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The Seven Laws of Journalism – This Semester

August 3, 2009

So, once again, I struggle with how to define this field for a new generation facing even more digital dilution of what we once called news, as well as a bunch of elders who are, albeit through necessity, collectively shrugging their shoulders when asked how this will all shake out and what the job prospects might be.

In the interest of best-web practices, I’ve tried to distill my definition into a few bullet points, which I’ll call The Seven Laws of Journalism — This Semester. No mention of democracy, objectivity, or principles (at least not much).

The Seven Laws of Journalism — This Semester
Journalism isn’t dead. Don’t believe what you hear in the news media about the news media. Yes, journalism as we knew it once is gone, but just as Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, the news is shedding its “clunker” status and becoming sleek and efficient. We can’t live without cars, and we can’t live without news and information.

Money counts. If you’re going into journalism, learn the basics of business. You’ll hear a lot about writing and the love of the story, but you need to be aware of what you’re worth and what your information is worth in monetary terms. Yes, news sites are giving away content for free, but that is changing and your time is worth cold, hard cash. Google searches may be free, for example, but the folks at Google care about money. (Read here how one Washington Post reporter just realized he was being ripped off online.)

Grow a pair. Indelicate description perhaps, but think of yourself as a first responder. You walk toward the danger, even if the danger at the time is simply approaching a big-name politician in a Capitol hallway. Sure, you might be a blogger, but get out and actually witness stuff and write about it. In today’s world, this in itself is unique and will set you apart. If you’re shy about talking to strangers, take a self-development course. Then write about it.

Life is hard (so deal with it). Yeah, we can time shift in the digital world, and who keeps a datebook anymore? But if you want to get a story, you’ve got to be able to keep appointments, dog people, and spend time developing and writing it. Procrastination may be the order of the day, but you need a fallback plan if your last-minute efforts fail, and most people still operate in the 9 to 5 world.

You’re a story factory. A great writer named Ward Just said in An Unfinished Season that newsrooms produced stories all day the way factories produced widgets. People care much more about stories than they care about news (or widgets), and your job is to get people to care about what you do. So, become a story factory. Care about your audience. Your world is your assembly line.

Use technology as a means to an end. Find out how best to tell your story and figure out which technology you need to accomplish that. If you don’t know how to do it, figure it out or find someone who does and collaborate. Or create a blog in two minutes and tell it that way. Then add technology later. Never say, “I’m so bad at technology” or “I just care about writing. I’m not a programmer.”

Ok, the whole democracy thing (sorry). You don’t have to think about this one a lot but people fought and died so you could do what you do, and a lot of people all over the world would kill to be able to do it, even if “it” is covering the Twiggtown, Md., City Council meeting or blogging about Sookie and Hugo’s True Blood bond. You have rights in order to “do” journalism, so flaunt them.

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40 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2009 2:48 pm

    Speaking as a 30-year newspaperman (30 years of reporting, not 30 years old) this seems a very interesting approach. It sure beats the heck out of a month practicing pyramid-style ledes.

    The only addition I can think of is: Learn by doing – which is a heck of a lot easier now thanks to the technology that is destroying our business model. Find a topic (outside of the university, hopefully) and make it your beat for the academic year; create a blog about it at the very least, and cover it as if you were being paid to. If nothing else, you may find you actually don’t like to do journalism.

    (On a side note, it will be interesting to see how “Life is hard” and “Grow a pair” affect your notices on RateMyProfessors)

  2. August 4, 2009 3:12 pm


  3. lenol66 permalink
    August 4, 2009 3:46 pm

    Thank you for this commentary. After 20 years in the business, it’s time for a new perspective of 21st century journalism. A devout print journalist, I have moved more into blogging, which is so much fun! I am taking the principles of my Indiana University journalism training and sweat equity and transferring it to a new format with success. Law #6 is now being followed!

    Look forward to following you.


  4. Jon Greer permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:28 pm

    Awesome job. Thanks for putting it into words.

