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Writers of the Future

Writers of the Future
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For eight years I’ve taught magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The class is always small, seminar-like, about 12 or 13 students. Over 15 weeks we get to know each other well. They write unflinchingly about their lives in personal essays, they explore the lives of strangers in their profiles, and they must also write a service story — where they delve into the intricacies of a topic they may never have realized could become a magazine story. The class that just ended a few weeks ago, for example, produced service stories about taking care of your car, how to find the best vintage clothing in Massachusetts, cooking with spices, and a museum in New York dedicated to the lives in turn-of-the-century tenements, to name just a few. We read the stories in class and discuss them, fine-tuning all the while.

I look at these students, all between 20 and 23 years old, and wonder what their futures hold. Newspapers across the country are cutting staff dramatically; magazines, too. In a few months, journalism schools all across the nation will graduate many hundreds of eager, talented reporters and writers, and what happens if there are far too few slots for them? At what point will their eagerness turn to disillusionment? At what point will the skills they’ve absorbed through college and internships slip away into the fog of memory, as they do this or that to support themselves? Every day I read about one stimulus plan or another; all of these stories talk about staggering amounts of dollars so that two or three million new jobs will be created. I read that roads will be built, bridges fixed, schools expanded. And I wonder how any of this may impact the students whose lives I shared for just a bit these past months.

One young man seems a throwback to the reporters of the 1940s. He lives and breathes newspapers, working at the daily campus paper, taking on assignments for other publications in his spare time, and now and then finds time to fit classes in. At times, I had an issue with his missing class to cover stories — but I have no doubt that he’ll work 16 hours a day if need be for any newspaper that will give him a chance. But what happens if he doesn’t get that chance?

I’m biased, I know, toward the importance of vibrant newspapers and magazines. Nobody benefits when cities lose the voices of reporters whose job it is to find out what’s really happening beyond the spin. In its own way, the infrastructure of information is being damaged as much as any bridge. We hear that the three million jobs that nearly a trillion dollars will help create will let more of us buy cars and houses, so then there’s more work for tire makers and carpenters and carpet makers and so on.

Here’s a small, simple request that we all also remember to buy our local newspapers, to keep them alive. For a few hundred years now, the best reporters have helped us all steer clear of propaganda. Their mission is to shine a light on the issues that affect us all. If we don’t make a place for the new voices of this generation to hone their skills in balanced and careful reporting, one day we’ll all wonder why although we’re a nation of spanking-new roads and bridges, when we drive off we don’t really know where we’re heading.

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4 Responses to Writers of the Future

  1. Beverly Allard January 28, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

    hi mel- enjoyed your article on your umass writing class, it brought back memories. i finished my last class in dec. 08, and am now officially graduated. i am looking into freelance work through several on line sites like elance and others. i am also reworking the story of my son’s death, hopefully a short story/essay with a significant message/ending. i also recently read the jan/feb issue of Yankee pretty much from cover to cover, it always manages to give me insight into some new area of new england that i was not aware of. hope you and yours are well, miss your input om my writing efforts. best. bev. a.

  2. Mel Allen February 3, 2009 at 7:58 pm #

    Beverly, it was a pleasure to reconnect with you on this site. I well remember the pioignant story of your son’s life and tragic death in our class at UMASS. I hope in the rewriting you find a sort of closure, however painful. Art has a way of doing that.

  3. Dave Sexton February 8, 2009 at 4:01 am #

    I agree that many good jobs and voices are passing as newspapers begin to fail. I started my career as an editorial assistant at the Boston Herald back in the early 1990′s and know how valuable local news coverage is to a community. I also know how personally important it was for me to learn basic reporting and writing skills from so many dedicated, mature and skilled reporters. Even as I write this, I can still imagine Andy or Kevin (two of my editors) gently prodding me to ask better questions for my stories or then quickly cutting and crafting my local briefs into crisp, lively news writing that fit into the tiny squares of a tabloid. And though I did not stay in the newspaper business, I rely on that experience and their teaching in many of my pursuits.

    I live in New Jersey now. When I watch the slow deterioration of papers like the Star Ledger – forced to cut entire sections of the paper and eliminate jobs – I realize more clearly why it was so difficult for someone like me to remain in the industry. But I’m also hopeful that a new business model will eventually arise to provide both a place for writing and a voice for local news. A good example of this for me is Hoboken411.com, a blend of both formal local reporting and an electronic community news board. Though I doubt that they’re paying even a fraction of the small salaries that newspapers still offer; these sites are probably not much different financially than the penny sheets that were today’s newspapers in their infancy.

    I think we’re on the verge of something new myself. And I’m hopeful that with the energy of the students you’ve mentioned guided by the experience of professional writer’s and editors like yourslef, we’re bound to see these germs of something new grow in unexpected ways. Spring will bring new things.

  4. Mel Allen February 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    Dave, I will take your message of hope about a new dawn in the newspaper industry into the classroom. Thanks–

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