Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Dec. 5 — life is long

Wednesday was our last official class, which I set aside for just general gabbing and pre-goodbyes. Any questions? Any advice I can give? Anything?

I was prepared to just tell them what a real joy it’s been to be here in Montana and work with them, and, once that was done, let class out early — especially for those still sweating the 5 p.m. deadline for their final stories.

It turns out we had plenty to talk about for the whole 80 minutes.

But before I forget:

Our “final exam” is a group critique of the final stories. Reading copies are now available for pick-up at my office. The final critique is Thursday, Dec. 13, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Unfortunately, the 8 a.m. part is not a typo, so set your alarms; I’ll bring frosted breakfast baked goodies for the class. You guys bring your own caffeine or whatever it takes to get the juices flowing. Come “loaded for bear,” as my father used to say: Mark up those stories and let your classmates hear what you truly thought. Enough of this “I really liked this, and, uhhhh, ermmm …” stuff. Get in there. We’ll all kiss and make up when it’s over.

The stories did come in — all but one made it before deadline. I’m diving in this weekend to begin grading. This assignment, which is sort of a hybrid between a long narrative and a scene story, counts for 30 percent of your writing grade; you do the math. (And rest assured, I’ll do the math too. I’m excited to turn in grades!)

Once again we’ve got a range of subjects, perhaps not as broad or original as I’d once dreamed they would be, but nevertheless: a flower shop, a holiday craft fair, a record store, a tanning salon, a free-ride cab service, a country cover band, bingo night, open-session night, a poetry group, the hot springs, the Old Post, Charlie B’s, a holiday tea party for little girls, an upcycling thrift shop, a “found footage” film fest, and people still nursing a Dance Dance Revolution jones. Either this all sounds exciting or it doesn’t. We shall see. I’ll post highlights and excerpts next week, once it’s all over.

So now what? What are you going to do with the rest of your lives? We talked some about that.

When it comes to the future of journalism (and actual jobs in the field), I’ve got no insight that is any more prescient or helpful than anybody else’s big picture. A lot of times, people my age and older tell today’s college students that there’s never been a more exciting time to be entering the field. We say that because we honestly do see some potential opportunities that we never had. Some of us recall how many times we heard that our journalism dreams were “at least 10 years of hard news experience” out of our reach, which is the last thing you want to hear as an eager 22-year-old.

To us (almost) old farts, the new media platforms are exciting, so long as you can set aside the small matter of a paycheck. So much bullshit has been done away with. It feels like opportunity.

But we’re also lying, too. It was never easy to get a job at a newspaper, but they were also pretty freakin’ great places to work. Back then (whenever — the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s; five years ago) was also an exciting time to be entering the field. We had a blast.

And you will too. It’s a different sort of blast. Life is long and so are careers. Stop waiting for the renaissance to work itself out — I’ve already told you that I don’t think that even our grandchildren will figure out the perfect business model for media. Shouldn’t it take at least a century for us to completely dismantle and reinvent six centuries of the printed word? So hang on and fight on.

Some good news:

I’m a lousy prophet, but I do predict that we will all live to see a resurgence in quality journalism that employers pay good money to produce and readers pay good money to read/view, only we’ll be working for smaller audiences who have been rediscovered by a whole new version of what we now call “advertisers.”

We’ll have to let go of some of our most beloved concepts and objects (“the morning newspaper,” e.g., or “the new issue of Vanity Fair,” and things like “layouts,” or “book jackets”). First we’ll see a resurgence in accountability and investigative journalism, and shortly behind it will come a discovery of good feature writing. This will be annoying to those of us old enough to remember “New Journalism” and the era that came after it; the prose aspects of tomorrow’s feature writing, presented to us as innovation, will seem very much like an act of reinventing the wheel. When it cycles back around, I hope you’ll remember all the great stuff we read in this class. You will recognize its characteristics and see how this sort of work — cultural analysis, narrative, longform, shortform, empathetic and funny — has evolved.

Come visit me in the nursing home and we’ll talk about it.

PS: I’ll update the Jour494 portion of this blog a couple times more before I leave Montana — including a “further reading” list of all the stories and books I wanted to discuss with you, that I hope you’ll have time to read someday. Maybe long after graduation, when you’re feeling nostalgic about room 301.

PS 2: One last thing. For the love of pete, stop putting two spaces after a period. You know who you are. Do this for the editors and web producers you’re going to work for in this, the 21st century. Farhad Manjoo is here to tell you why. Two spaces after a period has outlived its typewriter-era purpose. I don’t care what your English teachers said. (Mine said it too. So did my 9th-grade typing teacher. They were right then, but they’re wrong now.)

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