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Confessions of a Newspaperman

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"Lee Arius was his name. A hungry, little brown boy with string bean legs, crying for supper one summer's eve. He and his family in impoverished Pembroke, Ill., were down to their last meal--a pot of beef neck bones and sauce less spaghetti when I met them. "No fruit. No vegetables. No milk or juice," I wrote in the article that appeared in September 2002--on the front page of the New York Times, where I was then a national correspondent.

That story presumably was read by hundreds of thousands, and potentially by millions on the Internet, where it also ran with an accompanying audio slide show. Though a veteran newspaperman by then, I still felt the usual warm satisfaction and elation of seeing my story and name, above the fold of a newspaper, pinched between my fingers--feeling slightly sandpapery. Even as a boy, I loved scanning the prep sports pages of the Chicago Sun-Times or reading a Mike Royko column, inhaling that familiar scent of a fresh newspaper, an intoxicating blend of paper and ink that for any true print journalist is like the morning aroma of warming pastries to a baker.

As an adult, I used to live for that experience, for mornings of unearthing a newspaper over a cup of joe, of leafing through its pages and of stumbling upon some treasure of a read. Of dissecting the stories and deconstructing the process of reporting and storytelling of my favorite writers, of musing over the poetry and intimate detail contained within a piece.

And yet, just five years after leaving daily newspaper journalism, after having held in my hands over a lifetime at least thousands of pages of newspaper print, having contributed as a newspaper journalist myself more stories than I can count or remember, and today as a journalism professor bent on print, I have a confession to make: I rarely ever hold in my hands and read a newspaper anymore.

It is a death of sorts that leaves me with mixed emotions and also a set of questions as a journalism educator, none more urgent or critical than this: How to best prepare a new generation of journalists in an ever-morphing world of print journalism that craves a new breed of recruit with a skill set that is in some ways much different from that I had when I was entering the industry more than 20 years ago.

It is old news--the impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on journalism, specifically on newspapers. The trail of headlines and tears, of round after round of layoffs or buyouts at newspapers from coast to coast, at newspapers big and small--and the virtual gutting of newsrooms in light of diminished newspaper subscriptions and financial losses--that loom over the industry, like billowing gray clouds from smoke-stack factories.

I can't help but wonder whether I am a contributor to that demise. Long gone is my own home subscription to the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper, the newspaper where I landed my first job as a full-time, full-fledged reporter. Even as a suburbanite, I might have kept my subscription had the delivery man been able to toss my newspaper into my doorway or simply place it in my roadside mailbox to ensure that on most days the Tribune I received was not stale and soggy. But truth is, the writing was already on the wall. For as my grandmother used to say, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk free?"

In fact, I now find stories from the Washington Post, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune--all newspapers for which I have worked and  are separated by many miles geographically, in scope, in editorial ideology, and in some ways, by their approach to covering the news--as near as my fingertips, and free. But are there no costs?

* * * *
Upon punching my favorite newspaper's Web addresses on my Blackberry or on my laptop, I am almost instantaneously entreated to a brave new newspaper world--a hybrid of interactive, multimedia story-telling in living color on the World Wide Web with all the bells and whistles. The plastic keys, glaring screen and all the "bling" of the online edition of newspapers do not arouse the senses like ink and a fresh morning edition in the nostrils. But even I have to admit that this new mode of delivery and the ability that technology and cyberspace now accords print journalists to tell stories in myriad ways and dimensions is pretty "coo-oo-ool-l-l," as my six-year-old son would say.

What this all means for those of us who are journalism educators is that we cannot afford, for our students' sake-and for our own as continuing news contributors--to bury our heads in the sand, or to resist, like some of my former newspaper colleagues, the changes sweeping the industry. And, in fact, we must expose students to the various technologies and methods by which we can gather and deliver the news, and produce the kind of good journalism that rests on the principles and foundations of integrity, truth and fairness.

As a hardcore print journalist, I have adopted over the last five years new tools for the trade, not out of compulsion, but by the desire to tell a better story--though for my students this adaptation has become a necessity for their future success.

When I report nowadays, I still carry with me my trusty pen and reporter's notebook. But they have become secondary to my digital audio recorder, and often to my video cameras or my still 35mm camera. And while my primary assignment or area of specialization is to write the story, my intrinsic goal, as it has always been, is to tell the best factual story I can with the best tools available--which for me has meant educating myself on the technology and incorporating it into my mode of operation as a journalistic storyteller.

And herein lies the greatest danger to the education of young journalists and also their greatest hope: What we teach them.

