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Welcome to the 21st Century, Old-Timer

by on February 20, 2019 5:00 AM

I’m having a Rip Van Winkle moment.

Twenty years ago, I went from the practice of daily journalism to the preaching of it.

From my Penn State perch I continue to monitor the triumphs and tribulations of the news biz, but as any ethnographer can tell you, it is one thing to gaze upon the fisherfolk as they heave their boats up onto the beach, and quite another to grab the rope and help with the hauling.

This winter, while not abandoning my campus observation post, I am once again participating, in a small way, in the practice of daily journalism and gaining a deeper appreciation of how much the industry has changed.

I was a newspaperman of the last century, a time when the workday was organized around delivering a sheaf of information, advertisements and entertainments to the driveways, porches and kiosks of our customers by the dawn’s early light.

That meant getting the papers printed, bundled and loaded into cars and trucks by the wee hours of the morning, which meant getting it edited, proofread and laid out throughout the evening, which meant getting the reporters to submit their stories before the sun went down.

Websites had been conjured into being during the latter years of my career, but they were an afterthought, a free-for-nothing extra for early adapters who had personal computers and dial-up Internet access. (That early failure to see the revenue potential of online content haunts the news business to this day.)

Now, though, the script has flipped, with getting news up on the Web as soon as it happens taking precedence over preparing a smaller selection of stories for printing on the old timetable. I am seeing this process play out in my role as instructor of a course called “News Practicum” (academics love those Latinate “um” words like curriculum, colloquium, symposium and everyone’s favorite, honorarium).

Practicum means that the students in my class are practicing journalism in the same way that doctors are said to practice medicine. Instead of writing stories for a grade or a student publication, they’re writing to be published in professional newspapers.

The way it works is: We offer Penn State-related story ideas to short-staffed and copy-starved editors of newspapers around Pennsylvania or they suggest story ideas to us. Then the reporters report, the editors edit and everyone wins: The students get bylined stories for their resumes and portfolios and the papers get free copy (though I’m not crazy about unpaid labor).

My job is to be the middleman: The students send their stories to me, I edit them, then I relay them to our partners, who might edit them some more. What’s new and different is the rhythm and pace of it all.

I envisioned supplying our partner papers with features or news features – stories about matters of ongoing concern or interest that could be published whenever I deemed them publishable. Our partners quickly schooled me that this leisurely approach was not going to cut it in the world of 21st century journalism.

Case in point: Last month we pitched a Friday night speech story to our editors. They wanted it. Two days before the event, I met with one of them and asked him when he wanted it. He looked at me funny.

“We are a daily paper, you know,” he said.

“Uh, right,” I said.

And so it was that I spent a chunk of my Friday night, that time of the week usually devoted to merrymaking, furiously editing a news story. Since then, I have spent chunks of two more Friday nights, one Saturday evening and one Sunday afternoon in the same frenzy of activity.

Am I complaining? Not at all. I love it. It’s like I’m back in the newsroom, even though I’m actually working from home or from my office on campus. My son the skier tells me that when he’s on the slopes, he’s ecstatically happy. That’s how I feel when I’m on deadline. Different activity, same rush.

I know, pretty geeky.

What’s different from 20 years ago is that in the Web-first age, it’s always deadline. Whatever the story, they want it as soon as they can get it. We used to talk about daily journalism as “feeding the beast.” Now the beast is more insatiable than ever.

The best part of all this beast-feeding is seeing the students gain real-world experience. One of them wrote to tell me how fun it is “feeling like a journalist on deadline.”

“You are a journalist on deadline,” I answered.

And after a 20-year hiatus, so am I.

In Washington Irving’s famous fable, Rip Van Winkle awakens from his double-decade nap “at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity.” I thought I was getting to that happy age as well. Now I’m having too much fun to quit.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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