My sophomore year of college found me in Dr. Charles Hedrick’s office, talking about where I wanted to be in five years. I had been curious about a doctorate in Religious Studies, my primary undergraduate degree, more because I had no idea what to do with my life than because I had any burning desire to study religion for years on end. School is a good place for those who don’t know where they are going, because even if the student doesn’t, the professor certainly does.
Hedrick told me about the New Testament and the Old Testament, about Koptic Greek and ancient Hebrew, and he told me that I would need to learn at least six languages well enough to read them. It would take years, I would have to go to another school for my PhD, and I would get to study X, Y, and Z. I was quite overwhelmed.
He suggested the same thing the head of the department had, though: look into writing about religion for a newspaper. Everyone in the department knew I liked to write, and a lot of papers had religion writers who tackled current events, holidays, history, and a plethora of other angles. It might be something I would like, they thought. As for me, I had ruled out working at a newspaper in high school. The thought of being chained to a desk, of having deadlines, and of having to report to someone for my writing was unbearable. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but I most assuredly knew where I did not want to be.
In a sense, my impetuous aggravation with the newspaper industry was a boon. I could have pushed through four years of college, gotten a job at a newspaper, and been laid off three years later when the business crashed. Religion writers are nice, but they’re frivolous, which is what makes them among the first to be cut. While I can note the irony of cutting frivolity from the papers (for frivolity is what they were built on, and the excision of frivolity has certainly doomed them more than the economy), I am also glad to not be on the cutting room floor myself.
Despite that, in many ways I regret my antipathy back then. As I read the occasional posts of Chris Orcutt and the impact the newspaper had on his life and writing, or about Chesterton and how working for a paper influenced his knowledge of the world, I wish I had decided differently. Even if only for a year or two, I might have learned something more through the experiences of working at a paper.
And now those chances are gone. I do not foresee the newspaper industry ever recovering from its current slump to become what it once was. Something new will almost certainly arise from the ashes, but it will be something else entirely, and likely more akin to what I do now. News will become distributed, but there will be less editors driving writers to improve, far less competition to get published, and less financial investment in investigation and travel for the sake of reporting.
The news hasn’t been “what it once was” for quite some time, perhaps decades, and the newspapers were on their way out when the first evening news was broadcast. Nevertheless, I regret not having the opportunity to be a part of that era, that cadre of writers. Entire generations of writers got their start in the papers, an experience the new generation of writers will know nothing about.
Who will push us to become better? Who will invest in our education? It seems the answer, at least for me, is no one but myself. What an opportunity we have lost with the death of the newspaper industry.