Recently, investigative reporter Bill Dedman stepped in it when he had the temerity to suggest the good old days weren’t always so good. Speaking to students at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism, he said:
“First, I’d like to urge you to stop worrying about how things were so much better in the old days. They weren’t better.”
That is blasphemy among many in our profession who remember, say, the Reagan administration. We take it as a truism that the golden age of journalism was somewhere between the careers of William Randolph Heart and Ben Bradlee and to say otherwise is to threaten your press pass.
From where I sit, whether it was ever “better” depends on how you define the term.
These things are true: Newsroom budgets used to be bigger. There were more people in the newsroom. Newspapers were bigger. There were more people being paid to cover statehouses and school boards. Newspapers had more prestige. Reporters didn’t feel pulled in quite so many directions.
These things are also true: News organizations used to be terribly hierarchical. They were almost always run by old white guys. Consumers regularly had to wait 24 hours or longer to read the news. There were far fewer people engaged in reporting civic affairs in one way or another. There were fewer people taking newsworthy photos. There was no opportunity to speak the truth to power unless someone powerful allowed it in print. …
Trust me when I say that breaking into this business as a talented 22-year-old was also no picnic 30 years ago either.
There is no shortage of disgruntled middle-aged men floating around the journalism world today. Much of what those guys say about the travails of modern journalism is true. Just don’t buy everything they say about the romance of the golden years of journalism. If you are interested in disseminating breaking news as it happens, if you work better with graphics or visual formats, if you want feedback from your readers you are probably a more content journalist today than you would have been in 1972.