Looking back at the road fully visible

A trending topic on Twitter today gave me an existential moment that was as fascinating as it was slightly horrendous. The topic –  #10yearsago – is pretty self-explanatory. I have a notoriously bad memory, so I was sitting in the basement with my sister, thinking about what I could have been doing 10 years ago as we were having a conversation, coming up with very little.

I had to accomplish the task mathematically. Ten years ago I was … about to turn 16. That made me a sophomore in high school, I think. Sophomore year, second semester, I was about to buck the system and join the staff of Novi High’s newspaper, The Wildcat Roar, which was normally a class reserved for juniors and higher.

(UPDATE: I realized soon after this that I’d done the math wrong, and actually was a freshman in high school 10 years ago. That’s not really conducive to this blog, so in favor of writing the one that I’m interested in writing, we’re adjusting to #9yearsago.)

Sitting in the basement, wandering through my life the way kids go through history textbooks, I realized that the singular decision to join the newspaper has had a larger effect on my life than any other thing I’ve done – ever.

It’s actually kind of haunting, not to mention a little grotesque, the way this one choice has absolutely shaped every. single. thing. that has happened to me since. From academia to career path, from college choice to my love life, from who my friends are to how I spent various summers, from what I wanted to be to what I am, the Wildcat Fucking Roar is responsible for all of it.

How unsettling, not to mention altogether underwhelming (who am I, exactly, that I can be narrowed down and pigeonholed so thoroughly?), is that?

Not that it’s all bad. I’m painting the suck picture here, and there’s a hearty helping of that. There have also been some incredible things to come out of this decision. Finding something at which I excelled was hugely formative for me. I had very little self-confidence for the entirety of my time in school, and journalism turned me around, helping to become (somewhat) more outgoing and altering my view of myself and the world at large. I have a few key people and newspaper to thank for that.

Central Michigan Life -- three years of long hours and great people. I attended Central Michigan University instead of the University of Michigan, a decision I stand by (and am extremely thankful for) to this day. My college years were dominated by my work at Central Michigan Life, which was altogether amazing. Many of my best friends are journos and I love them. And there’s Caitlin M. Foyt, who I only know (and who only loves me) because of the time we spent together on the newspaper.

But let’s also track the ensuing carnage from that single moment, shall we?

In 1999, I joined the newspaper. I designed the sports section. Jason Skiba, a journalism teacher who also had a major effect on me, had just taken the paper from an 8×11 magazine-format craprag to a broadsheet newsprint Actual Paper. Game-changer, that guy.

Skiba also gave me my first high school B. Because I got my section done late. Because designing is goddamn hard (and I still don’t believe I deserved that B).

That first B knocked me out of contention to be among the 80-odd valedictorians in our grade-inflated high school. It pushed me out of four-year straight-A contention, which had a massive effect on my work ethic. Suddenly I couldn’t obtain academic greatness, and therefore, the pressure was off. I was somewhat coasting through of high school after that because really, who the hell cared at that point.

The majority of high school was dedicated to The Roar. I worked up to editor in chief, a role shared with one Nick Hurwitch, and I let it consume my afternoons and weekends. I wrote a feature column and stupid articles about movies and cartoons. It was a writing outlet and I was in love with it.

When it came time to go to college, journalism factored in heavily. My work at The Roar had me considering journo as career path, which in turn led to me looking seriously at CMU and Michigan State (at the time, I didn’t think I had much chance of getting into U-M). There were a handful of other things that occurred, including scholarship happenings that influenced the decision, but in the end, CMU was as much a choice that made sense financially as one that had a journalism program I could get behind.

As far as career was concerned, the thing I’d always sort of planned to do involved creative writing somehow. Mostly I was thinking “novelist” and therefore studied creative writing. Journalism was a backup plan, and thus my minor. It was later that I realized I could double-major without too much stress and it made much, much more sense.

But journalism was always the “backup career” in case I needed to do something in the meantime while waiting to get published/discovered/otherwise famous. Until, of course, it became the primary career as I devoted just about all of my time and energy to CM Life. I rose as high as managing editor at that institution, spent a summer as design editor, got some pretty great clips, did a whooole lot of editing, and parlayed my time there into internships and a couple of jobs. (It wasn’t until much later that I realized the industry was falling apart and as a “backup plan,” it was barely feasible.)

