Tuesday, January 15, 2008

‘Who’s Mike Royko?’

One of the simple pleasures of blogging is getting called from time to time by journalism students who are looking for a couple of quick quotes for a term paper.

I am happy to oblige, because no one else wants to listen to my stories about the olden, golden days of the newspaper business. While the students may not be universally thrilled by what I have to say, I find it fascinating to learn what’s on their minds.

In talking today with a pleasant fellow who is halfway through earning his master’s degree in journalism at the prestigious Columbia University, I happened to mention the name of Mike Royko, one of the top journalists of the 20th Century.

And this is how the conversation went:

“Sorry,” said the student, whose journalism education will cost more than $43,000 a year in tuition and fees (plus an estimated $24,000 in living expenses). “What was the name of that reporter again?”

“Mike Royko,” I said.

“Mike who?”


"Can you spell it?"


“Never heard of him.”

“What exactly are they teaching you at Columbia?”

“Not the history of journalism.”

So, what are they teaching?

Follow-up: Fair being fair, here's a geezer quiz

“Do I expect a 20-year-old (or a 25-year-old) today to know Royko’s work?” asks Mindy McAdams, a journalism educator who writes the blog Teaching Online Journalism. “No. Why should she?”

“Let’s turn the tables,” continues Mindy, “and ask if the green-eyeshade types know these people’s work.” See Mindy’s quiz here. (Newsosaur, who never had a green eyeshade but always wanted one, barely got a passing grade.)

Other reactions are at Meranda Writes, Steve Yelvington, Journerdism.Com, Notes from a Teacher, Committee of Concerned Journalists, John Robinson's blog and the Comments below.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe they should teach how to use Google and Wikipedia.


7:09 PM  
Blogger DigiDave said...

I was recently interviewed by a Columbia student who was working on his masters thesis as well. I think the student is looking for bloggers in particular.

To be fair - the student in question (if it is the same student) is a foreign student (from Italy).

I think that might explain the situation a bit.

Then again: Could be a totally different student.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan --
As a visiting lecturer in the journalism department at UNLV, it does shiver me timbers sometimes to realize that much of my career took place before these students were born.
Still, journalism history is relevant and important -- indeed, it is critical to the plot. When I casually suggest that online news is like working for an afternoon paper, there are damn few who really understand the glorious fun we had committing journalism at the Monarch of the Dailies and the late, great Dallas Times Herald.
At the same time, it is a balancing act. When I learned that someone was still teaching and testing! the students on counting heads, I almost flipped out. OK, show them the pica pole, then puh-leeze, move on!

5:31 AM  
Blogger rjcraig said...

When I was with Inland Press Association, I saw a number of assistant editors move through the ranks. Only one in 13 years had any idea who Ernie Pyle was. There is still much to be learned from him (and Royko).

6:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, on the other hand, I had a conversation not long ago with a well-known long-time experienced journalist who didn't know what a blog was. He'd heard the term, but had little idea what it meant.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do not despair. My 20-year old history major, home for winter break from his Northeastern university, currently is reading a library copy of a book of Royko columns.

For pleasure.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just wanted you to know that this saga is being followed closely on the Committee of Concerned Journalists site :)


9:40 AM  
Blogger Daniel Rubin said...

ok, so what Royko piece would you recommend? I'm partial to the first chapter of "Boss" and that evergreen about how you can fix any problem by hiring the proprietor of a Greek diner.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Nick Busse said...

My 11th grade English teacher taught us about Mike Royko. I never went to journalism school, but my fiancee did; I should ask her if she knows who Mike Royko is.

Actually, what do people learn in journalism school anyway?

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's very simple. If you care about newspapering, or whatever newspapering is going to be called in the future, you make a point of finding out who Mike Royko is. And Jimmy Breslin. And Murray Kempton. And Red Smith. And Jimmy Cannon. You do it because they were the masters of what they did, and you should learn by their example. If you aren't smart enough to do that, you barely qualify as plant life, even if you've got a master's degree from Columbia.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Potts said...

I'm happy to report that a young (24) Philly.com producer was toting a Royko anthology the other day and looking forward to reading it.

