Once upon a time, I was a newspaper major. Eventually I realized I didn’t have much talent or nerve for picking up the phone and cold-calling people. And that wasn’t a skill being taught at the particular college I attended (you were supposed to have it already, before you decided on that kind of career). Fortunately, I had the presence of mind after my sophomore year to understand that a newspaper career was not going to be possible for me. I just wasn’t going to be very good at it — and in any case, my point of view probably would never have been a good fit for the Syracuse community at large (or possibly, anywhere else!)
But although I understand that, I still don’t grasp the process by which new blood gets into journalism locally. I know an excellent local writer who has blogged for several years on environmental subjects; he has a clear, engaging style and characteristic focus that would be a really good fit to the greater Syracuse community. If I was running things (and if newspapers were still making enough money) I would do whatever it took to get this person on board as an occasional paid columnist. But we don’t live in that kind of expansive era any more — newspapers these days have to be concerned with collecting content, and not with developing a farm team.
I had concerns about this before the Post-Standard started to actually shrink in page count. I sometimes wonder if blind spots in the talent development process, and not just money issues, have been a quiet problem in the community for many years. Not just with journalism, of course — in everything. This is a fear that has found expression in the undeclared “battle” between 40-Belowers (who feel they’re being held back from taking over, although can’t articulate why or who is responsible) and that shadowy yet openly-operating organization, the Treehouse Gang.
Thinking of 40 Below leads me to my second lingering concern. I’m worried that Syracuse still suffers from Richard Florida Disease, and some of its related assumptions about the future. Namely, that the higher education and healthcare industries will always be dependable drivers of growth in the Syracuse area. So many hopes and expectations have been hung on Syracuse University, SUNY Upstate, and the promise of a new revolution in technology and green-collar jobs, with the expectation that Syracuse will be, must be, peopled by newcomers drawn to the area for these always-burgeoning career fields.
It would be silly to say that none of this kind of growth (or at least, economic activity) is going to happen. But for several years, the great hope has been that the Hill would finally be wedded to Downtown in some way, bringing with it a rich dowry of state and corporate seed grants, student recreational spending, and revenue-generating buzz. All this seemed like a great idea when the sun was shining on the American economy, but now, I’m not so sure many of these plans aren’t going to fade away in the rain. People create real art in hard times — but they don’t spend so much money supporting it. Governments and corporations still have money to spend — but not so much on speculative initiatives. Students still go to college — but not so much at expensive private second-tier schools.
If a bedrock institution like the newspaper business falls onto unprecedented hard times, how can anyone suppose that higher education, or even the Colossus of our health care system, are immune? Higher ed and health care professionals are still whistling past the graveyard in many ways. And the new plan for Syracuse is still largely predicated on an increase in their numbers — their leisure spending, their energy, their needs and wants driving us all upward. But I see the dominoes of professionalism slowly falling, one by one. And Syracuse, like all modern American communities, is going to be hit by the falling plaster.
To bring this back to my original concern about local journalism… In a world where professionalism (for whatever reason) can’t support itself, maybe we can have a world where everyone knows how to practice good journalism for the good of the community. That means that professional journalism (or higher ed or medicine) to some extent dies, and general journalism survives in its place.
Dmitry Orlov speaks of a future where money is worth less, if not actually worthless — and that seems a little fantastic. But he also ventures, more plausibly, that a post-professional world would be one where we worry less about earning incomes in specialized fields, and more about learning to live in a more relationship-oriented future. When professionalism cannot continue, it could be that real society has space to be reborn. We give up the trade secrets of whatever it is that we do, and instead freely pass these skills on to each other. And hopefully in return, we receive not necessarily money, but whatever it is we need to continue living creative lives.
I think that’s something to hope for.