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Should journalism become less professional?

Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton has a cup of coffee with newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin in April 1992. Breslin died on March 19. Stephan Savoia/AP Photo

Should journalism become less professional?

When I heard the news of longtime New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin’s death, it felt personal.

I was born in Queens and read Breslin as a youngster. My mom and dad both grew up in Queens, so even though we had moved to New Jersey by the time I started grade school, they would still buy the city newspapers each morning. Most of my relatives remained in Queens. A few of them knew Breslin and his family. I recall how, a few years ago, after one of my cousins unexpectedly passed away, I spoke briefly with one of his sons at a Queens funeral home.

Partially as a result of influence from media icons such as Breslin, I became editor of my college newspaper and later worked at CBS. And when I began to work in Manhattan during the 1980s, Breslin was one of those New York personalities who continued to stand out. He was still writing hard-hitting stories, but he also had a television show, had written several books and gained further notoriety for endorsing a local beer. If you lived anywhere near New York City, you knew Jimmy Breslin.

What made Breslin stand out was his blue-collar point of view. He was dogged in chasing a story. He didn’t kowtow to the powerful, and he often thought about how class and privilege might influence a narrative.

It’s a perspective and approach too often lacking in today’s newsrooms. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, journalists today are more likely to work in metropolitan areas than in decades prior. And in 1960, nearly one-third of reporters and editors hadn’t attended college. By 2015, that number had dropped to 8.3 percent. Additionally, the American Society of News Editors’ most recent data reveal that many newspapers fail to have even one minority hire in their newsroom.

As I reflected on Breslin’s life and career and the state of journalism today, two questions emerged. First, could Jimmy Breslin be as effective today as he was in an earlier era? Second, since Breslin didn’t receive university-based training as a journalist, is the education that many reporters receive today still relevant and necessary?

Today’s media environment bombards us with endless “reality-based” viewing options on televisions, smartphones and tablets. (A 2016 study found adults in the United States now consume more than 10 hours of media per day.) Reading the local newspaper is probably less exhilarating for audiences who can watch hip-hop divas, pawn-shop owners, morbidly obese people, football team locker rooms, political rallies, pregnant teens or piano-playing cats.

Still, what Breslin did was powerful enough to be engaging today. In a famous example, instead of covering the people in power at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Breslin opted to cover the man who dug the president’s grave. Highly creative journalistic instincts would ensure his status as a respected professional in any era. Nonetheless, I suspect Breslin’s reach would be severely hampered by today’s onslaught of media distractions, and his stature might be further diminished by an increased skepticism that has permeated the journalistic field today.

That skepticism is palpable. A recent Gallup poll revealed that a mere 32 percent of Americans trust the media “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly,” the first time ever that this annual measure has fallen below 40 percent. Faith in journalistic institutions has been trending downward for two decades, with no evidence that a turnaround is on the horizon.

Moreover, the recent use of the term “fake news” to attack coverage that doesn’t mesh with someone’s ideological beliefs has left many readers puzzled about the accuracy of news stories.

With such skepticism, one might argue that better-educated journalists are needed now more than ever before. However, the current political climate offers evidence that education is less valued, with cuts to higher education funding now commonplace.

Journalism education, in particular, has been under assault for quite some time. In 1993, before he was a best-selling author, Michael Lewis, then senior editor for The New Republic, penned an article entitled “J-School Ate My Brain,” a brutal attack of journalism education. Lewis asserted that journalism schools fail to teach what is necessary to be an inquisitive reporter, instead privileging the nuances of copy-editing and specialized jargon, mocking the “pretentious science of journalism” as a distraction from the actual practice of journalism.

“The best journalists,” he wrote, “are almost the antithesis of professionals.” For someone like Lewis, with an Ivy League pedigree and an advanced degree from the London School of Economics, learning the nuances of journalism might not be necessary.

However, I would argue that such an education has immense value to a first-generation college student whose parents struggled through blue-collar jobs to put food on the table. I teach at a school with many students who fit this profile, and I just visited another university last week with a somewhat similar student body.

During my visit, students and faculty alike spoke about the importance of learning disciplines beyond basic reporting. Some spoke about history, English or political science as areas that could enrich one’s reporting depth. Others talked about the need to learn social media skills and graphic arts to enhance their news gathering and reporting. When Jimmy Breslin won his well-deserved acclaim, he didn’t have to keep up with the rapid technological and industry changes that are currently taking place.

The faculty I visited conducted research to remain on top of developments in the field. Gaining proficiency with new communication technologies and developing new ways to find credible facts online are among the challenges these faculty confront today. Several of them are members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, an organization that connects them to fellow scholars and active practitioners, many of them reporters or editors currently working in the field.

AEJMC is due to release a sort of “state of the educational landscape” report later this year, but its most recent report found that journalism and mass communication programs reported a three-year enrollment decline, from a high of 203,341 students in 2010, to 197,161 in 2013.

I expect that trend to continue, as new technologies challenge media profitability, meaning fewer jobs in newsrooms. Regardless, for those who are willing to step up, the need to inform the public may be more important for the future of democracy today than at any time during my lifetime.

Jimmy Breslin was a streetwise journalist with a hardscrabble Queens background. He was a blue-collar, shoe-leather reporter who would dig deep to get stories that did not get covered elsewhere. He seemed more at home on a subway or a neighborhood bar than in a limousine or a swanky restaurant. Nonetheless, he plied his trade when public approval for journalists frequently approached 70 percent.

The next generation of reporters will need a similar grit and sensibility to succeed. As the nation becomes more diverse, more connected to technology and less willing to blindly accept heavily concentrated coverage from New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, reporters will have to push harder to break out of traditional media bubbles. But they’ll also be operating in an environment of widespread skepticism unlike anything ever faced by Breslin. For this reason, they’ll need to learn complex new technologies and develop strong research skills to inoculate their work against accusations of “fake news.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. At a time when elected officials, corporate titans and others in positions of authority are likely to challenge young journalists, the public will depend on the courageous ability of freshly hired news professionals to hold individuals in power accountable for their words and deeds.