My search for the I.F. Stone of the 21st century took me to the campus of the
and the highly energized office of the Web-based news operation Neon Tommy, sponsored by USC’s Universityof Southern California for Communication & Journalism. Annenberg School
The university, long shackled with a reputation for conservatism, might be considered an odd place to look for a potential successor to Stone, a crusading liberal journalist ostracized by the mainstream media during the Cold War who nevertheless broke major stories in his own I.F. Stone’s Weekly. But USC is changing. And even the old conservative USC produced progressives such as my personal hero, Carey McWilliams, who was editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1975. Truthdig’s editor, Robert Scheer, is on the Annenberg faculty.
I wanted to talk to some of the Neon Tommy staff because I think that the salvation of journalism rests with young people who are talented, ambitious, intelligent, obsessive and crazy enough to jump into what is rapidly becoming a low-paying, insecure business. As Alan Mutter said of young journalists in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, “The starving-artist lifestyle may be colorful and appealing for a while, but it gets old fast if you are bunking on a friend’s sofa, living under the same roof you did in junior high and lying awake at night wondering how you are going to repay your staggering five-figure student loan.
“If nothing changes, the next generation of journalists will give up and move on to entirely different pursuits. And you can’t blame them.”
I got a much more hopeful view when I visited with three students on the Neon Tommy staff, Callie Schweitzer, Olga Khazan and Kevin Grant.
“Nothing is going to stop me,” said Schweitzer, