I urge my undergraduate students in Journalism to focus, focus, focus on what’s important. They tell me that it’s almost impossible to do so.
One young woman in her first year told me that she finds physical contact with newspapers revolting (I think she called them “euuww”). “Dirty, grey and confusing.” When I suggested she read online, she replied, “I tried that but I get distracted.”
What’s distracting her?
“You Tube,” she replied.
This is a media savvy generation, but even in a university journalism program, these students don’t understand what the news is for.
Eventually they do “get it”. And my brilliant but distracted student has gone on to graduate with an honours degree in journalism. She is now in law school having decided journalism was not for her.
And she’s not the only one.
Increasingly I’m seeing young journalists who try to make a go of it. After the few years they see journalism as less promising than it first appeared.
Partly this is because the business of journalism is more about the “business” than about the “journalism.”
This is a side effect of the “app culture.” Media organizations are looking for the next big thing in technology that will miraculously aggregate audiences and bring back advertisers. This is a new form of magical thinking.
The “app culture” has its benefits: newsrooms now employ fewer people who do the jobs that specialists once did. They are younger than ever. Smarter too. Also cheaper. They’ll work for lower wages with fewer protections and benefits. Even in union shops. This is a new form of digital sharecropping.
So hence the reliance on unpaid internships.
Many media organizations, especially those whose profit margins are thin, claim to be helping young people get a start in the business. The exploitation of these people has not gone unnoticed by some governments. In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour has ordered two local magazines to stop hiring unpaid interns, mostly the scions of wealthy parents who can afford their children’s efforts.
The son of a friend (who tried journalism and left) wrote to say:
…journalism's biggest problem: it has been devalued by society and the business side of media. That may never be fixed properly. And right or wrong, it's no way to make a living. So the smart kids work where they get paid: Finance first, technology second. That cycle, of drawing inferior brains to an already diminished product, will be fatal.
You Tube has done its job well. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he described anti-social behaviour – it’s now the digital cultural that is driving deviance downward.