Saturday, June 19, 2010

The future of journalism, part 1

There was a time when the time-honored badge of journalist meant someone would be clanking out letters on a noisy Remington in a newsroom filled with ringing phones and busy, scurrying folks. Then, one by one, the manual typewriters were replaced by more efficient electric ones like the IBM Selectric that allowed writers to change fonts as easily as replacing a small aluminum ball. The quieter sounds of electric efficiency and the gentler ringing tones on the telephones made the newsroom a place where writers could think about their stories, while still being in a busy hive of activity. Eventually, the IBM Selectric II with correcting tape and early word processors became the most desirable tools of the newsroom-bound journalist as reams of paper continued to circulate around the busy room. Then, bulky keyboards would input stories which would appear on monochrome cathode ray tubes (CRTs). The clicking sounds of computer keys made the newsroom even quieter than they were beforehand and the numbers of employees took a bit of a dip. The cacaphony of keys clicking sounded like crickets chirping in midday. It wasn't all that long before the personal computer invaded the space of the newsroom and the quietness of the keypads coupled with the loss of personnel due to industry-wide downsizing made the solitude and cavernous nature of most newsrooms seem palpable. Paper copies are today non-existent, as editing is done on computer screens. In more recent years some newsrooms simply stopped running. The downturned economy shrank local advertising while the Internet and its free classified ads like on Craig's List and through Google, Yahoo and other search engine sites aggregated viewers elsewhere. The staffs of top publications have been decimated as publishers have decided to offer early retirement to top writers rather than continue to pay them salaries far above what they would be required to pay for less seasoned new recruits. So, progress has been made, for good or bad. Hard-nosed, cigar chomping and heavy drinking editors and reporters have given way to determined, no-nonsense women journalists and well-mannered men, who have transformed newsrooms into quiet dens of respectability and civility. There's still a lot of cussing going on, but it's usually directed at management these days. Some have taken to referring to newspaper offices as snake pits. Forty years ago newspapermen were on the short side of the ethical equation. Many would eagerly take gifts and accept free tickets to any and all events. Slowly, though, the concept of being more professional and ethical in the way journalistic business was conducted was considered. New rules were put in place. Gifts being lavished on reporters are simply not tolerated today and even critics and reviewers are expected to pay their own way to events, oftentimes reimbursements not being provided readily by management. So, a young budding writer can look forward to low pay, long hours and virtually no perks in a business model that is collapsing upon itself. What does the future hold for professional journalists? More on this tomorrow.

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