Thursday, December 22, 2011

The death of learning in journalism.

I wish I had a mentor. Several of them, really.

Sure, I've got an editor, and he's swell. But he's only one guy, with one career's worth of insights. In our 21st century-style distributed workforce, built largely upon the backs of freelancers around the globe, there's one key thing that's missing: a heirarchy of learning.

I'm not alone. The problem also manifests itself during the hiring process: leaning ever more heavily on freelancers, media outlets -- and editors, specifically -- find themselves facing a chicken-or-egg scenario where they need talented writers but can't find them.

How is this, you ask? There are a ton of freelancers out there ready and willing to work; that's true. But quality -- in writing technique, in work ethic, in creativity -- is rarer than you might think, and no modern editor seems to have the time to teach the freelancer, cultivate that quality and grow a talent pool. Meanwhile, there are a ton of already-talented journalists in the industry, but no editor wants to take the headcount lump to hire them away from another publication.

From a writer's point of view, journalism schools have become a near-requirement. "You can learn on the job," a seasoned journalist might crow when met with the suggestion that a young journalist seeks to attend j-school. But the truth is, you can't. Media companies are willingly outsourcing training to journalism schools, and the bill is footed by the eventual employee his- or herself. (I would know; I have the staggering loan bills to prove it.)

Do we really think all those bloggers are increasing their knowledge with each passing year, or merely refining what they've already got on tap? We are all stuck moving sideways. Few are climbing, mentally speaking.

The problem persists in the editor's chair. I've always been an eager learner, and I devour information wherever I can find it. But I often feel as though I can't devour it fast enough.

In the online world, at least, all outlets are on the same level. Magazines compete with newspapers compete with startups. But the smaller the outlet, the less knowledge that's accessible. You can watch competing publications' work from afar, but you can't really know how things tick unless you sit down and ask them to lunch. (Which, of course, they don't have time to do. Because we're all overworked in this new paradigm.) This was something that media companies used to provide internally. Now the chain of knowledge has been broken in so many places that there's barely enough there to grab.

The old joke is that you should put a line in for "media consulting" when you're an unemployed journalist. The truth is, each working editor and freelancer could really benefit from tapping that knowledge. Perhaps consultants should consult individuals, not corporations.

No comments: