Friday was career day at Stafford Intermediate School. I was invited with several other professionals to come and visit the fifth and sixth grade classes and in the span of less than 15 minutes tell them about what I do for a living. Speaking to classes is something I’ve done many times in many places where I’ve worked. This time, however, it was different. I really had my work cut out for me.
When I asked if the children knew what the Fort Bend Star was, most couldn’t answer. Several guessed it was the state tests they’re required to take (STAAR). Some thought I worked for an observatory. Only a few knew it was a newspaper. In some of the classes I asked if they knew what a newspaper was. I got far more blank stares than hands in the air. I quite naively assumed that everyone knows what a newspaper is. The longer I spoke the more I could sense my hair turning whiter and whiter. I felt old – really, really old.
If there was ever a proverbial line in the sand where printed newspapers would come to an end, we have reached it. I looked at a generation of young people who will never know what it’s like to pick up a print edition of the news, get ink on their fingers, and enjoy turning the pages where they could read news, sports, features, opinions, comics, and more in one simple package. They won’t know what it’s like to cut out articles and pictures of family and friends and stick them to the refrigerator with magnets or paste them in a scrapbook.
More importantly, I fear they will no longer be able to decipher truth from fiction, or “fake news.” The blending of honest, real reporting with click bait and other digital garbage on everything from legitimate news websites to social media sites is making it much harder for the fourth estate to carry out its First Amendment job.
I fear that we will soon have a populace that neither knows nor cares about what its government is doing or about issues that impact their lives. Even if they do care, finding the truth is becoming increasingly difficult. Just look at the debate surrounding global warming or climate change. There are “facts” that support and debunk both sides of the issue. This kind of convolution of the news is spreading as well. If you need an example, look no further than President Donald Trump and Russia.
Getting back to school, I tried to make the kids get excited about journalism by talking about all the really cool things I get to do. I told them how I’ve met governors, senators, congressmen, mayors and many other elected officials. Then I told them about a handful of the celebrities I’ve met or covered. They got excited when I mentioned names like J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Jose Altuve and George Springer. Most were clueless about Garth Brooks. Mostly they wanted to know if I had met various rappers and professional basketball players. I don’t like basketball very much and I absolutely hate rap and hip-hop, so there was an obvious generational disconnect.
I tried to get the students to understand how exciting my job is because, in addition to getting to cover celebrities, I get to be where all the action is. I’m in places where things happen, decisions are made, and lives are changed. I’m a witness to history and what I write serves as a first draft of history. What I do matters and is lasting.
While it is undeniably true that print editions will go away within our lifetimes, the written word will not. The world will always need reporters – the storytellers of our day. We will always be needed to keep our government in check and to ferret out the truth wherever it may hide.
In an era where anyone with a cell phone and a website can pretend to do what I do and be what I am, there will always be the need for honest, trained and educated professionals to take up the mantle when my generation is gone.
One of the things I asked most of the classes was whether or not they read a newspaper. With very few exceptions, most said they did not. When I explained to them that a lot of the real news they saw in their social media feeds comes from newspapers and other legitimate journalists, they quickly understood that they were in fact newspaper readers, even though many had never turned the page of a print product.
Finally, I felt like I was making a connection. Not only were they able to relate to me, but I was able to relate to the reality of where journalism is heading. This is a noble profession and vital to the survival of democracy in a free republic. The generation that walks in the shoes of my colleagues and me will have much more to worry about than press schedules, deadlines and page designs. The ability to decipher and effectively communicate the truth in a convincing way is going to be a much bigger challenge than it is today. Finding ways to monetize future news products – and thus make a living – is going to present huge hurdles to overcome. These challenges can be overcome and I trust they will be.
I have no way of knowing if what I had to say to these youngsters made a difference or even planted a seed that will someday blossom into a career for someone, but I can always hope. I love what I do and I want to keep doing it as long as I am able. I hope someday that these kids will make a living doing what they love and accomplish something meaningful that makes a difference and changes the world. Journalism offers that. No matter how high on a pedestal we perch or how low on the career ladder we linger, journalists are important and do make a difference.
Whether it’s print, broadcast, digital or some other future format, we’re the storytellers who are recording history and influencing the future. I’m honored to be on this ride through this profession.