I Have Seen the Future of Journalism

… and it is surprisingly optimistic.

Just spoke at a high school journalism conference — 6,200 kids from around the country. There’s nothing like a Washington convention hotel filled to the rafters with bright, young, energetic, enthusiastic, having-the-time-of-their-lives 17 year olds. And this was a journalism conference?

I had to keep pinching myself. I’m thinking: what do they know that I don’t? What do they know that all the media pundits, corporate execs, Wall Street suits, and the moaning masses of working (and recently down-sized) journalists can no longer even imagine?

Based on the sheer tonnage of irrepressible perkiness I saw at the Wardman Marriott hotel this morning, I’d say that whatever problems journalism faces in the transition between a print world and a digital world will simply be swept away.

I told them about my first job in journalism, as a reporter at the Independent Florida Alligator – the Univeristy of Florida student paper. I knew even before college I wanted to be a writer. But I noticed something: I wasn’t actually writing anything. The only time I ever did was when I had a class assignment, and even then I couldn’t bring myself to do it until just before the deadline.

I had this realization while sitting on the side of a mountain on the island of Ibiza in Spain. It was toward the end of my junior year abroad program, and I had my journal with me, which I had barely written in. I was trying to write then, but it just wouldn’t come. So I was sitting there, all alone in this beautiful spot watching the waves of the Mediterranean beating on the red cliffs that jutted into the sea, and I thought: “What I need is a lot of deadlines.” Right then and there I decided that I would join the student newspaper.

When I got back to Gainesville, I found out where the office was and walked in unannounced. It was off an alley, a block off the main drag, in what used to be the kitchen of a greasy spoon restaurant. It appeared that nobody had even bothered to clean the place before the newspaper moved in, much less remodel. Directly above the news desk was an old stove hood, still thickly caked with black, toxic-looking grease. Beneath the hood was a guy with mustache and long brown hair who identified himself as the news editor.

“I’d like to write for the paper,” I said.

He asked if I had any experience.

“No,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.

I asked him what did matter.

“Just show up,” he said.

And that’s been working for me ever since.

Like a Hawk

hawkHere’s the thing about cliches popping up in your writing: You’ve got to watch them like a hawk. But seriously folks, nobody’s immune. The first time anyone ever used that phrase to describe the need for intense attention, it was brilliant. Hawks can see a rodent in tall grass from 100 meters away. They not only have phenomenal eyesight, but they depend on it, and their attention to the smallest detail, for their survival. If a hawk isn’t paying attention, a hawk goes hungry. But after about the billionith use, “watch like a hawk”  just became lazy. No listener or reader would be instantly calling up the image of a survival-driven creature with superior eyesight peering into the brush because its life depended on it. “Like a hawk” just became a compound word that meant “carefully,” in other words, just the kind of bland, nothing abstraction that metaphors and similies are meant to bring to life. But it still means something. It’s a big blinking sign saying, “NEED A PRECISE OBSERVATION HERE.”

In the recent instance, the writer was describing the startup of a small business.  She’d just rented office space as market conditions went into decline. She was “watching every penny like a hawk.”

As a writer, as you read back that line, think of it as a cry for help. It tells you that you should replace the cliche with something intrinsic to the situation, something that makes that need for frugality more concrete. There are a million ways to do that, some better than others. But just consider a simple, direct solution, something like: “watching every penny like that would be the one that kept my office lights on.”  It transforms the line from a groaner, to something that does some honest work for the development of an idea.

The Final Rounds

Man, if this doesn’t show the magical tendency of a non-fiction narrative to resolve itself in spectacular, wilder-than-fiction ways: Consider the story of the decline of long-form journalism, then read this account of its final days in the newsroom of one of the former lead practitioners of the form. Pay particular attention to the closing paragraphs.