One has to wonder about destiny when you find a woman like this, a year after you thought you'd never see her again. While I was there, I met Caitlin, which tops the list as The Single Greatest Thing To Ever Happen To Me. For that reason alone, the 10 years of journalism that were the result of Skiba’s (and later newspaper adviser Lydia Cadena’s [she deserves much more mention than I’m giving her here]) influence and the intoxicating allure of newsprint have been, as they say, Fucking Phenomenal. The last year with her has been life-alteringly great, and without the decision to attend CMU, without the decision to study journalism, without my experience at my high school newspaper, I would never have found her and life would be sad and abysmal. Of everything that’s happened, even if everything that had resulted from journalism was negative, it would have been well worth it.

Although, she could have made it a little easier on me and said something to me five years ago, instead of us waiting until last March to finally admit to each other how we felt. But anyway.

The massive influence of journalism on me led me to my internship, which constituted a second summer in journalism, at the Grand Rapids Press. Since I’d been interested in page design and have some sort of irritating affinity for editing copy, I did a copy desk internship there. That work experience and my experience as an editor at CM Life (I basically started as an editor and designer, which robbed me, in retrospect, of a great deal of reporting) led me to a copy desk job at the Port Huron Times-Herald. Moving to Chicago led me to the Web copy editing job I currently hold.

I’ve come to realize editing definitely is not how I want to spend the rest of my life – at all. I wonder what might have happened if I’d had the foresight to drop journalism in favor of spending more time immersing myself in English, creative writing, and film – the way I’m starting to wish I had.

So today I’m two months out from turning 25, and pretty much reserved to the notion that journalism is not, in fact, what I want to do with my life. And deciding not to join the newspaper way back when I was two months out from turning 16 would have put me at a different college, in a different city, studying a different thing, and eventually working a different job. I wouldn’t have spent the last year living at home, or most of the year before that in Chicago, or most of the year before that living in apartments in southeast Michigan night shifts at newspapers and watching movies.

What ifs are difficult and, obviously, pointless. What isn’t pointless I think, though, is recognizing the path of life and how important a single decision can be. And despite all this random career insecurity I’ve been suffering from for the last year, it’s important to note: I have never ever been happier, in my life, than I am today. When I look back at the path of my life, despite some misgivings, I can’t help but wonder about the concept of fate – journalism, that one original decision, is responsible for me finding the woman of my dreams. And we’re together despite my inadvertent efforts to never realize how she felt about me, or to tell her how I felt. The path seems to have led me, inexorably, to Caitlin.

Hard to downplay the significance of that.

It’s weird thinking about the exact path of life over the last 10 years. But you can’t change a path if you can’t see it, right? And I can certainly see it, in stark clarity.

Creating the journalism Spam State

I’m working on a diatribe about journalism in general, but I need to temper and hone my argument better before I post it here. In the meantime, I’ll comment on a smaller portion of the evolving journalism industry: Citizen journalism.

Everyone’s got an opinion as to the evolution of the industry right now, but the ones that drive me the most crazy are these advocates of citizen journalism. Not only as a working journalist, but as a member of this society, I feel like full-scale citizen journalism will be a horrible development.

I’ve spoken at length with Caitlin M. Foyt about this idea. She likes the idea of citizen journalism in a lot of ways – instead of one perspective on events, you get many. You get eye-witness accounts of said events, and different people’s first-hand knowledge of what happened, from diverse voices.

It sounds great, and in certain instances and under certain circumstances, it is. Crowd-sourced news can be great.

Provided there’s a filter.

But often there isn’t. The idea that any clown from any place can write any thing on the Internet and not only are we going to believe it, but we’re going to encourage it, scares the hell out of me. I went to school to do this; if we educate people to do it, probably there’s something important to learn about doing it.

The consideration of ethics, of what’s fit to print and what should be held back, about doing harm when harm is unnecessary or mitigating collateral damage against the innocent, were all major subjects of study during my time at Central Michigan University.

Citizen journalists have no concept of ethics. There are plenty of things that most people don’t think about until after the fact – like the publishing of names of accused people, for example, or of photos showing people in compromised situations. Like at the moment of their deaths.

Not to mention that there’s nothing stopping all these random contributors from just posting whatever they want. Just because you have the name of someone who’s been arrested, or a rape victim, or whatever, doesn’t mean it should be public information.

There’s also nothing stopping these people from running rampant and publishing anything they want, true or not, verified or not. Or pushing their agendas and sculpting the news to fit their world views. All these things, all these biases, are supposed to be avoided by professional journalists. While this doesn’t always happen the way we’d like, at least we all recognize that we’re supposed to try to practice journalistic ethics.

Yes, citizen journalism can be extremely useful in certain situations. My favorite example is a car crash. Lots of eye-witness perspectives of people who happen to be there can bring clear focus to an event that has the potential to be confusing after-the-fact. In that regard, I like citizen journalism, because many accounts mean more of the picture is revealed.

