Annals of Communications

When Johannes Gutenberg peeled the first broadsheet off the first printing press and began to read it, he reportedly cried out, “Whoa…! This article is far too wordy; the syntax is awkward, the grammar is atrocious and the whole thing makes no sense.” Thus was born the first editor.

The craft of editing had failed to flourish in earlier times because cuneiform was notoriously difficult to correct once chiseled in stone, and papyrus easily damaged by erasure and strike-overs (cf: Scrolls, Dead Sea).

Five centuries after Gutenberg, publishing had morphed into a massive global industry known as Mass Communications, and it was at that point that Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., a rising young American politico, invented the Information Superhighway, a.k.a., the Internet.

Encouraged by this breakthrough development, countless millions of people decided to become writer-editors, launching more uncurated verbiage onto the World Wide Web than had been written since the start of recorded history, ca. 3200 BC. Missing in much of this was the guiding hand of The Editor, a woefully diminished breed, few of whom had survived the recent near-death experience of the legacy media.

What this fractured history lesson is meant to convey is that in a world wherein everybody—left to his own devices—is destined to become a spontaneous news and information provider, and/or will be seeking employment in a business environment where exceptional communications skill will be ever-more in demand, we’re going to have to learn to do it better. At premium will be the sort of skills aspiring journalists learn in journalism school.

Enter Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-lab at American University, graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern U., and Pulitzer-winning veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Writing in MediaShift, she posits that “It’s time to think about trumpeting a Journalism degree as the ultimate Gateway Degree, one that can get you a job almost anywhere…”.

Journalism schools would have to articulate a new value program, fleshing out their traditional journalism curricula by adding more liberal arts courses overlaid by instruction in digital competence and social media skills.

Importantly, the practice of journalism per se isn’t going away, it’s merely going through a massive platform shift, albeit a stunningly painful one.The market for news and information is, if anything, on the increase; it simply has to be better audited.

In my opinion, Schaffer’s idea offers a promising scenario. It could re-invigorate our schools of journalism (now suffering from under-enrollment); re-focus the study of journalism as a profession; provide a gateway degree to the college-bound seeking a rewarding career: provide employers with articulate workers trained to be persuasive, persistent, and media-savvy; and give the rest of us a decidedly more informative, reliable, and enjoyable media experience. Best of all, it would put all those beached editors back to work.

2 thoughts on “Annals of Communications

  1. Dear Arthur,
    as Johannes Gutenberg peeled his first sheet from the newly created printing press nearly 50 years before Columbus set foot on a Caribian island it is highly unlikely that he expressed his surprise and pleasure by saying ‘Whoa.’
    Living in medival Mainz at the time, he might have shouted ‘ei horsche mal’ ( untranslatable but often used there).


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