories. The system works, but even in the cradle of a university, we’re facing a major upheaval. We’re one of three schools in the nation to have our own printing press, but the machine’s age, cost and mounting insignificance have convinced some officials that we no longer need it. Selling the press would be a small tragedy for the Texan, but the truth is that, in three semesters’ time, no one at the paper would remember we ever had a press in the first place. Common, rational consensus among the twenty-year-old journalist set is that there’s no reason to be nostalgic for what we never really knew. We just hope the skills we’ve developed will remain relevant.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Leah Finnegan is an American studies senior at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of the school's newspaper, The Daily Texan.