Larry King: Thoughts On The State of Journalism and Teaching

Regular readers will recognize the name Larry King, a friend of mine who is an expat journalist in London; or rather, he was. He has left the field. Here's his report:

I can sum up most of my reasons for the career switch fairly quickly. I now make more money, have shorter hours, and get longer holidays. And I was getting fed up with the Spartan mentality at [insert name of journalism organization here], where increasingly over the past few years the professional competence of me and my colleagues seemed to be measured in how much blood, sweat, toil, and tears we shed, regardless of whether the shedding was called for and despite considerable evidence that it was counter-productive.

One final reason would take longer than I've got right now to go into in any detail, but as a quick gloss, I have also over the past few years begun to feel that journalism as a profession was turning into something I was no longer much interested in. Psychoanalytically minded historians or historically oriented shrinks could spend years in an excruciatingly dull debate over whether it was me or the craft of journalism that had changed the most, but that seems to me like debating whether the guy on the dessert island died of malnutrition or dehydration. The guy's dead either way, right?

I could cite a whole host of things as either causes, effects, or some of each -- the growing dominance of the Internet as the first deliverer of news, the economically dispiriting outlook for newspapers, the pandering after celebrities and the search for the latest sleaze in most magazines, the astonishing stupidity of virtually all television. But the upshot as far as I was concerned was pretty simple. I used to read The New Yorker and the New York Times and Time and any number of other publications, and in any given issue, I'd see something and say, hey, I'd like to have done that. Written the story, helped conceive of it and edited it, whatever -- I would just like to have been part of putting it in front of people. That seldom happens any more. I see stuff that holds my interest well enough on the Tube or on a plane or in the toilet, but if it's time to get up before I finish reading it, well, that's okay, too.

You can see where that kind of thinking leads. If I wasn't interested in most of the journalism now being produced, how could I stay interested in producing it? When I thought about that, I realized I wasn't much interested in what I was doing any more, and from that concluded it was time to look for something else.

My response:

I remember all the Southerners who said in the late 60s and early 70s, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me." I feel the same way about journalism.

Yes, I was laid off, but in part because I said I was willing to be laid off to save a bunch of lower-paid employees. I said this because I was ready to leave. I did not consider another journalism job or freelancing. Not for an instant.

Journalism was changing in ways I could not tolerate, in ways that are really similar to the ones you witnessed. The Internet is not the culprit. I spent my last five years working on the Internet, doing podcasts before there were iPods on which to listen to them. The problem is journalism management and Wall Street. Even in flush times, all journalism management always beats the reporters and puts them away wet. Most journalism outfits I have worked for were understaffed, with insufficient resources.

I hear there was a golden era at the LA Times and the NY Times and the three television networks when you had enough people and money to do the job. No more. And Wall Street, greedy Wall Street (God, I wish John Edwards had a chance), says the double-digit profit margins of journalism companies are not sufficient (many times the profit margins of most businesses). So it hammers their stocks until they are forced into ill-advised mergers, which further weaken the basic product in a massive wave of layoffs.

Thank you, Larry, It is always heartwarming to have one's own feelings reconfirmed independently.

And by the way, while I do not expect it to be any consolation, teaching is going to the dogs as well. No Child Left Behind is a farce; increasingly, we are all teaching to the test, and forgetting about the rest. This country has been the world leader in innovation because of our free-form educational system. With it's "if it isn't broken, let's break it," approach, the Bush administration is striving to reduce our school system to the level of Japan or Britain. They have more engineers and mathematicians, true, but do they innovate at the rate we do? No, they do not, and in a few years, we won't be innovating at that rate either. Just let this over-tested under-taught generation grow up and the consequences will be there for all to see. Of course, the architects of this disaster will be long gone by then, and since we don't have the time and freedom to properly educate our students, many of them will not be aware that cause and effect are rarely proximate in time. Heck, they won't know the meaning of the word proximate.

[Note to readers: Please don't write and tell me accountability is needed, and poor students are being undertaught, and No Child Left Standing is the solution.You're absolutely right about the problem, and could not be more wrong about the solution.]

Larry concluded:

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up for me -- I didn't leave the party, it left me. But you mentioned in your earlier message that you feel teaching is going to the dogs, too. A friend of mine from college just retired from teaching, as soon as her pension kicked in after 25 years, and she says more or less the same thing. It's no longer the kind of job that she loved when she first started. Since you still are a teacher, presumably you don't want to say anything too scathing in your column, but if you've got a moment to drop me a line sometime, I'd be interested in seeing your thinking on the subject. Journalism and teaching are both in the general business of delivering information or knowledge, and I have a vague, inchoate feeling that what's happening to each is related to how people are getting more and more information but know less and less what to do with it.

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Larry King is an American-born expatriate I know who lives in London. He is not the talk show host, nor is he the author of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. From time to time, he contributes a Letter From Europe to my column. Below, I list the letters that have appeared so far.

Larry King's Letter from Europe: Very Little Happens in August (Sep. 6, 1999)

Larry King's Letter from Europe (Feb. 2, 2000)

Larry King Takes Over The Column: Spring in London (April 10, 2000)

Of Twits And Things (July 24, 2000)

Larry King on Eurostar (March 19, 2001)

Joe Brancatelli and Larry King on Rail Travel (March 26, 2001)

Larry King on Foot and Mouth and British Tourism (April 2, 2001)

Larry King on 9/11 (Oct. 15, 2001)

Larry King on Lords and Dukes And Journalists (Feb. 11, 2002)

Larry King on Presidential Greatness (March 4, 2002)

Larry King on British Broadcasting (March 11, 2002)

Larry King on England, the U.S. and the Middle East (April 29, 2002)

Larry King on the case FOR the war with Iraq (March 24, 2003)

Larry King Deconstructs A Blunkett Remark (August 19, 2004)

Larry King On The British Election (May 9, 2005)

Larry King On 7/8 Bombing (July 10, 2005)

Larry King: Bye Bye Blair (May 28, 2007)

Larry King: Thoughts On The State of Journalism and Teaching (January 18, 2008)

Larry King Letter from London: American Ex-Pats Vote (May 19, 2008)

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