October 30 , 2006
The journalism sky isn’t falling
sheila tefft is director of the emory journalism department
Amid spirited debate and resolve to keep journalism relevant, more than 150 alumni, professionals and students rallied for the Emory Journalism Reunion held Oct 20-21.
Representing four generations of Emory journalists, they marked the tenth anniversary of the new Journalism Program, reopened in 1996 almost a half-century after an earlier Journalism Division closed. A $1.35 million gift from Cox Newspapers, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, restored journalism education at Emory.
The celebratory reunion mood was set against the sobering backdrop of perils facing today’s journalists: declining readership, Wall Street demands for high profits, government secrecy, newsroom cutbacks, the Internet revolution and faded public trust. “Journalism as we know it is over,” pronounced a recent report on our profession.
Still, something sparked. The journalism debate across generations energized us. Young interviewed old and discovered the journalism past.
Earlier alums reconnected to a tradition they thought was lost.
We reaffirmed journalism’s future and our role in shaping it. A celebration of the Emory journalism revival became a revival for journalism itself.
The Journalism Reunion conjoined two traditions separated by more than four decades. Emory first offered journalism courses almost 100 years ago. Those blossomed into a full-fledged graduate and undergraduate division in the 1930s and 1940s. But a panel of deans branded the division a “trade school” that didn’t belong in the liberal arts and shut it down in 1953.
“Congratulations on your tenth anniversary and greetings from the last member of the teaching crew to go down with the sinking ship when journalism was scuttled at Emory in 1953,” Richard Joel, who turned out the lights on the old division, wrote in a special message to the reunion. Many returning alums, his former students, nursed the same regrets.
Students in the new Journalism Program, restarted 43 years later, were unaware of this contentious past. “Who are those guys over there?” asked a recent graduate nodding at the cluster of gray-haired gentlemen at the opening reception.
They soon got acquainted. Panel discussions on sports journalism, the relevance of newspapers, the changing broadcast scene and controversies in science journalism brought together journalists from across the years.
The generational divide was deep, good-natured and invigorating. Old-timers cringed at celebrity journalism and infotainment. The youngsters thought it fun. Veterans called for a return to journalism as public service. Newcomers didn’t see the crisis.
Student journalists saw the Internet as the predominant news source. The experienced cautioned that technology—whether radio and television 50 years age or innovations in the future—has always changed journalism. Older journalists said newspapers as we know them must survive. Their younger counterparts said they can’t last.
“Sorry, Professor,” 1999 alumnus Jenn Hildreth, an on-air reporter at Fox Sports Net South, said to her former journalism instructor Gary Pomerantz. Pomerantz, moderator of the sports panel, had argued that stories off the field—race, drugs and crime—make sports journalism about more than games.
“I know you will disagree with this,” Hildreth said, “but the public watches sports for entertainment.”
Lee Clontz, a 30-something multimedia designer who teaches online journalism, said traditional newspapers will remain an important source of ground-breaking reporting, but they will not be where readers go first. Clontz was a panelist in the discussion, “Do Newspapers Matter?”
“Should we shoot him now or later?” Claude Sitton, a civil rights era reporter, award-winning newspaper editor and panel moderator, quipped as Clontz threw up his hands in feigned defensiveness.
Many journalists say the best part of their jobs is learning something new and interesting every day. How many other professionals can say that? At Emory, journalistic curiosity grows out of a broad-based education.
Ten years ago, the Emory journalism renaissance reflected new thinking that rooted journalism education firmly in the liberal arts and sciences. Today, the program is an established campus presence in partnership across the liberal arts.
All Emory Journalism students combine another major, be it neurosciences, theater or economics, with journalism study. Liberal arts study cultivates in students the depth and qualities one seeks in great journalists: a spirit of inquiry, the sense of discovery and a wonder at the world.
Dean Robert Paul nurtured the Journalism Program first as director of the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, the program’s formal home, and then as Dean of Emory College. Journalism’s many collaborations with the liberal arts—such as the summer South Africa program, initiatives with Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, and a new effort to create a campus studio—set Emory apart from other schools, Paul told alumni at the opening reception.
Ten years ago, the Cox endowment called for drawing students from the sciences and humanities into specialized reporting. Students can put their expertise to work in a variety of interdisciplinary courses, from arts criticism for journalism and performing arts students to covering ethnic communities with Asian Studies and Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
A campus-wide science writing initiative is the latest project. It involves faculty and students from the Journalism Program to undergraduate sciences to the graduate biomedical sciences to the medical school.
President Jim Wagner recalled that science was once part of everyday lives and conversations. Discussions of the latest developments in the space program or nuclear power could be heard around many family dinner tables. Journalism and science writing, he said, are key to restoring science literacy and reengaging scientists in public life and discussion.
As the Reunion ended, easy answers remained out of reach but all wanted the conversation to thrive and grow. Julia Wallace, ieditor, in her closing banquet speech, said the Web is having a revolutionary impact but remains unable to support the large investments required in newspaper journalism.
“But I believe that things that have value survive and are made stronger through transformational change. And I believe passionately in the value of what we do,” she concluded.
“Just because we change platforms and methods of delivering journalism doesn’t mean that we have to shortchange the standards that guide the journalism we do.”