A mentor’s new mission

I had to chuckle this week when one of the assigned readings referenced Howard Schneider, formerly of Newsday and now at Stony Brook University here on Long Island. Howard was for a long time my boss at Newsday and the grand poobah of the newsroom. His dismissal from the paper sent shock waves across the community that still are felt today.

I am not trying to offer a career retrospective here, but in many ways I learned more in five years as his graphics editor than at any time in my career. He was demanding, eccentric and sometimes a bit over the top, but you always sensed he had the readers’ best interest at heart. That’s a person you want to work for.

As a newsroom manager, he was, well, energizing. And I can only imagine how inspired his students feel after one of his lectures. I’ve never sat in on one, but I am sure his wisdom serves students well. (For the record, Howard was let go by Newsday when he refused to lay off 20-plus newsroom employees; in falling on his sword he said it would be foolish to think Newsday could make the kind of civic contribution it has minus those assets. History has proven him right: We won 18 Pulitzers from 1947-2007; only one since.)

But as to his message, it surprises me little that he and associate Jim Klurfeld would advocate for a culture rooted in the values of journalism. He always was a champion of critical thinking mixed with personal creativity, and what industry does a better job of cultivating that? Good for them too that they cherish verifiable information over the propaganda that filters through the Internet. If Stony Brook’s news literacy course teaches students anything, I am sure it is, that in this misinformation age we must be active skeptics and not passive recipients.

I did stutter when I read that my former boss would seem to minimize the gatekeeper responsibility of journalists, passing that off instead to a more educated class of news consumers. Howard, when I knew him, was a fierce defender of traditional journalism against a rising tide of user-generated content that he (and I don’t mean to speak for him) sensed lacked perspective.

Perhaps that’s where Howard is now as an educator; perhaps that’s where journalism is an industry. In framing political revolution, Yeats observed  that the best “seem to lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Such thoughts seem perfectly timed for the fundamental transformation under way now in traditional media.

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