To focus on journalism as "product," to shift the focus of journalism education, even slightly from the primary focus of how to report and write, away from the fundamental principles, philosophy and practice that might reduce what we do to "journaling" rather than journalism, is to risk the whole enchilada--their futures, our own and the future of newspaper journalism.

For while understanding the technology and being able to use it is one thing, it is not the single most important thing in ensuring a future as a print journalist. The techie shall not inherit the earth. But storytellers are its salt. And they/we  are indispensable to journalism. Always have been, always shall be.

We must teach students that there is a beauty, even an art, and most certainly a methodology to capturing intimate detail by the reporting and also the writing of a story that is literary and at the same time journalistic. That there is also something unique and telling about the ability to capture the angelic voices of a South African youth choir set to still portraits of life. And we must teach them how to capture it all, edit it, post it online from a laptop, and of course, also write that story.

* * * *

Even in a world of podcasts, RSS feeds, a 24-hour news cycle,  citizens' journaling and an ever-expanding blogosphere--above all, we must teach them that a journalist's first obligation is to the truth. That our first loyalty is to the citizens, or readers. That journalism's essence is a discipline of the verification of fact. These are among the other nine principles of journalism outlined by authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's, "The Elements of Journalism." And we must push, prod and poke them into moving beyond their comfort zones. We must inspire.

Amid the industry's turmoil, I find myself reflecting these days on my mentor, friend and teacher, the late Robert "Bob" Reid, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at  Urbana-Champaign. A stalwart newspaper man, he preached journalism and its power to the students which he encountered over his 24-year-tenure, urging us to adhere to the principles of truth and integrity, to go out and find the story and to endeavor to get it right. Then to tell it with fairness, impassioned by journalism, driven by the desire to get the story. But inasmuch as he taught us, Professor Reid, with unbridled passion and an uncompromised, untainted view of the ideal, inspired us. And even in his mortal absence, his fire for journalism still does.

Still, I can't help but wonder whether Professor Reid, an eternal optimist over the years, particularly amid the occasional rumblings about the pending death of newspapers, might not find--were he here today--these current times most troubling. I have witnessed the carnage--familiar names, former colleagues--swept away by the rising current of newsroom cutbacks, the cynicism, the fear.

That much was clear even last summer, as I dined at my favorite Thai restaurant on Chicago's Gold Coast with several former students together with a couple of former newspaper colleagues in town for the Unity minority journalists' convention.

One student spoke of being disheartened by the lack of adherence to journalistic standard in reporting they witnessed at a workplace, of a tolerance for fudging the facts. Another spoke of the publicized and highly controversial shifting of the curriculum at a prominent journalism school and the infiltration of market pressures. Another, of the current bleak job market and of the somber day that layoffs were announced this summer at a newsroom where he is now an intern. Next to me that evening sat one of my friends, twice soured on journalism, most recently after a short-lived return to newspapers, and now disheartened sufficiently enough to call it quits  for good. Some newspapers, in his opinion, have been reduced to pictures and colorful graphics, punctuated not by stories, he said, but by "news nuggets."

News nuggets?  It rang dully strange in my ears, sounding to me like something that must be produced by a McNewspaper.

I searched for something encouraging for my former students, for advice, for words. I found these: Hold up the light; in essence, continue to adhere to the principles of good journalism; tell the story.

That was my message this summer to elementary and high school students at a journalism workshop I launched with my wife's help at the Lorenzo R. Smith School in Pembroke, Ill., the same Pembroke I had visited as a New York Times reporter years earlier. Our focus was on the fundamentals of journalism, on reporting and writing, on telling the story and on getting it right, on the essentials.

At the end of the workshop, students were asked to write three things they had learned about journalism. One by one, they stood to read them aloud, among them the boy named Lee Arius I had encountered while reporting there in summer 2002. What Lee Arius learned most about journalism, he said, is that in journalism, "You don't lie."

He and his classmates learned a few other lessons along the way to publishing their stories this summer, lessons that can last a lifetime, lessons at the root of journalism, lessons that have sustained careers, lessons that I suspect will ensure that evolving young journalistic story-tellers who master them will have a place in newspaper journalism for many years to come, no matter whether the daily delivery of it lands on my doorstep, or pops up on my screen from cyberspace.

And yet, I suspect I will always have a need, even if only occasionally, to inhale the scent of a fresh morning newspaper.

Professor John W. Fountain is a former national correspondent for the New York Times and staff writer at the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune; and author of True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity.
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A native son of Chicago, John W. Fountain is an award-winning journalist, professor and author of the memoir, True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith Hope and Clarity (Public Affairs, 2003), paperback March 2005. His essay, "The God Who (more...)
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