Do you know who this is?

Alan Mutter at Newsosaur is nonplussed at a journalism student’s unfamiliarity with Mike Royko (1932 – 1997), the beloved Chicago newspaper columnist. As a teenager, I read Royko’s syndicated columns in the local rag that served as a newspaper in my hometown in Pennsylvania, and I confess, I loved them. Probably they had some influence on my positive feelings toward journalism.

But do I expect a 20-year-old (or a 25-year-old) today to know Royko’s work? To know his name? No. Why should she?

Let’s turn the tables and ask if the green-eyeshade types know these people’s work:

I’m sure most 25-year-olds have never heard of any of these guys. But neither have most over-40 journalists.

Update (Jan. 18): Some very good folo posts about this topic, by Steve Yelvington, Bob Stepno, and Meranda Watling.

26 Comments on “Do you know who this is?

  1. I’ve gotta admit – You stumped me with Kay and Sutherland. (Note to self: Consider making Vannevar Bush t-shirt.)

  2. @Ryan: Get a copy of “Computer Software” via your university library. It’s goooood …

    I’ll buy a T-shirt from you.

  3. I hadn’t heard Sutherland’s name in a long time. But then, I’m not a 20-25 year old.

    As for Mike Royko, he was one of the few reasons I used to buy the Chicago Tribune.

  4. In what way are any of these people comparable to a nationally famous, general-interest columnist like Mike Royko?

    Seems to me all the folks you cite contributed to the technology of information delivery.

    Royko was a writer.

    He didn’t invent the printing press.

  5. I knew Kay was an important programmer, but couldn’t remember what he’d done. I didn’t know Sutherland, and should have. I’m 49.

    Here’s my list:

    J.C.R. Licklider
    Leonard Kleinrock
    Rob Malda
    Jimmy Wales
    Brewster Kale
    John Carmack

  6. @db: I wouldn’t put Rob Malda (CmdrTaco) in the same league. And if you’re going to include John Carmack, don’t you have to add Nolan Bushnell? Or Will Crowther?

    I have no argument with the remaining four!

  7. Well, I wasn’t really looking for the most important, only for names which should be recognized, but probably aren’t known by a lot of journalists.

    But, as for worthiness, I’d argue that Slashdot was a breakthrough site and marked a turning point on the web, and his name should be known especially by journalists because of the nature of the site. Same for Shawn Fanning for different reasons. Neither did anything revolutionary, but they have both been hugely influential.

    Bushnell and Crowther (a new name to me!) are certainly worthy, but again I wasn’t looking for ultimate examples. I mean, I didn’t even mention Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, or even Alan Turing. How many newsmen know who Grace Hopper was?

  8. I knew most of your list before I knew any names in journalism. Thanks for reminding me that it was a good idea to minor in computer science long before I knew where this career would take me.

  9. MacGregor has it right: Mindy’s list is off the mark. If it included names like Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, Ana Marie Cox and Mark Lisanti — people who actually *write* for a living, and whose work is disseminated to and read by large numbers of people daily or semi-daily — then it would be a legit comparative quiz.

    Aspiring journalists should at least know names like Royko, Breslin and Hamill (that’s Pete, not Mark, young ‘uns), if for nothing other than historical perspective on — and here’s the key part, Mindy — their own profession. As for Metcalfe, Cerf, et al, those are names aspiring computer engineers might want to know.

    What’s more troubling is that someone who “teaches university courses” doesn’t understand why it might be useful for students to have a passing familiarity with some of the historical figures of their profession. Hey, Mindy, why should med students know the name Salk? Why should the name Oppenheimer ring a bell with aspiring physicists? (And, no, I’m not equating Royko with Salk and Oppenheimer as far as historical contributions — merely making a point about big names in a given field.) If you want to flush and forget the past, Mindy, that’s fine. But you might tell your “students” that remembering the past is also part of progress.

  10. Okay, maybe the student has never heard of Royko. But does she know about Mencken? Nellie Bly? Lincoln Steffens? Studs Terkel? This response strikes me as defensive. I know, I know — we sometimes idolize dinosaurs at the expense of succeeding generations. But for God’s sake, Royko? He was kind of a big deal.

  11. Pingback: Meranda Writes » Blog Archive » Does this make me a horrible journalist?

  12. I realize my list is apples to oranges, as a commenter has pointed out. You know who Henry Ford was, but you don’t know these guys — most of whom are still alive. What does that say about you?

    Out of the thousands of newspaper columnists whose prose has graced the pages of newsprint, how many do you know? How many did you know when you were 20-something? Why did you know the ones you knew?

    I’m not trying to argue with Alan Mutter, but I am saying it would not shock me one bit if a 20-something would-be journalist has never heard of Mike Royko, or Ernie Pyle, or any of these other icons. And I’m not convinced that it is necessary for a young journalist today to know them.

  13. No surprise… Students won’t know about Royko if no one teaches them about Royko… or I.F. Stone… or Ottmar Mergenthaler, to toss back a technology orange… or Marc Andreessen… They should have *some* heroes and role models, but there are a lot of them to choose from.
    (How big was the average newspaper before Mergenthaler came along? That might surprise some folks who don’t know his name. How big was the Web before Marc… Hmm.)

