Column: Journalism's positive future

Published Apr 21, 2013 at 05:00AM

For a number of years, I have headed to Ann Arbor, Mich., in early spring to interview journalists.

If the group this year was an accurate barometer, the best and most aspiring journalists have a very positive feeling about what they do.

That's a change, and a significant one.

The University of Michigan is home to the Knight Wallace Fellowship program.

Each academic year it offers 12 national and a few international journalists the luxury of leaving their day-to-day occupations and pursuing a study topic with the free run of a major university.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was a fellow 20 years ago, as Bulletin columnist Lily Raff was a couple of years ago and medical writer Markian Hawryluk has been for the past year.

As a board member of the program at Michigan, but more interestingly a member of the selection committee for the program for a number of years, I have had a unique vantage point on the ambitions and psyches of the best in the business.

Typically, about a hundred — more or less — will apply for a fellowship.

The selection panel reads all of the applications and recommends 30 or so finalists.

Each is invited to Ann Arbor and has 30 minutes to make a case before the panel of reporters, editors and academics.

Given the stakes, that has to be one of the more unnerving half-hours in their lives.

But for those of us on the selection panel, the perspective is extraordinary.

The folks who apply are at the top of the business or on their way up.

They come from newspapers, television and radio stations, and Web-based publications. There are also a fair number of freelance writers.

Their ambitions are widely varied.

They say they want to write books, invent new companies or advance their understanding of what they cover. The list is long.

Starting 10 to 15 years ago, the applicants' assumption that traditional journalism would last forever began to erode.

From that point on, there was an expressed sense of fear that vetted information, soundly researched and written under the guidance of experienced editors — particularly in print — was a thing of the past.

The future was instantaneous individual expression, communicated over the Web or through social media.

Traditional newsrooms and old-fashioned assumptions about news were a thing of the past, a reverie of a sunset industry.

The days of journalists engaging in time-consuming, deep reporting and long-form storytelling were giving way, the applicants were saying, to a world in which everyone with a laptop computer, a cellphone and social media presence was a journalist.

Why, the underlying question asked, would someone pay money to traditional organizations when they could get their fill for free from ersatz reporters?

Doubly troubling was that the future leadership of the media expressed these fears.

Then, a couple of years ago, the tone of the applicants started to change, and this year the change was prominently evident.

More than several simply declared, “I am very positive about the future of journalism.”

Having watched what passed for news on websites, etc., for the past decade or so, they have a renewed faith in the sustaining value of solid information.

It's not based on a rejection of the new technologies.

In fact, it's a desire to capture the new technologies for wider distribution and influence.

But it is a recognition that excellent, independent, well-vetted information comes from expensive newsrooms.

And, using both print and Web, that's the model we need to preserve and protect.

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