A little late now (in more ways than one), but …

Twenty-five years ago today, I graduated from UW–Madison with a double-major Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and political science.

Twenty-five years later, we are right in the middle of college graduation season, with thousands of college students graduating with journalism degrees.

Ben Bromley has some bad news for them:

College kids are sharp cookies, and likely are looking to land someplace more stable and secure than journalism. Someplace like the edges of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

But there still are a few delightfully demented youngsters seeking newspaper jobs, God bless ’em. They’ll bring to the nation’s newsrooms a sense of optimism and enthusiasm most newspaper veterans lost sometime during the second Bush administration. But on the down side, they’ll remind we lifers how old we are — and how much the business has changed since our bylines first appeared in print.

Nearly 20 summers ago I interned at my hometown paper, a country weekly. This was a couple years before computerized page design became common, and long before the advent of digital photography. When I describe this bygone period to our new hires, they look at me as if I am reporting live from the Paleozoic Era. “What was it like commuting via woolly mammoth? Did you write your first city council story on a cave wall?”

Back then, we printed out articles and headlines on paper. Editors then fed the printouts into a machine that coated them with wax, and placed them on pieces of paperboard the size of a news page. Ah, the smells of the 1990s newsroom: melted wax, ashtrays and unshowered police beat reporters.

That era’s tools of the trade now seem as ancient as spear heads. We shot photos on film. We used a device called a proportion wheel to size our pictures — remember, this was before you could Photoshop your face onto an image of Channing Tatum’s body in two minutes flat — and a pica pole to measure out everything on the page. Every now and then, I dig the pica pole and proportion wheel out of my desk and ask newbies to identify them. They sit silently and blink, certain I am holding artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian. …

We thought it was pretty slick in the late 1990s when we could dial up to the Internet and send our pages to the printing plant without leaving our desks. But to kids today, the sound of a 56K modem connecting — “ba donka donka donk … ksssshhhhhhhhh” — is about as modern as a pay phone.

Even the borderline burnouts still believe journalists sometimes can change how the world works. But most of the time, the world changes how we work.

I wish you good luck, class of 2013, and I ask that show your veteran colleagues due respect. Remember, one day you’ll be the dinosaur.

Here’s the thing about Ben: The “hometown paper” he interned at was the Grant County Herald Independent, where I started work May 23, 1988. Before he was an intern, he was a Lancaster High School graduate who was one of the creators of LHS’ underground newspaper, the Arrow Free Press. I did a story about the Arrow Free Press. (The next issue, the Free Press’ staff box was called the “Steve Prestegard Fan Club.) So if Ben is from the Paleozoic Era holding artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian, what does that make me?

Young journalists do not ask me for advice. If they did (other than asking them if they really, really wanted to get into this silly line of work), I would say that journalists need to do four things —

  1. Be willing to work long and irregular hours …
  2. … with little feedback (and what feedback you get is often negative).
  3. Have skills in multiple media, and be technologically savvy enough to use print, audio, video, online and social media. (For that matter, journalists need to be able to use media that haven’t even been developed yet. No one had heard of the Internet in 1988.)
  4. Be entrepreneurial. The barriers to entry in journalism are lower than they’ve been since probably the days of “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” But journalism schools still send into the world more graduates than jobs exist for those graduates and the ink-stained wretches like Bromley and myself. I was told in college that being fired (assuming it wasn’t for incompetence) was a badge of journalism honor — you know, sacrificing your job for the sanctity of your work, or some crap like that. Chances are, though, that whether by choice or not, a journalist today will be unemployed at least once during his or her career, so having freelancing skills — that is, the ability to turn your journalistic abilities into a business, with everything that entails — will become more and more important.

Would I have heeded any of this advice in 1988? Definitely number three. (I’ve always done sportscasting as a side to my regular employment. Given what a goofy profession radio is, I’m probably happy that I’ve never worked full-time in radio.) I knew number one, and probably had figured out number two. (What happens after you get a publication  done? You start working on the next edition, unless (A) you’re leaving it or (B) it’s leaving you.) Having had no experience or interest in number four, the concept of being “entrepreneurial” would have sailed right over my head, and I’m taller than  most people.

I’ll probably have more on this next week, when I celebrate, if that’s what you want to call it, 25 years in full-time journalism.

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