That said, we don't want to sound like old fogies here (and possibly even provincial old fogies). Royko, while great, is especially revered by Chicago journalists of a certain age. As miles and years recede, he's not as important. Somebody mentioned Ernie Pyle; I can't say I've ever read a word of his.

In some ways, this is the journalistic equivalent of saying kids today just don't know music because they listen to Lupe Fiasco and Jay-Z rather than Glenn Miller or Elvis Presley. Generations move on and find their own heros and exemplars. There's nothing wrong with that.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a guest speaker at a college journalism class last year where the geezer/instructor insisted on making the students learn the old copy editing marks she mastered in the 1950s.

I'm no kid -- 46 -- but I've never ever used these professionally. These students are never going to have a copy editor hand them back a piece of paper with three lines under things to be capitalized and slashes and carets and "stet." The kids gotta have better things to learn to make it in this day and age.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course she should have known Royko, but at least she asked how to spell his name. I always made it a point to find out what I didn't know asap.

p.s. If writers like Royko and Breslin taught us anything, it's that the best journalists didn't go to journalism school. Too bad they wouldn't get hired now.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've got to agree with "Mark" on this one here. I'm sure the student meant no disrespect (although feigning knowledge might have helped). He or she just simply is too young.

It's a good bet that student -- who is a classmate of mine at Columbia, given the description -- Googled Royko after the interview and learned plenty.

There's no reason to shame him or her for not knowing a decades-old reference right off the cuff -- only that they didn't catch Royko's recent NYT coverage.

Other than that, is it so wrong to expect such knowledge from a new or learning journalist?

The Editorialiste.


11:41 AM  
Blogger Davide Berretta said...

That ignoramus would be me, the same student who interviewed Dave Cohn.

I did live in Italy most of my life, which might help explain my poor knowledge of journalists whose career came to an end when I was 14.

But yes, apparently this is a big hole in my knowledge of my profession. I'll gladly eat humble pie and read Mr. Royko's work. I'd love suggestions on where to start.

To Alan Mutter - First off, thanks for the interview. But I called you not for two quick quotes, but to get a thorough explanation of the financial crunch the newspaper industry finds itself in (which I got).

Also, I would have appreciated if you'd asked me "mind if I post this on my blog?" or at least wrote me an email letting me know you'd published this, before seeing my ignorance discussed all over the nation's journalism websites. You didn't have to, but these are two simple acts I learned to perform, yes, at the j-school.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark -- you're wrong. Though Royko was loved in Chicago, his appeal extended across generations -- and it wasn't limited to Chicago.

His book "Boss" was a national best-seller, and remains the best study of urban machine politics. His column was syndicated in 600 newspapers. I can't think of a columnist today in 600 newspapers. When he won the Pulitzer in 1972, he was as likely to be writing about Richard Nixon as Slats Grobnik.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Bob Reed said...

Ok, add this to the ongoing "how soon they forget" thread. I mentioned Edward R. Murrow to a U.S.-based editorial executive of Reuters. The response? "Who's Edward R. Murrow?"
Good Night and Good Luck.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

In re the comment immediately above, no one called Davide an "ignoramus" and there was - and is - no intention to embarrass him. That is why I chose not to identify him in my post.

Davide told me had been working as a freelance journalist before entering Columbia and never said he had lived abroad. Had he done so, I probably would have treated the item differently.

The point of the post was to stimulate a discussion - which has proven to be lively, indeed - about whether and what traditions should be passed along in journalism schools.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think this comment thread is evidence that journalists shouldn't underestimate their colleagues' ability to find information, no matter what stage of their career they're in!

Three cheers for both sides of this,
The Editorialiste.


12:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Consider yourself blessed. One of the most illuminating things that can happen to a journalist is to find himself the subject of a story.
Odds are you've learned a number of valuable things -- the importance of courtesy when dealing with a source, how easily a source can be misunderstood, how hurtful it is when negative things are said in print. Plus you've learned about Royko.
Because you've seen first-hand the power of journalism to embarrass and hurt, you're a better journalist today than you were yesterday. Not all of us can say that. You've seen too how quickly those of us in the industry are to judge others. Now, perhaps, you'll be slower to judge another.
Good luck.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A copy editor who works in magazine or book publishing likely will need to know how to use those old-fashioned editing marks. And even newspaper copy editors still read page proofs and make corrections on paper, so those marks are useful even for them. Therefore, they're still worth teaching.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, to answer the question: Google Royko, of course, and look for his column collections - there are several, including my favorite, I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It. And here's a couple excerpts from the newest collection, One More Time:

1:38 PM  
Blogger DigiDave said...

