A writer friend and I were email rapping on the current state of journalism, and the general worthlessness of j-school degrees. He suggested reporting may have been better when reporters had not gone to college, mentioning H.L. Mencken. In my reply I suggest that if most journalists, degree or no, were as entertaining as Henry Mencken, then I would be eager to fetch my newspaper from my front lawn in the morning. As it is I usually spend all of 10 minutes with the Tampa Daily Bugle and Thunderstorm, most of that looking at box scores and the day’s ML standings, with a quick detour to the weather page (which, this time of year, just informs me it will be hot as hell until it starts raining). I rely on my wife to survey the obits and inform me if anyone we know has moved on.
When I first got into the newspaper biz (1972), there were still a fair number of degreeless reporters and editors about. Including a few, like Mencken, who had not attended college at all. There were also a few people with master’s degrees in journalism (or what, in our abstraction-plagued era, we have learned to call mass communications). Over my years in the trade I could detect little relationship between how many years a reporter had sat directly on his (her) butt in a college classroom and how good a reporter, or how graceful a writer, he was. Now almost everyone in the newsroom is a j-school grad and the poor sod hoping to argue that newspapers are the better for it has a hill to climb.
One difference I did notice was the journalism students were more apt to use vague and unlovely journalese, and were prone to abstractions. (And now, of course, j-school nags feel obliged to inject their politics into their copy.) Reporters who had only idled a semester or two at the local JC tended to write in concrete English nouns and verbs. No finer example of the latter can be found than Henry’s first appearance in print. The item below is from the Baltimore Morning Herald of Feb. 24, 1899:
A horse and buggy and several sets of harness, valued in all at about $250, were stolen last night from the stable of Howard Quinlan, near Kingsville. The county police are at work on the case, but so far no trace of either thieves or booty has been found.
This is the work of an 18-year-old, unscathed by higher education. It cannot be improved on. It economically answers the who, what, where questions in clear, concrete language. It has the snap of a good fastball. It’s free of crap words like “alleged, “subjects,” or “suspects.” In the last sentence young Henry calls a thief a thief and uses the word “booty,” which is more interesting than any number of words lesser writers would have chosen. I am filled with admiration.