  14. Pingback: Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Naming names

  15. Well, that is something akin to asking, in response to not knowing Elvis Presley, if they know all the members of the band who opened for R.E.M. on the Murmur tour.

  16. Sorry, Mindy — I disagree.

    Young artists study the masters who came before them. Young journalists should do the same. Not knowing the work of writers who influenced and shaped journalism is, in essence, saying that today is the beginning of journalism. There is nothing of value in yesterday, nothing to learn from, no guidepost for the future, no inspiration.

  17. I wondered what the blog equivalent was to the “local rag that served as a newspaper,” (to quote the infantile introduction to this topic) and now I found it. Mistaking memory for intelligence is a trip down a dangerous road. Reading the ancients is a pleasure, not an assignment. There is ample evidence their quality has not been replaced.

  18. Added more about this on my own blog.
    PS I actually *do* have a picture of myself wearing a green eyeshade about 30 years ago.

  19. There you go again, Mindy, making a specious comparison. The equivalent of your question about thousands of columnists is akin to asking how many TV shows do you know out of the tens of thousands that have aired since TV was born in 1950.

    What matters for young journalists is not how many writers they know, but that they have an understanding of their profession’s evolution — and, more practically, how its best practitioners plied their craft.

    On Mark Hamilton’s blog, you make the weak and somewhat troubling point that you care less about whether students know Breslin’s name than that they know his story about JFK’s gravedigger. Do you really want your students to only know the story? Or do you want them to understand how Breslin got the story — i.e., what compelled him to track down the gravedigger, how he extracted details from Pollard, how he wove those details into such an evocative piece?

    If you’re any kind of journalism teacher, then you want students to learn the story behind the story — at which point they’ll know more than just the story or Breslin’s name. They’ll have a better idea of what it takes to be a journalist. If you’re not attempting to teach your students at least that much, then it’s hard to figure what they’re gaining from your alleged expertise.

  20. Of course the main point of having students study Breslin’s JFK gravedigger story is to talk about how Breslin came to write it. It’s a wonderful example of how an experienced journalist’s mind works. You give them the example (Breslin’s story), and after they have read it, you discuss what leads a person to take that approach. What did other journalists write that day? Why did Breslin want to write something different? This is a huge part of teaching.

    There’s a lot of change under way in journalism today. It’s very important to teach students how to be good, honest, accurate reporters. It’s important to teach them how to find a good story and how to recognize a good story when they find it.

    If you use Royko’s columns in your classes to teach that, I have no problem with it.

    If you think a journalism student is fit to do journalism if all she knows is the past, I do have a problem with that.

  21. Any teacher who told students they only need to know the past would be almost as clueless as one who suggests that it doesn’t matter whether they know who Royko or Breslin were.

    Of course you have to teach students about what’s happening now and how the industry will evolve in coming years. But it never hurts to have the context of history, especially when issues of the past — media consolidation for one, “yellow” journalism for another (much online reporting bears a close resemblance to the opinion-driven sensationalism of the early American press) — resonate even more loudly today.

    So if your student doesn’t know Royko, your question shouldn’t be “Why should she?” but “Why the heck doesn’t she?” And if your answer to that is some variation of “Because in today’s nonstop news cycle only the here and now matters,” then you’re ultimately contributing to an erosion of historical perspective — which, whether your like it or not, still informs the best journalism, both in print or online.

  22. Wow. I’ve never been to this site before, but am glad Mindy McAdams wasn’t one of my journalism professors. I know who Mike Royko was and I understand that Mindy M.’s list is off the mark. I’m glad I know about writers like Mr. Royko. I read his columns and the work of other well-known journalists, and I learn–more from them than I would from this site, evidently.

  23. Excellent point by Apples to Oranges.

    It’s sad but no surprise to me that a journalism student wouldn’t know Royko. When I used to speak to journalism students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, few had heard of “All The President’s Men,” let alone Woodward or Bernstein. And these guys are still alive and working.

    I never went to J-School, but I grew up reading guys like Royko, Breslin, Bob Greene, Frank DeFord and later Molly Ivins. All of them influenced me to become a journalist. Granted, when this 20-year-old was growing up he couldn’t have read Royko in his local newspaper. But that a J-School prof doesn’t see the value of reading the masters is troubling. As an English major when I was in college, what would I have studied if I hadn’t read Twain, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and Woolf? Nobody said J-profs should focus entirely on the past, but one must know what has come before to go forward with any success.

  24. I’d be curious how many people 40 and older would know someone like a Cory Doctorow.

  25. There are a lot of people talking old on this blog.

    I don’t care about some journalist who hasn’t been important since before I was born. Journalism is not about journalists — it’s about the people. It’s about serving our audience.

    Saying that it’s a crime that I don’t know who some journalists is who died a decade ago is ridiculous. Journalism schools should be teaching students how to create good journalism — not how to have a big ego.

    And let’s keep it real here: Journalism is not writing — it’s journalism. So, let’s stop talking about how people need to read good writers (which we all do) and let’s start talking about journalism. The days of journalism being about writing passed decades ago.

    Reading the comments on this blog tells me exactly why this industry is failing.

  26. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » MVPs for January

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