Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Making of a Journalist

I got a call from a writer friend the other day. She was researching a criminal, and wanted to know how to find transcripts of his trial. I told her to find out which county prosecuted him, go to the courthouse, look up his name, find the docket number for his case, and then ask the court clerk to retrieve the file from storage.

Learning how to find documents is one of the most basic skills of a journalist, but the knowledge can be slow in coming. A cub reporter is sent out into worlds that have their own codes, and must master unfamiliar languages to be successful. If you’re covering government, you learn to look through RFPs and DEIRs to scour contracts and learn about projects’ impacts on the environment. If you’re covering courts, you learn to distinguish between arraignments, preliminary hearings, attorney conferences and trials.

I once flunked this language test. I was an intern at the Argus, in Fremont, California, a suburban town southeast of San Francisco. I was working Saturday cops and went to the police station and asked to see the “log,” a listing of calls that had come in the previous 12 hours. I flipped though the sheath of papers, didn’t see anything special, and returned the clipboard to the female cop behind the Plexiglas.

She laughed and then turned to another cop behind the counter. “Should we tell her?” “I don’t know,” the second cop replied. “Well, I guess so, it is the Argus.”

It turns out I had missed a 187 – a murder --the most important, newsworthy crime there is, especially in a town where violence is rare. My face burning, I meekly asked to see the police report, and the helpful cop complied. There had been a husband-wife murder-suicide the night before. When I returned to the office, I called an editor who sent in a more experienced reporter to write the story.

A few years later, I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. On my second or third day there, they loaded us on buses to give a tour of the five boroughs of New York City. At the end of the day, they opened the bus doors and told us to get out and not to return to school until we had a story. I found myself adrift in Brighton Beach, wandering the streets, unsure of what to do. I finally went into a store and found a Russian-speaking man and his daughter, Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. I ended up writing a story on the clash between first and second-generation Russian- Jewish immigrants that evolved into my master’s thesis.

That’s how journalists are trained – by doing. Most start at small newspapers and work their way up. A few, like me, go to journalism school, but many regard that route as unnecessary. I found it helpful. It was a whirlwind of work, a 9-month boot camp of reporting, writing, editing, and running around. I developed walking pneumonia during the winter, lost 15 pounds, and turned that pasty white color so common in the East. But when I left the school, I felt I had a vision of what journalism could be. I knew how to add context to my stories, to dig and not say no for an answer, and to look for the little gems, the offbeat stories that shed light on under-appreciated aspects of the world.

So I was not happy two years ago when the new president of Columbia questioned the efficacy of the journalism school. Shortly after he took office, Lee Bollinger suspended the search for a new journalism dean, in part, he said, to examine the school’s purpose. Bollinger suggested that Columbia had become more of a trade school, a place that emphasized the nuts and bolts of reporting over the whys and hows. Unlike the two-year journalism program at UC Berkeley, the one at Columbia is just yearlong.

Bollinger’s remarks stirred outrage, and he appointed a star-studded committee of journalist to take a look at the school. One of them, Nicholas Lemann, a New Yorker writer and the author of two books, eventually was appointed dean.

Lemann is coming to the West Coast this week, to a glitzy get together at the Carnelian Room at the top of the Bank of America building, as part of his annual schmoozing-with-the-alumni-shaking-the-hands-of-new-students tour. While this trip was once a junket, it now is work for Lemann who has the honor of repairing relations with the school’s alumni.

Earlier this month, Columbia announced a new master’s program, the result of Bollinger’s criticisms about the school. It’s a nine-month program where journalists can specialize in politics, foreign affairs, or other disciplines, and presumably come out better reporters.

In an increasingly complex world, journalists who can master subjects and communicate effectively to the general public are an invaluable resource to the public and crucial to the best functioning of a democratic society. We strongly believe that as journalists develop real expertise in the subjects they cover, the profession will be strengthened. We believe there is a market for such journalists, not only because news organizations need business reporters and science reporters and so on, but also because the process of learning about a subject in depth will stand a journalist in good stead over the long haul of a career doing many different things, including management of news organizations. "

In the age of blogging and podcasting, when the dissemination of information is going through a transformation, it will be interesting to see if the new degree program succeeds. As readership of newspapers decline, the role of journalists is changing. Community journalists (with little training) are becoming more influential. Will these people bother to get a second degree?

Who is a journalist anyway? The guy at the paper? The woman in Iraq who blogs about food shortages, daily violence and fear? The bloggers whose research undermined Dan Rather? The lines are getting awfully blurry.

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