By Christopher Harper
When I joined the Associated Press in Chicago, “-30-“ signaled the end of a story. Depending on the source, the designation apparently began in the Civil War as a typesetter’s code. In recent years, it has been the name of a movie starring Jack Webb and even the title of the final episode of The Wire.
After 50 years as a reporter and a journalism educator, I have decided to place a -30- on my career and hang up my green eyeshade, pica pole, and glue pot. I’ll retire on July 1, 2022.
I joined the academy after more than years in journalism at the AP; Newsweek in Chicago, Washington, and Beirut; and ABC News in Cairo, Rome, and New York.
A couple of years after I started in journalism at the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Watergate was reaching its crescendo, and I had an opportunity to do some reporting on the events that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. After that, I covered the deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, the Iran hostage crisis, three wars, numerous terrorist attacks, and several investigations into major corporations, such as Federal Express.
When I started in the academy in 1994 at New York University, the internet played virtually no role in journalism. The internet had virtually no penetration until AOL marketed its service. People reached the internet via what was called a “handshake,” a ka-chunk-chunk sound that screeched through telephone lines.
A few years later, I wrote a book that looked at the future of online journalism. Few journalism educators and working editors paid much attention to the implications of the internet, although I was able to teach some of the first classes in multimedia design and journalism at New York University, Ithaca College, and Temple University. At the latter, I helped start a journalism website in 2007, www.philadelphianeighborhoods.com, which reported on low-income and minority locales that got little positive attention in the mainstream media.
Today, however, the state of journalism and journalism education are far less rosy than in my days as a reporter and my days as a teacher.
First, most people don’t trust journalists anymore. Reporters have always been nosy sorts and not well-loved. But many people saw a role for journalists to keep tabs on government actions.
The reappearance of the partisan press, particularly during the Trump years, has left many with a negative view of what the media do.
I don’t see much journalism can do about the lack of trust. I think the only possibility is to emphasize accuracy above all else—as well as to incorporate as many voices as possible into the debate about the country’s future. Even so, the media are so badly broken that I’m not sure that any new bridges can be built between journalism and its public.
Second, the media failed to respond to the massive intrusion of the tech companies—Google, Facebook, and others—into the news business. Again, it may be too late to force these companies to pay for the news and information that should be a violation of copyright. But the media companies have failed to press their case in the courts.
Third, although some of my students have gone on to excellent careers in places like ESPN, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and various local news organizations, the number of people interested in journalism has plummeted.
When I started at Temple in 2005, more than 800 students majored in journalism. Today, that number is roughly half. I can’t say I blame students who face limited job prospects and mediocre salaries. But no one ever went into journalism to become wealthy.
Moreover, the number of educators who practiced journalism for more than a few years has been declining dramatically over the past decade or so. As a result, students learn more about social issues than storytelling.
I’m thankful of all the opportunities I’ve had to travel the world on the bank accounts of news organizations and universities and the ability to witness important events throughout the world. But as I mosey off into the sunset, I wish I could be more optimistic about the craft I plied for more than 50 years. Alas, I cannot.