Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009 | Last spring I was invited to speak to a journalism class at San Diego State, though in keeping with the times it is now called “communication” for the excellent reason that most of its students will never be journalists. There were about two dozen in the class, all but three of them women, and when I asked how many intended a career in journalism only two hands went up. It must be hell to teach journalism today.
Back in the days of journalism you could count on everyone in class aiming for a daily newspaper job. Maybe there were some who dreamed of working for television or magazines, but they would never admit it. Depending on where you went to school, you aspired to the big daily in your city and then it would be on to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago and then abroad as a foreign correspondent. To be a foreign correspondent was the most exotic job on a newspaper, like pastry chef in a kitchen.
Europe was crawling with Burberry and London Fog stores when I arrived there in 1965, and foreign press associations were thriving everywhere. Big city dailies in the United States had bureaus in every major capital, as did the TV networks and even radio networks like Westinghouse. The three English language news agencies, the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters, had dozens of correspondents and stringers scattered across Europe. I doubt there was ever a time in history that the American public was better informed.
When there was a war, we dropped what we were doing and rushed off to it. My job was covering the Cold War so I didn’t get to Vietnam. But I did make the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and, starting in 1968, spent four years covering the Vietnam peace talks, charade that they were. At least I had a chance to tell readers they were a charade, which Washington never would have told them.
These thoughts were prompted by a recent article in The New York Times which reported that the three U.S. television networks have closed their bureaus in Iraq. A couple of newspapers will remain, and CNN and Fox News will each keep one correspondent in Baghdad. Everyone else has decamped. We have 150,000 troops in Iraq and zero network correspondents, surely the first time since television’s invention that networks have forgotten about a war. The three evening newscasts gave one-quarter of the time to Iraq last year of what they gave it in 2007. Not hard to imagine what 2009 holds.
We know what’s happening to newspapers. You want to buy a daily cheap? Take your pick, starting in San Diego or Los Angeles. Trouble is you might end up like Lee Enterprises (including the North County Times), which bought out the Pulitzer chain three years ago and now faces default; or like the Media News Group, which bought a string of California dailies, including the San Jose Mercury News, just as the bottom fell out. Sam Zell, the Chicago realtor who bought the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, already is in bankruptcy. Like any sub-prime mortgage holder, these press lords bought properties at the top of the market and now are scrambling to stay alive.