Just to follow up: I give Davide credit:

1. For coming out in the comment thread and admiting that it was him.

2. Traveling from Italy to America to get a journalism education.

A more interesting question brought up my Mindy McAdams: How many journalists know, off-hand, who Tim Berners Lee is?

What about Ted Nelson or Alan Kay?


And that, my friends, is the real divide.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm 52 and knew everyone on Ms. McAdams' list. But those are not writers; Royko was. They're more comparable to Gutenberg, perhaps, in that they helped improve and expand delivery of information.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posted this earlier on Mindy's site, in response to her "quiz."

Apples to Oranges writes:

MacGregor has it right: Mindy’s list is off the mark. If it included names like Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, Ana Marie Cox and Mark Lisanti — people who actually *write* for a living, and whose work is disseminated to and read by large numbers of people daily or semi-daily — then it would be a legit comparative quiz.

Aspiring journalists should at least know names like Royko, Breslin and Hamill (that’s Pete, not Mark, young ‘uns), if for nothing other than historical perspective on — and here’s the key part, Mindy — their own profession. As for Metcalfe, Cerf, et al, those are names aspiring computer engineers might want to know.

What’s more troubling is that someone who “teaches university courses” doesn’t understand why it might be useful for students to have a passing familiarity with some of the historical figures of their profession. Hey, Mindy, why should med students know the name Salk? Why should the name Oppenheimer ring a bell with aspiring physicists? (And, no, I’m not equating Royko with Salk and Oppenheimer as far as historical contributions — merely making a point about big names in a given field.) If you want to flush and forget the past, Mindy, that’s fine. But you might tell your “students” that remembering the past is also part of progress.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd recommend "Royko: A Life in Print" by F. Richard Ciccone. It's a first-rate account of one of the best newspaper columnists who ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). And it explains what happened after Rupert Murdoch bought the feisty Chicago Sun-Times and Royko moved across the street to the more conservative Tribune, where his voice was stifled before being completely silenced.

4:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About journalism history . . . I retired in 1998 after 51 years of teaching and practicing journalism. I have a manuscript of excerpts from John S. Knight's "Editor's Notebook" dealing with the responsibilities of newspapers that I feel should be required reading for every newspaper executive. I've been searching for years for a publisher. The manuscript was prepared by Murray Powers, Knight's long-time friend and managing editor of Knight's Akron Beacon-Journal and adjunct professor of Journalism at Kent State University. It includes a biographical sketch of Knight and personal correspondence with JSK.
Blogs and CNN notwithstanding, the public remains inadquately informed ala Sig Michelson's challenge in his 1950s discussion of the "Comprehension Gap."
Now who is Sig Michelson?
Murv Perry (Murvin H. Perry)

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a little late in finding this nugget, but what the heck, I'll weigh in, anyway. Several of the comments above raise the question of what past journalists can teach the wired generation. No, they didn't blog, and wouldn't know a blog from a grog. High-tech to many of those guys meant matching their carbons in the typewriter. And as one poster above noted, few had advanced degrees or even college educations.

But they could write. Damn, they could write. They could put you on the floor laughing or send you under the covers crying, sometimes in the same column. They reached us. And they did it with plain, simple, everyday words that the plain, simple, everyday reader understood.

One of my favorite Royko columns was his eulogy for Daley the Elder, when he wrote -- somewhat affectionately -- of Daley's tendency to exit from a different paragraph than he entered. I can't quote it directly, but it reflected the fact that Daley wasn't much for big words. If he needed to say something, he found a way to say it, and he said it. People understood.

The same for Royko. Royko didn't write for NPR, the Economist or the Princeton Review. He wrote for the people he grew up with, and those like them around the country.

Maybe that's the real historic lesson from the Mike Roykos and Ernie Pyles of our journalistic past -- they wrote for the readers and they wrote in a language that reached those readers. Yet they never wrote 'down' to anyone.

