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Monday, March 09, 2009

Can professors save newspapers?

Jonathan Zimmerman at NYU thinks he knows how to save newspapers -- have professors write for them.

In an article titled "Professors could rescue newspapers" Zimmerman argues his case that what Americans want to read in a newspaper is more college professors:

"Today, with the press itself in peril ... 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."

Now, there are clearly academics who can write well, and do so prolifically. The economists Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman come to mind. But even Zimmerman admits the obvious: many academics have learned substandard writing skills in school.

"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."

I'm not so convinced. Zimmerman looks back to a golden age a hundred years ago when academics wrote for newspapers, but when I think of newspapers roughly a hundred years ago I think of Hearst, Pulitzer, and yellow journalism. But my knowledge of the history of newspapers is not great, and perhaps the writing of academics was a big draw for newspapers back then.