Golden, or Gilded, Age?

Coming from the world of actually making, or trying to make, a living in journalism, to the world of talking and thinking about journalism, there’s — surprise, surprise! — a huge disconnect. The faculty here at Annenberg are gung ho about new media and the state of journalism. At the graduate school welcoming presentation yesterday, ours was even referred to as “a golden age.”

If so, where’s the gold? I agree that information technology is creating an explosion of new opportunities. But I don’t see how most of these opportunities are going to be monetized. That huge failure in the system — coupled with the overall recession — means that I know a number of talented, experienced journalists, who have worked very hard to be skilled reporters and writers and to utilize the latest digital tools, who are scratching for chicken feed right now. I’ve also worked for one of those new digital media, and seen it crash and burn. Is this a golden, or a gilded, age?

I do, actually, love this technological revolution, or whatever it is. Blogs follow in my favorite American journalistic traditions, from the pamphlets of Paine to the penny press to fanzines. And I’m happy to be surrounded by others who are excited about this change, instead of hearing the constant bitter grumblings of the newsroom.

But the disconnect between the two spheres troubles me. I spent two decades out of academia because I wanted to be in the real world, not the ivory tower. Thinkers must connect with doers or their thoughts are just dreams. I like happy dreams — they’re much better than waking nightmares. But I don’t want to walk around with a deluded smile.

Former Annenberg dean Geoffrey Cowan is teaching what may be one of the most important courses here, on entrepreneurial journalism. It would probably behoove me, all of us, to take it. Except that I know that I’m a much better writer than I am a businessperson or self-promoter. The problem with journalism these days is maybe you have to be all three.

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