Monday, July 20, 2009

The voice of a generation

There will never be another news person like Walter Cronkite. It is impossible in part because we live in a world that is over saturated by media and information sources. There are far too many voices for one to rise above the din for dominance. It is also impossible because, well, he was Walter Cronkite.

A journalist since high school, Cronkite fell in love with the newspaper business years before the nation fell in love with him. During his career, he ushered the nation through the most transformative events of the 20th century.

He reported from the front lines of World War II after flying with fighter pilots. He broke the news of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a professional and human way, calming fears and soothing nerves when the country was collectively frayed and on edge. He shared the awe of the nation as he giddily reported the Moon landing 40 years ago today. He gave America one of its first glimpses of the Beatles and he unabashedly expressed his disappointment with the direction the Vietnam war.

In his 20 years as anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Americans welcomed Cronkite into their living rooms because he was trustworthy, professional and accurate. He was also one of them. He had a conversational tone, a way of connecting with people all over the country that was comforting and inviting.

I probably never saw one of Cronkite's live broadcasts, but somehow I am familiar with so many of them. This is because he was not just a journalist. He was a living legacy - the epitome of a tough and unrelenting profession. He delivered news with integrity and never compromised himself in this regard.

60 Minutes ran a special on Cronkite last night. Speaking about Cronkite's retirement from the CBS Evening News in 1981, NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams said, " I couldn't shake the feeling when he retired that something more than one man was leaving the chair." Well, once again Walter Cronkite has left an enormous void. Something more than one man has left journalism.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The future is black and white...hopefully

I have a very depressing morning ritual. I visit several websites about media and journalism and read about what is potentially on the horizon for these industries. As you can imagine, much of said mornings are filled with articles and blogs about the demise of print journalism. Every day I read about how the newspaper is dying.

This is not new - this bleak news about the news started even before the economic meltdown last fall. But every once in a while, someone comes along and speaks to this issue with a perspective that buoys my spirits and with which I happen to agree. It also makes me feel like I'm not weird for being a 30 year old who prefers to read a newspaper on the train as opposed to squinting at her Blackberry.

Dave Eggers, known to many of my generation as the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, recently spoke to about his new book and the future of the printed word as he sees it. Mercifully, his version of the future looks bright. Eggers sees print and the web living harmoniously together, so long as each makes the most of their respective potential.

Some of the young up-and-comers who take part in Eggers' writing program, 826 Valencia, are enrolled in print writing classes and (get this!) read newspapers. Of particular interest to these new writers is the chance to see their name in print. I mean actual print, in a newspaper, not in pixels. As a journalist, I can relate to the excitment and satisfaction of seeing my work in a publication as opposed to the much more crowded internet.

And that is not to say that I do not see the merits of online media. It is where we are and should be heading in many respects. But the development of web journalism does not have to be mutually exclusive of print. Eggers makes an important point when he laments the much-forecasted passing of the printed word. He says that the end of print journalism will become a reality only if we allow it to happen - newspapers do not have to die. Sure, we may all have computer chips implanted in our heads in 30 years that will really make newspapers obsolete. But those chips may also make blackberrys and iPods obsolete, so let's not get ahead of ourselves here. (That last point was mine, not Eggers'...)

What's missing from the world of web news is traditional investigative journalism. When people talk about the death of newspapers, this concern is raised again and again: the loss of stories that require more than a few hour's worth of research, stories that keep people honest, stories that uncover newsworthy information as opposed to juicy gossip. This is the kind of work that is most costly to news organizations, but it is what would be sorely missing if every major newspaper packed it in tomorrow. It could be that the web has not yet evolved enough to encompass this kind of writing. Or it may be that the newspaper format is just a lot more conducive to it.

For me, much of online media is the journalistic equivalent of reality TV. It continuously looks in on itself - editorializing and blogging (yes, I see and appreciate the irony). But I'd like to see more objective, meaningful, and thoughful commentary going on. As always, there are exceptions. There are websites with excellent commentary and focus. But if those exceptions do not multiply rapidly, and the pervading view of the uselessness of the printed word gets kicked up a few more notches, then I see a future that is not quite as bright as Eggers'. I can only hope that the writers at 826 Valencia are not anomolies and that they refuse to let their medium die.