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New School Journalism

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I was in New York a short while ago at yet another “future of media” conference—with men in bow ties, the tang of cologne and coffee, and a shitload of glossy-looking PowerPoint presentations—that felt eerily like a conference I attended in Texas in 2009. Which was eerily like one I attended at Harvard in 2008. All of them, I suspect, will be remarkably similar to the ones in 2010 I have circled on my calendar. The conferences, filled with dutiful harrumphing, could all go by the same title: Does Anybody Here Have A Goddamned Clue What The Hell Is Going On With the Journalism Business?

At future-of-journalism confabs, you have to endure discussions with fidgety “new media people,” who are 100-percent sanctimoniously convinced that there are still some journalists who haven’t heard that old media business models are dying. It reminds me of my favorite headline, ever, from The Abilene Reporter-News: “Shooting Of Cow Depresses Pastor.” In other words: Stop preaching the obvious. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a mogul, editor or reporter who hasn’t signed up, willingly or unwillingly, for new media changes.

We need to stop having conferences to agree on what we already agree on. Instead, we need to talk about game-changing notions for the next generation of journalists. If technology is making it possible for everyone to gather news, share news and become a citizen journalist, then we should explore some things that probably will make Rick Perry bolt awake at night and run screaming naked through groves of stinging ocotillo.

For starters, Texas should make journalism a required course in high schools and maybe even middle schools. The courses should address the good stuff: why giving voice to the voiceless is a guiding principle of the Founding Fathers. As Molly Ivins might have insisted: Oh hell, it’s no real biggie … we’re just talking about Big Time Democracy.

A year ago, I was a guest in a classroom with Magdalena Zavala and her student journalists at Taylor High School. There was the future of journalism: kids grilling me, showing some healthy skepticism about the guy with the tie in the front of the room. I had a feeling they were going to be putting Twitter, Facebook and anything else to the same use that citizen journalists have been doing in China, Iran, Haiti and other places where the press needs to be in the hands of the people.

For grins—and since my kids were required to study a certain sanitized version of Texas history—I also say that kids should be taught the evolution of journalism in Texas. All of it:

  • The Dallas Express had to exist because The Dallas Morning News was never going to write certain stories. Like the time, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a black janitor from Dallas was castrated by a mob in Pittsburg—you’ll find the story in the “black newspaper,” but not in the “white newspaper.”
  • William Brann, who edited a controversial “journal of personal protest” called The Iconoclast, was hounded and kidnapped by irate readers—and finally shot to death in 1898 in Waco by someone no doubt offended by his investigations of the political, business and cultural powers-that-be.
  • Women who pursued journalism in Texas once were exiled to writing about high society, cooking and school lunch menus—until women like Molly Ivins and Kaye Northcott decided to blow down some doors with their work at this very magazine.

If Molly could arrange it, I think she would appear, via the Skype portal in heaven, to teach these skills to Texas students: How to find that elusive paper trail of malfeasance, maybe even at their own schools. How to use new technology to make sure that the intended audience actually receives it—including, especially, their classmates. How to examine systems of government, do public affairs reporting, deconstruct how institutions work—starting with their own educators, principals, coaches and superintendents.

We all know technological paradigms are unfolding faster than the good brisket disappears at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington. Now we need to make sure the owner’s manual to good journalism, the kind that absolutely must be practiced in a democratic society, is served up sooner … not locked in a gilded box on the top floor of those old burning structures.