Blast From the Past: Expositional Journalism and Translation to the Real World

I just found this from an old blog, an attempt over last summer to get something going. I wrote this when I was working at the Sacramento Bee and getting ready to go back to Santa Cruz and return to City on a Hill.

Interesting how things change.

As my internship in the real world comes to a close, or “sunset,” to borrow a popular line from our elected officials, I must begin to think about taking everything I’ve picked up here and bringing it back to my college newspaper. This summer has changed many of my opinions, and I think it has given me some valuable perspective on our mission as newsmen and women.

If I had to summarize the reactions of every alum from our paper after going into the real world, and I must, they have overwhelming told us to value our time in school, enjoy flexibility in our writing, and never underestimate the extreme rigidity of professional journalism outside of college.

Naturally, I did not believe them.

Returning to a debate I have had more times than I can count, often with my superiors, coworkers, editors, intended audience, and family, the critical decision for me regards the content of our newspaper.

Personally, I have been the straight newsman. I have turned down columns, rejected blogs, and done everything I can that might compromise what I saw as our neutral mission to provide the news. People have opinions, and want to write them, but I said no. Why devote valuable (and expensive) column inches to the opinion of a college student, when we could instead talk to an expert, a professor, or an elected official?

This again begs the question of our mission for the community we work in: a politically active college campus. As the “official” newspaper, why shouldn’t we provide the groundwork for the beginnings of an intellectual discussion? Still, granted the options before me, I saw my decision fall between two choices: should our mission be to opine and provide this forum for public discourse, or to teach the students the fine (and important) art of so-called “neutral” journalism? I fought tooth and nail for the latter.

But, as my foray in the real world comes to an end, I see that my predecessors are absolutely correct. With the added credibility of working for a major metropolitan newspaper, so does increase the constraints. As unfortunate as this is, it is not a commentary on the newspaper so much as the industry. Pages are scaled down, as newsprint becomes more expensive and advertisers pull their contracts. A fifteen-inch story means fifteen inches, even if the story is really that good. Articles are cut more often, and fewer projects are greenlit simply due to costs.

In addition, people are looking to newspapers now for the same things they find (for free, I might add), from the Internet. The Net went through a revolution a few years ago as users gained the ability to interact with the content presented to them. We see this today in such popular websites as Facebook and YouTube, where the users generate content for other users, and Internet entrepreneurs concentrate more on the vehicles to distribute content than the content itself. This consortium of websites became known as Web 2.0, and has become so widespread that even long-time users of the Internet can barely remember the days before.

So perhaps I was wrong. Is it time for Journalism 2.0, with a focus less on the “Give us 10 Minutes and We’ll Give You the News,” and more on a public interchange? We’ll see.

As we return to our familiar collegiate setting, the questions only become more complicated. Shall I continue to crack down on word counts, or should we take the space to do more justice to our stories? Is my job as an editor to help prepare these people for the real world, or to revel in the world we’re in?

In the radio world, they teach us of a notion called “expositional obscenity,” which tells us that college radio is long been expected to push the envelope. What may not be FCC-approved in other places can be done in college radio, to a point. Is it our job to do expositional journalism?

Time will tell, I’m sure.

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