Sunday, April 03, 2005

West Coast Journalism

I got to schmooze with the big shots on Saturday at the top of the Bank of America building. It was a clear day, and from 52 stories up, the views of San Francisco and the bay were exceptional.

The gathering was the annual Bay Area get together of alumni from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Every year in April, the dean of the school makes a western trip to talk to alumni and meet those who have just been admitted to the school. Wine, cheese and other hors d’oeuvres are de rigueur, as are conversations about the state of the media.

The reception is an interesting reflection of the demographics of American media. The nerve center of journalism still rests in the New York-Washington D.C. axis and reporters who make their homes on the West Coast knowingly give up opportunities to excel in their careers. They live in the Bay Area because of its climate, beauty and tolerant attitude. They may get their work in the New York Times, in Time Magazine, or on ABC News occasionally, but mostly on a free-lance, not staff, basis.

Still, there were a few notables at the reception. Nicholas Lemann, the New Yorker writer and dean of Columbia Journalism School served as host. Some of the illustrious alums included Marko Kounalikis, ’88, a former foreign correspondent and the publisher of the Washington Monthly. (Surprisingly, he is able to run the magazine from San Francisco by commuting frequently to Washington D.C.) Other executive types included Larry Jinks, ’56, the former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, and Bruce Brugmann, ’51, the publisher of the Bay Guardian.

Spencer Michaels from PBS’ Newshour with Jim Lehrer was there, as was Joe Rodriguez, a reporter for the Mercury News and Julia Flynn, a reporter (and writing buddy) for the Wall Street Journal. I am sure there were others I did not recognize. William Wong, '70, the author and former Oakland Tribune columnist was supposed to show -- I saw his preprinted name tag -- as was John Oppedahl, the former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The question of bloggers and community journalism came up obliquely. Lemann said there are 200,000 journalism students in the United States at any one time, and 200 at Columbia. The medium of journalism keeps changing and it is Columbia’s role to train future leaders who can then figure out how to grapple with an evolving industry. While Columbia is a place “where the conversation is taking place,” the school cannot figure out the reasons behind various trends, like the decline in readership of newspapers among young readers.

“We’re best suited to training people to be as survivable as possible as journalists.”

I took notes during Lemann’s comments and he and a person in Columbia’s alumni and development office noticed and asked me what I was doing. I explained about my blog and to their credit – and who should be surprised given that it was a gathering of journalists – they didn’t seem to mind.

It's the least East Coast journalists can do for their compadres.

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