Lingering concerns about Syracuse’s future

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.

8 Replies to “Lingering concerns about Syracuse’s future”

  1. Really good post. Specialized professionalism has required rootlessness of its graduates– my son and his SO got SU masters degrees, and then had to decamp to Chicago for jobs, like so many before them (although they are now back in NY, in the Capital District). Florida’s credo to the max: “Who’s Your City?” assumes that nobody wants to stay in a community once educated. Wow.

    Here in Ithaca, our newspaper is the farm team– for Gannett’s major papers. Reporters change out very regularly, and can barely find the municipal meetings they cover, let alone understand the issues. The general public that has lived here a couple of years would usually have more background, could probably write more insightful articles.

    If, in losing professionalism, we regained community and a sense of belonging to a place, I think it would be a very worthwhile trade-off. It takes a village to nurture creativity…..

  2. Journalists have always been a little too contrary to consider themselves professionals in the board-certified doctor or lawyer sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to self-importance and getting caught up in the rituals of the craft. By calling themselves journalists, for instance. The threat of blogs brought out the worst in some journalists’ egos.

    People ask, “who will do the journalism?” and it’s good that they care. It might in fact be New Urbanism-type starving artists, rather than the middle-class families with health care, mortgages and kids nearing college. It might be hobbyists with day jobs. And I say that in the best sense of the word “hobbyist.” I think of those folks who build hot rods for the Syracuse Nationals. They’re not professionals, most of them, but they’re not amateurs in the common sense. They have remarkable skills and a passion for what they do. They just have day jobs, too.

    At some point, the job of informing people will be reconstituted because it needs to be done, beyond the daily conversations. Sadly, it’ll be after many dedicated people who did it well have been disrupted. Now they tell us, about “filter failure” http://tinyurl.com/8arg38 and expert-based search engines http://tinyurl.com/cuhrej

    In the meantime, NYCO might have to dust off what she can remember from her newspaper major.

  3. Honestly, this deep shift is occurring as much (as any) because professional journalists have failed in fundamental ways to honor the traditions under which the professor began in the States.

    When a Daily Show and Colbert Report emanate more thoughtfulness, truth and accuracy in reporting through satire than does most any “major” news outlet, there should be change.

  4. my biggest fear is the loss of the power of the venue. i have less concern about the high-profile corruption-in-our-midst stories. i fear what happens when we don’t have someone, some young or old reporter working a night shift, at the board meeting in some little town or village … and the simple presence of that reporter is what prevents the supervisor from hiring her boyfriend, or keeps the highway chief from giving his buddy the contract. the real prevention is in the thousands upon thousands of eyes on the same page.

    maybe there is something waiting to replace that venue. right now, i don’t exactly see it. that doesn’t mean it is impossible. the draining nature of the moment … and in a lesser way, of the last 15 years … is that nothing emerges as replacement as the old way fades. what we get is s spectrum of information – some terrific, some abysmal. where that leads us, i don’t know.

    sean

  5. It seems to me that the venue gets most of its power, though, through those high-profile investigations. An institution can’t just indefinitely strike fear into would-be miscreants with a cub reporter’s mere presence unless they keep doing the work. The real prevention is in the work. How do you keep the work going when the institution is gone? I guess that is what I was wondering about with respect to the thoughts on professionalism.

    The Utica Observer-Dispatch is running a retrospective of their anti-Mob work of 50+ years ago: http://www.uticaod.net/site_html/SPECIAL_CONTENT/MOB/MOB_index.html
    It’s no secret that the OD’s parent company has fallen on hard times, so one wonders if they’re hauling out those old guns as a talisman against the dark? To remind people “Hey, you need us” – not a bad reminder (but then one could ask, “What has the OD done for Utica lately?”)

    As for what comes after… Syracuse has not known a “hard” blogging culture – that is to say, the testosterone-driven sort that would have put local journalists up to the sort of scrutiny and criticism and oppositional head-butting that would have made them occcasionally see red and, if not be credible competition, might have at least nipped at its flanks. (Buffalo has something approximating that) In that sense, as an aggregator of other local blogs, this blog may have failed – because these folks could be out there in the Syracuse area and I just didn’t look for them. So, as part of a journalistic ecosystem, blogs can also fail to play a needed role.

  6. I found it interesting that in Ithaca, the journalism majors at IC wrote the best article of all on the slow demise of our paper of record–as if the soon-to-be victims of Pompeii were scrambling to get the story on paper before the lava engulfed them.

    I can’t help wondering if my despair at all of this is just a failure of imagination. Things are going to be different. Why do I cling to my newsprint?

  7. KAZ– I have come up with these answers to that question:

    –to start fires with when you are done
    –to read in the bathtub without fear of damaging expensive equipment
    –to leave in the car to read between appts., without fear of theft
    –for stuffing in shipping boxes, while being recyclable and biodegradable
    –to grab quick to sop up the mess when you spill your coffee
    –to use under mulch to block the weeds
    –to put on the kitchen table when wallpapering or potting plants
    –to wrap gifts
    –to read in the fishing boat while buddies fish
    –to wrap the fish guts in before bringing home and composting

    So, maybe we can find substitutes… but, especially for those of us who can’t afford I-phones, we ain’t there yet… and what is it that the folk are reading in the bathtub now that the cognizanti get their better=quality news on-line?

  8. i cut my teeth as a reporter on an alternative paper in rochester that was very good and very aggressive and had a manifesto; when i stepped into daily journalism, i remember feeling as i were selling out. seems to me what you envision in the new wave of blogs are bloggers who fill the role ideally, or traditionally, filled by the alternative press … to go into the void not being touched by the dailies (electronic or paper), to touch the stories that don’t get touched, and to relentlessly prod mainstream journalists to be better.

    except there may be no mainstream anymore.

    sean

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