Professors could rescue newspapers

A hundred years ago professors wrote for the press – free of charge.

The American newspaper is dead. Long live the American newspaper!

OK, so reports of the demise of daily journalism are a bit premature. But you can't open up the newspapers today without reading bad news about the papers.

Declining circulation and advertising revenues have forced newsrooms to trim their staffs, which means less real reporting. A few city papers have closed – the most recent victim was Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News – while others fill their pages with fluff pieces or wire-service stories. Put simply, it's getting too expensive to gather news.

So here's a novel idea: Let's get university professors to do it. For real. And, best of all, free of charge.

Remember, most professors aren't paid for what they write now. When I publish an article in an academic journal, I don't earn a cent. But I also don't engage more than a handful of readers, mainly fellow specialists in my own field.

It wasn't always that way. A hundred years ago, many of the leading lights in the social sciences and the humanities wrote for the popular press. If we want to revive the press – as well as our own struggling disciplines – we might look to their example.

Consider Robert E. Park, founder of the "Chicago School" of sociology and one of the most prominent intellectuals of the early 20th century. After earning his PhD in 1904 from the University of Heidelberg, in Germany, Park became secretary and press agent of the Congo Reform Association. Park's muckraking magazine articles exposed Belgium's vicious atrocities in the Congo, helping to turn world opinion against the colonial regime of King Leopold.

Park returned to academia in 1914, when he was hired by the University of Chicago. But he never saw a bright line between his new professorial duties and his old journalistic ones. Indeed, Park insisted, a sociologist should be "a kind of superreporter" who covers "long-term trends" rather than "what, on the surface, merely seems to be going on."

In my own field, history, top scholars also cultivated lay audiences: most notably, the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Mary Beard produced bestselling textbooks alongside a broad sheaf of magazine and newspaper articles. Ditto for the new discipline of anthropology, where Franz Boas and his students – especially Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead – wrote regularly for the popular press.

Today, with the press itself in peril, we need to do the same. Economists could report on the recession, of course, providing on-the-ground analyses of bank failures, housing foreclosures, and more. Biologists could cover climate change and other environmental issues, English professors could write about the book and film industries, and anthropologists could send dispatches from faraway lands.

At the professional schools, news-gathering opportunities would be even greater. Law professors could cover knotty questions before the Supreme Court, ranging from the detention of suspected terrorists to church-state separation. Medical school professors could describe the latest advances in patient treatment, architecture scholars could write about design, and professors of education could report on school reform.

So what would be in it for them? Right now, nothing. The way you get ahead in academia is to write for other academics, period. But we can change that, too.

Suppose that 30 or 40 prominent research universities issued a joint statement, urging their faculty to publish in popular venues – and promising to consider such articles in promotion and salary decisions. Believe me, you'd see more and more professors writing for the newspaper.

To be sure, some faculty would continue to turn up their noses at it. As the historian Patricia Limerick has quipped, these professors resemble the people nobody wanted to dance with in high school; as a defense mechanism, they pretend that they never wanted to dance in the first place.

But I think plenty of academicians would want to dance, if the academy rewarded it. And it would be good for their disciplines, too. These are tough times for the social sciences and humanities, especially, which need to justify their budgets to already-strapped state legislatures and donors. What better way to prove your worth to the public than to write for it?

Professors won't be a panacea for newspapers, of course. Many of us don't know how to write for lay readers, first of all, so we'll have to learn. But we have a lot to teach, too, about nearly every subject that a paper might cover. And did I mention that we'll work for free?

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which will be published in June.

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