Believe it or not, journalists, yes even print journalists, can reinvent themselves.
Deborah Blum [See her home page ], never shy about reinventing herself, entered college to become a scientist before switching majors and colleges to pursue a journalism degree, later quit her journalism job to study science writing, came back to newspaper reporting as a science writer, then left journalism again to devote herself full-time to book writing and teaching journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Along the way, she earned a Pulitzer Prize in the category of beat reporting in 1992.
For those troubled about the rapid crumbling of the daily newspaper and the end of serious journalism, Blum points out that the industry is actually in a state of evolution, not decline.
At the journalism classes she teaches, for example, Blum regularly bears witness to students landing jobs across a range of platforms, including as data-visualization journalists, others as multi-media and social media specialists. ``The trick,’’ Blum says, `` is to be aware of this, to be smart about the new skills we [journalists] want to acquire, and to believe that we are capable of reinventing ourselves. It's never going to look like the journalism that I grew up with. But it's got all the promise and risks of reinvention, both individually and across the profession.’’
Despite the new opportunities available in journalism, particularly online journalism, the Urbana, Illinois native still mourns parts of her profession, especially the more specialized forms of journalism that have been pushed off the pages of many daily newspapers due to plummeting advertising revenue and drastically reduced news space. In particular, Blum feels the areas where newspapers have been most significantly damaged, have been in investigative reporting (that is now often replaced by non-profit investigative centers), the lack of staff and shoe leather reporting necessary to adequately cover a city, and the woeful lack of coverage devoted to specialty beats like science. ``We don't do great print journalism today if we measure ourselves against that standard’’ Blum says.
Though no longer working for a newspaper, Blum continues to freelance for a number of publications, including Scientific American, Slate, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In addition to teaching journalism and writing books, she blogs as a science writer for WIRED and is actually getting paid for her efforts, something not many online sites are willing to do these days. Blum strongly believes a key component of the evolution of journalism from print to online is the need to bring online pay up to living pay for a lot more writers and journalists. ``That's starting to happen’’ Blum tells me, `` but like everyone else; I'd love to see it happen faster.’’
After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism (including a double-minor in anthropology and political science) Blum reported for The Times, in Gainesville, Ga., The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, covering police and fires, courts, city government, and education. Motivated to cultivate more of an area of expertise, she then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study science writing in the journalism school’s specialized reporting program.
Armed with a master’s degree in environmental journalism, Blum resumed her reporting career as science writer for McClatchy Newspapers in California, starting with The Fresno Bee and moving to The Sacramento Bee in 1984. She worked in Sacramento for 13 years, covering everything from glaciers in Alaska, witnessing the volcanoes in Hawaii, writing about the triumphant arrival of Voyager 2 to the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger.
In 1992, at The Sacramento Bee, Blum won a Pulitzer for her series, "The Monkey Wars," which explored the complex ethical and moral questions surrounding primate research. The series led to a book, ``The Monkey Wars’’ , published by Oxford University Press in 1994.
Blum left newspapering in 1997 to take a position as professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; where she currently holds the endowed chair as the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism.
Away from the classroom, Blum continues to write books; most recently, she wrote an e-single for The Atavist called ``Angel Killer: A True Story of Cannibalism, Crime Fighting, and Insanity in New York City’’ which tells the story of a savage cannibal killer and the detective who brought him to justice. She’s also written ``The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York’’ , which made its way on The New York Times paperback best seller list. She is now under contract with Penguin Group for a book about poisonous food.
Though born in Urbana, Illinois, Blum and her family, including her sisters Darcy, Dawn and Dana moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when she was only two, where the Blum girls or the ``four D’s’’ as they were affectionately known, kept snakes as pets, grew tadpoles into frogs, collected butterflies, and waded in neighborhood swamps where they lived in fear of crayfish climbing into their boots. One of her fondest childhood memories is of her and her sisters following her father Murray S. Blum (an entomologist) and her mother Nancy Ann Blum, (an educator and writer) around the world on bug hunting adventures from Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to the England and Canada.
Her third book, ``Love at Goon Park; Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection’’ was published by Perseus Books in 2002 and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; that was followed with ``Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death'', (published in 2006) a compelling tale involving a group of brilliant 19th century scientists who were willing to risk their careers to investigate the idea that the dead can communicate with the living.
Blum is married to Peter Haugen, a writer himself, who is the author of ``World History for Dummies’’ . They have two sons, Marcus, currently studying archeology at the University of Wisconsin, and Lucas, a sophomore in high school.
So for those discouraged and pessimistic over the calamitous state of affairs within the newspaper industry, you can take heart in knowing Blum is a middle-aged journalist whose first job involved a typewriter. But as Blum herself tells me, ``I'm working harder and doing more interesting journalism than I ever did. So that's a good sign!’’
November 25, 2012