The truth is that I’m still fumbling around in TBD’s content management system. The digital natives I work with could sit through one or two sessions of CMS training and take off in a sprint. I need time to stumble around, make mistakes, ask questions, have someone show me how to do something a second or third time. But when I received CMS training, I was busy preparing for the launch and our previews for the news media (blog post on that experience coming soon). I didn’t have much time for practicing what I’d just learned. And my colleagues were so busy testing the CMS and fixing bugs that I didn’t want to slow them down to answer the old guy’s questions. Some expert, huh?
The reason I am confessing how old I feel at times in my youthful newsroom instead of boasting about how these whippersnappers help keep me young (thankfully, they often do) is that one of the brightest young whippersnappers in journalism has just written one of the smartest things I’ve seen about the generational divide in the news business. Before you finish reading this, read Generations in the Desert by DigiDave (David Cohn). This is a response to Dave, so this will make more sense if you read him first, even though I will quote a long passage:
One interesting person I met began talking to me about the Torah. At first I was internally rolling my eyes. Yes, my last name is Cohn – but I’m more of a cultural Jew (think Woody Allen, Jon Stewart). I am not religious. But I can appreciate a humanist interpretation of the story this individual told. So here we go: From Torah to Media in three paragraphs. Note: I don’t really know the details of the religious story so if this interpretation has no merit – call me out.
When God led the Jews out of Egypt it was originally going to be a two week trip. Instead God led the Jews through the desert for 40 years. An odd thing if you think about it. Earlier in the story God caused the plagues and parted the Red Sea and now this God wouldn’t perform some miracle to swoop up the Jews to someplace with air conditioning? No, he left them in the desert with flat bread.
The humanistic interpretation is that an entire generation who had only known life as slaves had to live and die before the Jews could truly move on. This generation had a slave mentality and the memories of their time in Egypt needed to live and die in the desert before the Jewish people could move to the holy land as a new people.
And that’s when it became relevant.
I’ve said before that professional journalists, in one interpretation, can be thought of as a diaspora. Their “home land” in newspapers has been compromised. If there is a promised-land for media, considering generational theory, it might be that this transition we are in will last much longer. I joked that unless I live to be as old as Moses (120) I won’t live to see the dawning of this new digital age. I am doomed to be part of that cusp generation that must wander in the desert with the elders who remember something long passed and can’t settle into something new. Meanwhile acting as a steward and trying to head north to a new land with a younger generation to take over for me.
To be fair and a side note: I am not suggesting that newspapers or reporters from newspapers have a “slave mentality.” The role newspapers played historically was important, noble and meaningful. But it is gone and dated.
It still leaves us with the question, however, of what is that “something new”?
I don’t propose to know – but I am increasingly convinced that journalists need to remain open even if that means the “profession” of journalism never returns and the loaded word “journalism” is replaced with something else. This could be the case but it wouldn’t stop this “new land” to have people who take upon the responsibility of informing their communities.
In other words – In the future we may not even call it journalism – but if it serves the same functions then I will be satisfied. Furthermore, I’d feel as though my generational role, to act as a steward of something during a tough time in the desert, would be a well fought battle.
I should preface this by saying that I have experienced age discrimination and it is an ugly, hateful thing. I don’t at all advocate discrimination by age (against my generation or those who are younger). I have long felt that journalists (and people in any field) should be judged based on experience, ability and performance.
Experience, however, develops not just skills but also outlook. And I have to say that I am embarrassed at the outlook, performance and leadership I have seen from much of my generation when it comes to journalism innovation. Dave may be right that we need to wander around in the desert and die off (check out the video clip below) or at least retire before we can see a rebirth of journalism — or whatever we will call it then.
I think, though, that the wandering won’t take a full generation. I think right now organizations such as Spot.us (Dave’s organization) and TBD are already taking the first steps toward a prosperous, meaningful future. Dave and his generation may not have to wander as long as he fears.
Despite his disclaimer about the “slave mentality,” Dave has correctly identified that my generation has harbored and nurtured an outlook that is holding journalism back from the promised land. We sometimes defend it with talk of journalism ethics and maintaining quality, but the truth is that journalism has suffered a lot on our watch. We came of age in the era when journalists honored our profession and served our nation in their courageous coverage of Vietnam and Watergate. But now my generation runs news organizations that mostly parroted government lies about pre-war intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction. These news organizations have routinely and inaccurately described an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site as a “Ground Zero mosque.” A profession that gets hijacked that easily by partisans must stop talking about maintaining quality.
When spreadsheets and databases gave journalists outstanding tools for investigative journalism and accountability a couple of decades ago, most journalists of my generation scorned them, singing the praises of “shoe-leather reporting” (and ignoring the fact that the best data journalists used shoe-leather reporting to flesh out the stories they found in data — stories that completely escaped the old-school reporters).
When the web provided a new communication platform, journalists and news executives of my generation either used it to replicate their print and broadcast products or sought to protect the old platforms, but did next to nothing to explore the possibilities of the new technology.
I worked in the Newspaper Next project for the American Press Institute and saw the leaders of nearly every major newspaper company — nearly all of them Baby Boomers — respond with timid baby steps to a detailed plan for broad transformation. I worked for a media company that kept talking about getting out of the desert, but instead just kept shuffling leaders and wandering.
I do not think the future is hopeless for me or other Baby Boom journalists. I have blogged before about how I have redirected and rejuvenated my career, and that’s a process that must be continuous. Lots of my contemporaries have spent years working online and understand content management systems, HTML, CSS, video editing, databases and other digital skills much better than I do. But even some of them show their generational baggage in their slow acceptance, if at all, of social media. Others are using Facebook to keep up with their kids but refuse to see the professional possibilities of Twitter. We might make it out of the desert, but I think our generation has blown our chance to lead the way.
I’m glad Sree thinks I’m a digital media expert, even if I don’t always measure up. But I think Dave and perhaps some of my TBD colleagues of his generation are the kind of experts who will lead us out of this desert.