  5. August 4, 2009 4:36 pm

    You say money counts, and I couldn’t agree more. As a college graduate attempting to find an entry level job in publishing, I have been to informational meetings at major companies, exploited connections and connections of connections (good ones too), applied to countless jobs, done light freelancing, taken classes and even worked for free as an intern, but I have not found permanent employment.

    I am applying to a graduate school, looking for work and keeping my fingers crossed. Without work, there is no money.

    I have paid to learn. I have been paid to work in this field, albeit poorly. I enjoy talking to strangers and digging into their words. I write every day and have a “Practice” folder overflowing with files. I produce websites. I have used social media as grass roots publicity. I copy edit.

    I am still unemployed. What do you do when the laws aren’t enough?

  6. August 4, 2009 5:03 pm

    This is timely, to say the least. A long time radio journalist’s son is going to j-school this fall. Father says to son: “You’ll have to study hard.” Son: “Gulp.” It shows that the father comes from another era. At j-school, students have to work hard. But there is no “studying” as we once experienced it (yes, I am old school). But j-schools can teach people about good instincts, curiosity and as you say, growing a couple. Terrific post. Thanks.

  7. August 4, 2009 5:10 pm

    If we’d been teaching and coaching these seven points over the past 40 years, we might not be in today’s pickle. Well done.

  8. August 4, 2009 5:23 pm

    well said!

  9. Elaine Povich permalink
    August 4, 2009 5:27 pm

    Very nicely done, Danna! A lot of practicing journalists (not just students) could learn from it. Cheers, Elaine P

  10. August 4, 2009 5:31 pm

    If any journalism student of mine rolls her eyes when I talk about objectivity, she has to do twenty laps around the parade ground with full pack and rifle.

    Am I out of touch? Maybe.

    Is democracy obsolete? We’ll see.

  11. August 4, 2009 5:36 pm

    Very interesting!

  12. August 4, 2009 5:51 pm

    Your analysis is spot-on, and you’re delivery rocks.

    I try to do much the same in a less-organized fashion in my Freshman Experience and Mass Comm and Society class.
    Another addendum: It’s a business. Get used to it.
    The don’t know whether the MEDIA, that big, liberal lefty-social-agenda monster is a business, a public service, a branch of governement or a plot hatched by the Rosicrucians and the. U.N.
    Nobody teaches civics any more, so students come to us clueless about free speech and the role of the press.
    So give em civics in an engaging fashion, and let the whole journalism thing sorta creep up on them.
    Glad to see I am not alone out there.
    jack zibluk
    arkansas state

  13. Kat Snow permalink
    August 4, 2009 6:35 pm

    Great job Danna. On the objectivity front, I’ve been working this week on creating an assignment to get students to recognize how their experiences tilt their own thinking one way or another, so that they may not even think of a question that would be obvious to someone else.

    While I agree with Bill about the parade ground, I personally don’t use the word “objectivity,” because for years it has implied that we can “get rid of” subjectivity. I believe that what we have to do is counteract our own points of view with dedicated, conscious effort. It’s different than being curious — it means admitting in what way we are limited, so we can work to expand those limits. It’s not easy for us journalists, who tend to succeed partly because we have big egos, grandiose ideas of what we can do, and a boundless sense of possibility.

  14. August 4, 2009 6:58 pm

    Love the laws, especially #4 and #5.

    I’ll add one to the list we’re talking about in my classroom these days: Journalism is about knowing which stories call for objectivity–and which don’t–and always practicing transparency.

    Adding your blog to my RSS reader. All the best!

  15. Jan Shaw permalink
    August 4, 2009 8:21 pm

    Add in fact-based truth …


  16. Lauren Heist permalink
    August 4, 2009 8:37 pm

    I love this. Couldn’t be more accurate, and if I ever get hired to teach students (hope I will!) I will use this approach.