But for a crime? For a government meeting, or a new bill going through the state senate, or anything concerning the rights of the accused, or corporate malfeasance, or any number of other things that newspapers and journalists are supposed to cover and cover well – no, thank you. No citizen journalists can handle things like that.

For one, they don’t know how. Two, they don’t know, or don’t care, that everyone is entitled to certain rights and that you protect those rights. Accused criminals are innocent until proven guilty, even if they’re accused of molesting children or murdering grandmas and puppies. But blogs and Internet comments ALREADY are rife with people leaping to conclusions, convicting people because they’ve been arrested, calling for public executions (really – that happens on newspaper comments all the time). These are the people I’m supposed to trust to give me the truth?

And that’s the other thing: What truth is there when there’s no one looking over your shoulder, making sure you get it right? The best part of the journalism industry is that reporters can’t just make things up (usually). They can’t just put together a story with only one side of things told. Because there are laws. There are editors. There are people who know better reading things over and saying, “You haven’t done a good enough job of meeting our standards.”

One of my major problems with journalism today is that these standards have become far too lax, but they still exist – unless you’re talking about a blog, or a citizen journalist, who not only doesn’t have these rules and this oversight, but has no idea what these journalists and editors are even looking for.

Any reporter will tell you, people are routinely trying to push their story ahead of everyone else’s. Even sources don’t recognize the need for fairness. How can people who write the news fairly when working part-time, for free, without education?

So I’m supposed to read these stories written by untrained, uneducated citizen journalists and find what in them – truth? Trust? Facts? How is it better to let people who have not only no financial stake in the story, but any number of conflicts of interest because they are NOT WORKING JOURNALISTS, create the news? What we’re giving people at random is the power of the press without any of the responsibility or preparation, and we’re pretending like it’ll be better for the country.

If a story is written about the impropriety of a used car dealership by someone else in the used car industry, how is that proper? A former employee – do we trust that? What about a competitor? At what line do we decide that no, your work is not to be trusted, but yes, this guy’s is? And how do we check random people out? If a story comes from random citizen, how do we know that his or her sister-in-law isn’t the owner of a dealership, or friends with someone who was fired, or even just a customer who got taken for a ride? How do you cleanse the news of all these agendas when ANYONE is allowed to push their stories like they’re fact?

Crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism have their place – as a supplement to the work of reporters. As a watchdog effect in which citizens, who SHOULD be gathering their own information, both add those perspectives to and call out reporters on the information they’ve found. But those facts contributed by anyone off the street must be checked out.

A journalist friend of mine mentioned on Twitter the other day what a source of citizen journalism the 10-million-plus user network Facebook could become. He suggested using its college network setup to create huge, crowd-sourced outlets for campus news.

On its face, it could be a good idea, but to me, that’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard of. Most of the people I know on Facebook can barely put together two sentences. Ten million idiots throwing content at the wall and calling it news? It’ll be an inundation of unsubstantiated mud-slinging, name-calling, and agenda-pushing. You’ll be getting the Dennis Lennoxes of the world spreading lies, propaganda, and defamation, coupled with the sorority clones and fraternity clowns making sure everyone knows about their philanthropy, fundraiser and party this weekend. And that’s just some of the b.s. that will populate a crowd-sourced Facebook news program.

What you’ll barely hear about, if at all, are the things that matter – tuition raises, actions of campus police, crime, security, administrative moves, changes in classes. And even if you do, how will you be able to find them, read them, and believe them in the face of all the garbage you’ll have to wade through? And what will these news stories be, except people bitching about paying more with “I’m not happy about this because it effects me” mentality?

You’re creating a spam state of journalism.

And there’
s just too much at risk. The power of the press is too great to try to create the news out of a compilation of random bits of information contributed from people with no filter. And no amount of seminars, workshops, or three-hour training sessions with real journalists is going to create journalists out of random people. They need real schooling.

I’ve been learning and practicing good journalism for the last eight years of my life. That’s why I’m qualified to write a news story – and editors will still read it over, make sure it’s true, and hold me accountable for every word that story says. Is that really something we want to surrender to the Internet just because it’s more convenient to let Bob, Jim, Sandy and Marsha write down what they see?

It’s a bad idea because journalism is no longer about the quantity of news produced, or the speed at which that news is found – it’s now about quality.

We’re going to figure that out real soon if we keep ignoring the fact that trained journalists know how to write stories that are good in favor of something that’s cheaper, faster, and above all, less trustworthy.