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Thursday, January 17, 2008

A picture named woodstein.jpgJust as my introductory news writing students started beating their way through the snow to buy Tim Harrower's Inside Reporting and read its introductory chapter on "Newsroom heroes, legends and folklore," journalism educators' weblogs are aflurry with a discussion of just which heroes today's students should know about.

It started here: Should someone "halfway through earning his master's degree in journalism at the prestigious Columbia University" have heard of the late Mike Royko, whose Chicago newspaper columns are a textbook on how to live in, love and write about a city and its people?

How about Jimmy Breslin and Herb Caen, Royko's New York and San Francisco counterparts?

Do more students know the names Adrian Holovaty and Rob Curley... or Mindy McAdams?

Mindy's blog is where I picked up the discussion. She responded to the Royko question with a list of Internet founders and hypertext visionaries, to suggest there's a lot more to media history. The guys on her list are more the Gutenbergs and Ottmar Mergenthalers of cyberspace than its Roykos. Mindy herself, and Holovaty and Curley are closer to the online news transition students should be watching -- folks who are building and teaching people how to use great new tools for journalism. They aren't the same kind of role models as Royko, but nobody says you just need one model... or one role.

Journalism includes reporting, writing, photography, making decisions about what to publish, getting the details right, putting the story in front of readers, listening to them, and doing it all over and over... You can have heroes in all those categories. Maybe a "writing" hero like Royko isn't as important to the Columbia grad student as a "reporting" hero like I.F. Stone (who isn't in our textbook)... or Nellie Bly and Lois Lane (who are).

Students really won't know about writers, reporters or pioneers in journalism, online, on the air, or in print, unless they read... So who are the heroes offered in my textbook under the heading "Five legendary journalists every reporter should know?"
  • Mark Twain
  • Nellie Bly
  • H.L. Mencken
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Hunter S. Thompson
It's an interesting list. I'm sure the editor doesn't mean that as a "top five," but as an example of great variety, and a way to show that there's room in journalism for adventure, fun, satire and literary aspirations.

Elsewhere on the page, Harrower provides a picture of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein... On the facing page there's a very similar (but color) shot of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Woodward and Bernstein in the movie "All the President's Men." The page also drops the names Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lou Grant, Brenda Starr and "Jimmy" -- not Olsen, but the fictional child heroin addict whose fake story brought scandal down on a Washington Post reporter 27 years ago.

Elsewhere, the chapter mentions two Franklins -- Jon (Pulitzer-winning author of Writing for Story; both stories in that book made me cry, as did the fact that I can't write like that) and Ben (printer, editor, statesman, and kite-flying autobiographer). And there are Isaiah Thomas, John Peter Zenger, Benjamin Day, James Gordon Bennett, Frederick Douglass... including many others, including Cronkite and Murrow for the post-print, pre-Web generation.

Royko? He does turn up in the book... but not until chapter two. At the end of that chapter, seven working journalists are asked "Who's your journalistic hero?" Two out of seven cite Royko -- as one put it, "For humor, grace, outrage, intelligence and his simple, elegant and direct prose." Not bad. One of the others recommended is Edna Buchanan, but the reporter manages to cite her as a hero and get the facts of her story wrong at the same time. [Students: Compare the Buchanan anecdotes on pages 31 and 98] Ouch.

As for my students, their snowy-weekend assignment is to get through a couple of textbook chapters (in print or in PDF form), try some of the book's online quizzes to see if the reading sank in... then read a few online newspapers over the weekend and come back on Tuesday with three examples of stories they liked, and a page-long essay saying why. (That essay is also my basic-grammar-and-spelling diagnostic.)

EXTRA: They should read this Breslin story too... [Mindy pointed to it. Thanks.]

By a few weeks into the semester, I hope they all recognize good writing when they see it, even if they don't always remember the bylines. By the end of the semester, I hope they'll recognize that good writing is coming out of their own keyboards.

As for the online stuff... I'm not sure what they know already. I'll find out next week, when I point both the intro class and a class full of Media & Society upperclassmen to the online book Journalism 2.0 and ask whether the contents -- meant to help old pros catch up with today's more-wired students -- are news to them, too.

12:08:52 PM    comment []

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