  17. paperhearts03 permalink
    August 5, 2009 5:52 am

    That was a pretty interesting post. But, as a 17 year old high school journalist, I can’t agree with what you said about young people not seeing the possibilities for journalism that sites like Twitter or Facebook or WordPress entail. Almost every person I know, budding writer or not, has a profile on one of these social networking type sites, and plenty of them are part of Amnesty International groups or follow the CNN blog. People my age, at least, are very in tune with technology and the role it plays in modern journalism.
    Also, I don’t think that this broadening of what we call “news” allows us to be lax about things like objectivity and journalism ethics. Isn’t that what defines “news” from just social commentary?

  18. August 5, 2009 1:59 pm

    I wish the “grow a pair” method was introduced in our intro class! I find the seven laws extremely intriguing. I was hit hard with reality as an intern at ABC as well as BBC news with every “get out of the business while you still can,” but, still a realist, I held my head high and knew this was business for me. I find it necessary to almost include your take on the future of the business in terms of the blogosphere. Yes, it’s easy to say that we can never live without information but as I learned from your previous class we can not avoid the inevitable which is change. I am a firm believer in embracing the past but also being able to integrate and, like any good journalist, predict my next move for the future. I will take note of these laws for this semester being that I am taking your writing course (should be interesting now!) as a second year broadcast journalism major head high with pair fully grown!

  19. Steve Cooper permalink
    August 5, 2009 2:13 pm

    You write: “actually witness stuff and write about it. In today’s world, this in itself is unique and will set you apart.” Preach it, sister! I know I’m terribly old-fashioned (emphasis on “old”) but before there can be opinion, there have to be some facts.
    Some smart young people will realize that there’s ALWAYS value in actually understanding what is happening before responding to it. Cart before horse, and all that.
    Back in the paleolithic era (the early 1970s), my editor/mentor told me to always get the facts straight and save my opinions for bar-talk after work. What an old fuddy, he was. But a wise old fuddy. He would have added this law to your list:
    “The story is not about you.”

  20. August 5, 2009 2:47 pm

    Great blog! It’s so important people realise news/journalism isn’t _dying_, it’s just undergoing a seismic change – and we all gotta hold on while it gets rough.

    Entrepreneurial skills are needed now more than ever; the only things I would add, is that although technology is a means to an end, this autumn’s new crop of j-students would do well to embrace it. Learn to shoot and cut video even if they’re print; learn how to do audio slideshows and podcasts.

    The journalist of the future won’t make a living being dependent on one medium.

  21. Deborah Woodell permalink
    August 5, 2009 3:28 pm

    Well-said. I teach copy editing and what you wrote applies to editing, as well as writing. Though I know most of my students won’t become copy editors, if they bring this kind of attitude to their work, they will become their copy editors’ best friends.
    Deborah Woodell
    Senior adjunct professor, journalism
    Rowan University
    Glassboro, NJ

  22. August 5, 2009 6:13 pm

    Thank you, Danna! As a (still!) practicing journalist who also teaches at Johns Hopkins, I’m struggling with how to teach journalism in a way that’s relevant to the jobs our students will seek, without discarding 50 years of journalism history. Your list is a provocative starting point. Yes, life is hard, and it won’t be getting any easier in the next 5-10 years for people who choose journalism. But it is all about story, and the joy and satisfaction of a great story well told can make up for a lot of sleepless nights and cruddy paychecks.

  23. Steve Diogo permalink
    August 7, 2009 4:33 pm

    “Money counts” is key. As more and more journalists are tossed from the corporate dole, the ones who stop whining and find success will be those who know how media business works: Branding, audience development, product development, delivering useful information how people want it. The walls separating journalists, marketing, executive and even sales are coming down. This is a good thing. “Grow a pair” applies to grappling with change and uncertainty as much as running toward a burning building.

  24. Nan Connolly permalink
    September 3, 2009 2:17 am

    interesting ideas.
    less interested in references to balls. just…tired of that.
    so “Chris Mathews.” meh.


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