The Crumbling Fourth Estate

There’s almost something a little bit treasonous about some of the thoughts we were having as we wandered the luxurious halls of the Sheraton at the National Journalism Convention, hosted by the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP).

As wonderful as it has been, as fantastic as the weekend’s events are, and as much as we have learned, something is amiss. Journalism is not what it used to be.

Endless sessions about Twitter, but very few about ethics.

A shrieking chorus about the necessity of improving our “Klout,” but precious little about voicing the experiences of the perennially silenced.

Young would-be journalists swerved through the corridors, yet almost none of them looked at the path in front of them as they walked. They bumbled around with a mindless swagger, staring unblinkingly at their smartphones. Very few of these journalists were even vaguely aware of their own surroundings.

And we must admit, as the pressure to have an enormous social media presence climbs, some of us have been the bumbling, clueless road blockers ourselves. Trying to stay relevant in the technological arms race is nearly a full-time job. It’s a bit embarrassing, as journalists, to recognize how ignorant many of us are to what’s going on around us.

But if we are ignorant, it is only because every professional in the field has told us that is what employers want us to be.

If we have a spinning moral compass, it is only because our supposed role models spend more time tweeting tabloid fodder than they do discussing ethics.

We’re lost in the swirling vortex of technological class warfare, where every journalist must prove their worth by increasing the clutter of widgets on their profiles, and the hours they spend every day using them to natter at other journalists in a sort of navel-gazing professional vanity. According to our convention speakers, we must buy $100-tripods and iPads that cost as much as our rent in order to gain respect from our peers and disseminate our pointless chatter more elegantly. Everyone seems to believe that none of us work for a living, yet we all have piles of cash simply laying around.

But at what point do they actually take the time to, well, report the news?
In truth, many of them don’t. Sites like Huffington Post and Boing Boing have made reposting the work of others with an added sniping comment synonymous with “investigation.” We call these people journalists, even though they aren’t doing anything that every 14-year-old Tumblr addict isn’t doing.

If you were to look around the Sheraton, you would see this same disease taking hold of the next generation’s journalists. Most seem to be well off, technology obsessed early-20-somethings. The attendees are depressingly homogeneous. Gone is the rough-edged, haphazard silhouette of the tireless reporter, too consumed in getting to the bottom of their story to do things like shave or replace their 30-year-old suit. Today’s journalist is glossy, with name brand suits, a smug condescension to them, and weirdly perfect hair with a desperate obsession for checking their “likes.”

The student journalists with the most important stories to tell can’t afford to be here. Breakfast costs $24 at the Sheraton (and another $4.50 to have it delivered to your room). Most of the food in this well-groomed area of Chicago is extremely expensive, in fact. ACP has a membership fee of $139 per year for the size tier of MCTC, and while you don’t have to be a member to attend, registration is more expensive if you’re not.

For a member, early bird student registration is $90 per student. If you’re not a member, it’s $115 per student. If you miss the early bird cut-off (which would be easy to do for an underfunded student paper that’s trying to raise money), it jumps to $110 for member students, and $140 for non-members. Advisors cost a few bucks more, in all cases.

That’s to say nothing of the $200 hotel rooms, where every little movement seems to incur further fees. If you so much as open the mini fridge, that’s another 25 bucks. Then there’s the cost of travel, which could easily hit $1,000 for even a couple of students coming from the far reaches of the country.

This can add up extremely quickly. For papers who print on as little as a few hundred dollars once a month, this can be the choice between going to print, and trying to provide opportunities for learning that may not exist at their college. It’s more than a hurdle for many of today’s debt-laden students.

Whispers of students going hungry at the convention were all around us.
With some schools so strapped for cash that they’re turning away students and hemorrhaging teachers, their student journalists — who are getting up close and personal with the real news going on in this country — can’t afford to attend. City College News couldn’t possibly have afforded it without $2,000 from Student Life, which didn’t even cover our food.

As much as we enjoy editing in plush beds and an in-room coffee machine that actually makes drinkable coffee, we don’t need this. We’d be just as happy to shuttle from a Holiday Inn to a hosting college campus. We’d jump at the opportunity, if it meant that more students could afford to come here.

Perhaps, with the money they saved, ACP could afford to sponsor the poorly funded student journalists who are pushing on in the worst of circumstances. They’re the real heroes; not those of us who get an allowance from the school.
And for these adversity-stricken student journalists, who may have to work, or may not have access to internet often enough to live tweet what’s on TV or spend hours reposting memes, how are they supposed to ever find a job in “real journalism?”

Perhaps the better question is, is today’s “real journalism” worth participating in? This is a question many of us are asking ourselves as the trajectory of journalism becomes increasingly divorced from its purpose, and increasingly conceited. We’ve spent long nights in our overpriced hotel rooms, asking each other whether this is really what we wanted to be doing when we decided to pursue journalism.

What has become of the fourth estate?

Journalism ought to be a valiant career. A career spent diving into dark places and trying to expose them to light. Journalists die to show the realities of war. Journalists rot in prisons for refusing to give up their source. Journalists move societies, break down shrouds of ignorance and oil the rust-prone hinges of democracy.

Journalism is important.

But we’ve gotten so wrapped up in how important our job is that we’ve forgotten to actually do it.

We are so busy congratulating each other for choosing such a noble profession, that we no longer have much nobility left to us. Like an aging estate family, we are too busy acting rich to notice we’ve spent our fortune.
Today’s “real journalism” is an endless droning of pointless noise and misplaced priorities. Today’s “real journalism” is elitist and exclusionary.

Today’s “real journalism” considers Hurricane Sandy, which threatened millions of lives, to be an inconvenient interruption from the real story: listening to presidential hopefuls bloviate about what swell guys they are.

We are thankful for the opportunity to attend such a well-run convention and gain from the stories and wisdom of those who are living what we someday hope to. We realize how lucky we are to be able to talk to people who’ve been in this industry longer than we’ve been alive. There are still good journalists to be had, who are committed to real reporting.

But we would be remiss if we didn’t report on the state of journalism with as much veracity as we do anything else.

The fourth estate is crumbling. It’s time for journalism to take a hard look in the mirror, and for journalists to ask themselves why they do this.

Do they do this for the ego boost they get from having one more follower and the emotional popcorn of sensationalist stories?

Or do they do this to report the news?