A Jurassic journalist’s last hurrah

What a way to write finish to my career as a journalist, by covering the Republican National Convention in the city where I got my first reporting job more than four decades ago, after doing the same at the Democratic Convention in Denver, both of which figure to be as historic as the first two I covered in 1968.

I was a rookie Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press and Duluth Herald & News Tribune when the Democrats tore their party apart in Chicago over the Vietnam War, and the Republicans capitalized on the Democrats’ disarray as they nominated Richard Nixon in Miami Beach and set the stage for his razor-thin victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

I covered 10 of the last 11 Democratic conventions and eight of the last 11 Republican ones, and each has been memorable it its own way. But none has been more dramatic, exciting and unpredictable since 1968 than this year’s two conventions.

Who could have predicted, for example, that Sen. John McCain would steal the thunder from Sen. Barack Obama’s pitch-perfect Democratic Convention by naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and then have a hurricane a thousand miles away from the Mississippi River’s source in Minnesota turn his convention upside down?

That’s why it will be hard for me to hang up my press credentials after the 2008 election, and start my next career, which is still undefined but will center on teaching and writing books, starting with an updated version of “Almost to the Presidency,” my 1972 dual biography of two Minnesota political giants, Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Then I plan to return to a half-finished biography of the late Cardinal Cushing of Boston before writing my own memoir, tentatively titled “Confessions of a Jurassic Journalist: Lessons Learned While Serving 40 Years to Life in the Nation’s Capital.”

A young person’s game
That’s assuming I live long enough since I just celebrated my 72nd birthday, which makes me the same age as Sen. McCain and allows me to joke that anyone that old is too old to be president. Be that as it may, it’s clearly too old to be covering political conventions and presidential elections. Political reporting has become a young man’s — and increasingly, young woman’s — game now, as young reporters are proving at these two conventions.

I attended a Christian Science Monitor luncheon on Sunday for House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio with Jackie Kucinich, who covers the House Republicans for The Hill (her father is Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and no, she doesn’t cover him). Boehner told us how the convention schedule would be altered because of Hurricane Gustav, and as we were leaving, I asked Jackie if she was going back to our workspace at the Xcel Center to file her story, and she said she already had, even before the lunch was over.

In the brave new world of the Internet, technology has transformed the media landscape, turning reporting into a 24-7 job that requires instant updates as print and electronic media compete with bloggers, YouTube videos and streamed content delivered instantly to your BlackBerry.

As a result, journalism has moved from Gutenberg to Google, leaving us Jurassic journalists scratching our heads while trying to figure out how to decipher the arcane acronyms of text messaging. (I got a text message the other day that included the term, WTF, which a young colleague informed me stands for an obscene expression of disdain not used in polite company.)

Then there’s the revenue-draining competition from millions of blogs and online advertising ventures like Craigslist that have undermined the MSM (the bloggers’ snarky term for the mainsteam media), resulting in widespread consolidation and downsizing. For example, my old outfit, Knight Ridder, which owned the St. Paul and Duluth newspapers, no longer exists, nor does Cowles Media, which sold the Minneapolis Star Tribune to McClatchy Newspapers, which in turn sold it to the New York investment firm Avista Partners, one of whose partners owns The Hill.

Another measure of how much the media landscape has changed is that some of the best political journalists I know are nowhere to be seen at the 2008 conventions. The death of Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and the retirement of syndicated columnist and talk show regular Bob Novak following diagnosis of a brain tumor, has left a void that is hard to fill.

Fortunately, great journalists like Dave Broder, the premier political columnist for the Washington Post, and David Carr, the Minneapolis native and media columnist for the New York Times, are still at work. I know because I spoke with them Sunday at Sam and Sylvia Kaplan’s bipartisan reception featuring Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Jim Ramstad and the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For what it’s worth, Broder told me Gustav won’t ruin the GOP convention as long as they have two full nights of TV coverage.)

Age of the ‘uber-advocates’
As the Financial Times, a newspaper I’ve read since we shared office space when I first came to Washington, recently noted, “Both Russert and Novak maintained a crunchy, fact-based approach to their journalism that many fear is now going out of fashion” as bloggers like Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington and talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh take center stage.

The Financial Times quoted Harris Diamond, head of Interpublic’s public relations network, who predicted that the new media landscape will feature “uber-advocates,”
which he described as a select group of reporters working across several media who are increasing able to “control the dialogue” and become their own brands.

Such “uber-advocates” include CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, the so-called “money honey,” and CNN’s political analyst Gloria Borger, “who have taken on newspaper columns and speaking engagements alongside their on-air duties, encouraged by the brand-building media conglomerates for which they work.”

After more than four decades in journalism, with brief stints in government, academia and the business world, I’ve decided it’s time to find honest work. But I’m glad that my last two conventions and presidential campaign are going to be ones for the history books.

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