A bit of an interblog argument has broken out over Alan Mutter’s astonishment at being interviewed by a young journalist who had never heard of Mike Royko.

Mindy McAdams, in Do you know who this is?, has her own list in response, and asks:

But do I expect a 20-year-old (or a 25-year-old) today to know Royko’s work? To know his name? No. Why should she?

Much as I admire Mindy, I think she’s off base. The folks on her list — Vannaver Bush, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee, etc. — are all interesting and important people (although I have to admit that pioneering writings by Bush and Nelson bored me to tears, as fascinating as their ideas were.)

The equivalent of her list, in pre-internet days, would be like asking a room full of people if they knew the names of the people who conceived and designed new presses. The connections of Bush, Nelson, Berners-Lee et al to journalism is incidental at best: they’re pioneering work set the stage for the new age. Their contribution to our understanding of how we can do journalism — unlike Royko’s — is non-existent. There’s no connection between Alan’s list and Mindy’s.

Sorry, Mindy. I share Alan’s feelings here. Based on my observations of my students, they have a spotty knowledge of some of the people who have shaped their trade. Most know who Hunter S. Thompson is, but Jimmy Breslin’s shoe-leather work, the deep ties of a Royko or Caen to a community (and their ability to keep people reading) — skills increasingly important to journalists and journalism — are unknown to them.

Journalists today need to know the work of folks such as Will Yurman, Dai Sugano, Seth Gitner, Adrain Holovaty and others who are pushing journalism into new shapes and new places. (And, for that matter, folks like Mindy, Paul Bradshaw, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and others who are driving and chronicling a truly new age of journalism.)

But this new age not cut from new cloth. Photojournalism (whether in slideshows or video) builds on the legacies of Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson and dozens of others. You can draw up similar lists for writing, for reporting, for pioneering work with documents (I.F. Stone, anybody?), graphics…every aspect of our craft.

I don’t want to replace any the important skills we have to teach with journalism history classes. But I can’t teach students about the possibilities for their storytelling without reference to those whose skills have sharpened, changed and informed the art, any more than I can teach them multimedia journalism without building on the work that Mindy and others have done. It’s a case of Bernard of Chartres’ standing on the shoulders of giants and deserves to be treated as such.


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