Dean Starkman’s long read on ‘the news gurus’ in the Columbia Journalism Review starts out with the story of the remarkable Ida Tarbell, a template for the modern investigative reporter, whose work in 1904 took on Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil. He tells us about Tarbell to remind us how different journalism has become – and inevitably so. Whilst acknowledging that those days have past, the piece draws a line between institutional support and individual journalistic power which, argues Starkman, has been recently undermined by a school of thought which elevates and promotes the idea of networks ahead of professional journalists and institutions.
Ian Jack wrote a piece for the Guardian at the weekend, which is a little bit like Clay Shirky’s “everything is broken” piece though less well projected. I think this piece on the rise of the gifted amateur (again, echoing Clay’s by now fairly ancient essay on the fame vs fortune model) is a significant piece, in particular this conclusion about educating creative writers and journalists in a “dying craft”:
‘A great paradox of the age is that while newspapers continue their inexorable decline and publishing cuts its costs, journalism and creative writing degrees have never been more popular…
…Why do young people apply? Because they think they can be the next Zadie Smith. Why do universities encourage them? Because money can be made from fees. Is this responsible behaviour? We need to weigh the smashed hopes of creative writers against the financial needs of their tutors, who are themselves writers, and earning the kind of money that writing would never supply. A closed little dance: tutors teach students who in turn teach other students, like silversmiths in a medieval guild where a bangle is rarely bought though many are crafted, and everyone lives in a previous world.’
This is a very good and thought provoking piece and I know nothing about the employability or commercial viability of writers, which Jack talks eloquently about. He could be right, but I feel it bears a weight of discouraging pessimism which could be overdone. He is right if for instance journalism courses do not adapt to the future rather than reflect the past, their courses will not be worth taking. But as a counterpoint I was struck by the students in Falmouth, where I gave a talk this week, who were engaged in highly entrepreneurial activities, some setting up their own sites and businesses, one impressively training journalists at ground level in Iraq in basic multimedia skills. I’m sure there are dozens of examples of similar thinking among the trained ‘digital natives’, they won’t save the old business model but they can create their own.