It doesn't matter where we write -- on paper, on blogs, or on stone tablets. Good writing is good writing. That's why Royko should be relevant to today's wannabes.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also posted on Mindy McAdams’ blog:

There you go again, Mindy, making a specious comparison. The equivalent of your question about thousands of columnists is akin to asking how many TV shows do you know out of the tens of thousands that have aired since TV was born in 1950.

What matters for young journalists is not how many writers they know, but that they have an understanding of their profession’s evolution — and, more practically, how its best practitioners plied their craft.

On Mark Hamilton’s blog, you make the weak and somewhat troubling point that you care less about whether students know Breslin’s name than that they know his story about JFK’s gravedigger. Do you really want your students to only know the story? Or do you want them to understand how Breslin got the story — i.e., what compelled him to track down the gravedigger, how he extracted details from Pollard, how he wove those details into such an evocative piece?

If you’re any kind of journalism teacher, then you want students to learn the story behind the story — at which point they’ll know more than just the story or Breslin’s name. They’ll have a better idea of what it takes to be a journalist. If you’re not attempting to teach your students at least that much, then it’s hard to figure what they’re gaining from your alleged expertise.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please. I'm a too-near 50-something former journalist who does know who the Munchkin of the Midway was. I read his columns and a couple of his books, and found him to be a solid writer and reporter. But I don't equate myself with him.

Too many of us think ourselves better because we read journalists of the past, rather than did outstanding work ourselves.

25 years ago, when applying for a job for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, I was asked the write-in question: Who is Ernie Pyle?

I knew his history as a WWII war correspondent, telling the story of the little guy. But I only had two lines to pen in the answer to the question. My answer? "The reporter Scripps-Howard has hung its reputation on for the last 40 years."

You probably aren't surprised to hear that I didn't get the position. By the time I got this "survey" that was more than fine by me. Please excuse me if I don't bow before your sacred cow. Royko, rest his soul, was a damn fine writer.

Certainly journalism history gives context. But you know as well as I do that in today's business, hanging with the past simply makes you old news.

Doubt me? Approach any newspaper researcher today and tell them you want to check out stories in the morgue. Ones that know what you mean will brand you as, well, a Newsosaur. The rest will just think you're morbid.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

JRHMobile, your attitude is not unlike that of land developers -- tear down any and every "old" building because we need that land for... another strip mall! That's progress!

Remembering Royko isn't a pathetic, fusty, desperate effort to wallow in the past. It's to help ingrain in students that what matters then still matters now: reporting, good writing, strong voice. Amid the flotsam jamming the Internet, those are qualities that still carry the day. (Or should, anyway.) If nothing else, Royko stands as a testament to craftsmanship, and that's always a lesson worth imparting to those who want to be journalists, even if the guy is a relic of another era.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former newspaper guy who during middle age slogged through a Ph.D. program and now teaches history of media to undergraduates, let me offer an excuse for the grad student: he's a grad student. Most media history courses are for undergraduates, and a good instructor introduces students to the editors and reporters from different eras who made a difference. At the graduate level, which includes many students whose degrees are not in journalism, history courses focus more on the economic, political, and social context within which media operate. Undergrads get the specifics, I hope.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The real onus of awareness here shouldn't be on Berretta or Newsosaur. The expectation that bred the frustration of Newsosaur was that Columbia professors are not showing an emphasis on historical study of former journalists just as other arts students are indeed subjected to.
If you are going to learn Impressionism, are you going to study Monet?
We model our parents of knowledge in general -- whether from home, the classroom or basketball court -- and we appeal to them to tell us what to know.

3:38 PM  
Blogger J. R. said...

I read some Royko in high school; the best person to come out of Chicago. http://chicagowithdrawal.blogspot.com/

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My guess is a political science major could answer the question!

11:00 PM  
Blogger mikem44 said...

All students need to learn Royko, and learn him well. If for no other reason, just his style. The way he stood up for the little guy. The way he stood up to corruption. Just find and read the article about flowers in the toilets at a republican luncheon. Nobody writes, or reports like that anymore.
When Royko was writing, hardly a day would pass without someone saying "Hey, did ya see Rokyo today".

5:20 PM  

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