Why would anybody want to be a journalist? Vilified by politicians, corporate spokespersons, and religious extremists, recent polls indicate that a sizable chunk of the American public considers most journalists to be distorters of truth and only slightly less smarmy than used car dealers. It’s hard to believe that there was a bygone era in which journalism — personified by such icons as I.F. Stone and Edward R. Murrow — was considered a noble profession.
“Actually there are a lot of people who want to become journalists these days,” says Ron Miskoff, a longtime journalist, a committee member for the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJSPJ), and a professor at Rutgers University since 1980. With several hundred students pursuing journalism majors at Rutgers alone, journalism is one of the more popular professional ambitions for young job-seekers.
A former president of NJSPJ, Miskoff helped organize this year’s annual regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists at the Paul Robeson Campus Center at Rutgers University’s Newark campus on Friday, March 31, through Sunday, April 2. The conference is primarily for professional journalists and students, but members of the public are also welcome to attend. “We do get a few gadflies who like to see what those journalists are up to,” says Miskoff.
Costs range from $119 to $199 for professionals and members of the public and $69 to $119 for students. There are discounts for members of NJSPJ. Visit www.NJSPJ.org to download a registration form and for complete information on the three-day event or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Centered around the theme of “Old Media Meets New Media,” this year’s conference features 75 speakers, including keynote speaker Gabe Pressman, the dean of New York TV news reporters. Pressman has covered such wide-ranging news happenings as the sinking of the Andrea Doria, all three New York City blackouts, the arrival of the Beatles in America, and numerous mayoral, gubernatorial, and presidential contests. He won the Edward R. Murrow Award in 1989 and has been honored for his reporting on New York City’s homeless and mentally ill.
The conference features a variety of panel discussions. These include “How to Get a Job” (featuring a workshop moderated by Bill Bleyer of Newsday, on resume writing, cover letters, selecting clips and tapes, and interview techniques); “Covering Private Equity” (moderated by NJSPJ president David Levitt, who offers tips for business writers); “Videoblogging;” “How to Cover Celebrities;” “The Challenges and Opportunities of Freelancing;” “The Journalism Generation Gap;” “Covering the War at Home;” “Covering Immigrant Communities;” and the “Ethical and Legal Dimensions of Using Anonymous Sources,” (a hot topic given the recent unveiling of Watergate’s “Deep Throat” and the Judith Miller scandal at the New York Times.)
While Miskoff doesn’t exactly call journalists a noble profession, he does say that it is a worthwhile career for the 21st century — particularly for women. “When I started out, about 80 percent of all young journalists were male,” he says. “But over the years it has gradually flip-flopped so that now about 80 percent are women.” Miskoff attributes this metamorphosis to an anti-sexism enlightenment that has slowly settled onto the industry. “All you have to do is look at the television,” he says. “It used to be rare to see a female TV news anchor, but now you can turn on CNN and see two women reading the news.”
In addition, Miskoff says that there has been a gradual shifting of emphasis concerning what sort of medium journalists are working in. “It used to be that most people wanted to work in print, but now there are a lot more who are looking to have careers in broadcast journalism,” he says. Many of his Rutgers graduates get their first jobs as professionals working in New York for various magazines or broadcasting companies. “We have students who work as interns at some of the big magazines or at places like ESPN,” he says. “They often get hired when they graduate.”
Born in Brooklyn, Miskoff earned his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers in 1969. A former journalist for the Home News Tribune as well as owner of the Middlesex County Trends, he is owner of his own two-decade old business, “Media Trends,” a Metuchen-based freelance editing company that works primarily with school districts and colleges. “They write the articles and we do the layouts, editing, and print the paper for them,” says Miskoff. “We do all the backend work.”
The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists focuses on improving conditions for the journalistic community in New Jersey. “We are the only organization in New Jersey that is dedicated to the interests of all journalists and people in related fields.”
Based in Indianapolis, the Society of Professional Journalists has been a steady force for over 90 years, promoting the free flow of public information and maintaining a vigilance in protection of the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. It also seeks to maintain high standards and ethical behavior and to encourage diversity. In seeking to keep government transparent and open, the society helped to pass the Open Public Records Act and is working toward a revision of the Open Meetings Act that was originally passed in the 1970s.
With an eye toward keeping things transparent between journalists and the general public, NJSPJ holds a public session at least once a year at a location where people congregate (such as a Barnes & Noble bookstore). “We talk about issues in journalism and invite the public to criticize and discuss with us just what their concerns are,” says Miskoff. “Journalists have to be answerable to public just like government officials. It’s too easy to tell someone that if they don’t like what you wrote, write a letter to the editor. We need to face the public and listen to what they say.”
The only requirement for membership in the SPJ is to consider oneself a news gatherer — a group that includes reporters, editors, producers, public information officers, freelancers, and owners of publications or radio or television stations. “That’s the great thing about journalism,” says Muskoff. “There is no license you need to get, no permit, you just do it. Its the same with SPJ, as long as you pay your dues, you can become a member.” A one-year professional membership is $72.
While journalism is not an easy profession, one of the prime characteristics of a good journalist is boundless curiosity. Although he enjoys being a professional journalist and likes teaching, Miskoff has recently embarked on a new adventure by returning to school as a student.
“I am working on my master’s degree in liberal studies at Rutgers’ Newark campus,” he says. “It is never too late to learn. The campus there is beautiful and the teachers are wonderful. It is the best kept educational secret in New Jersey.”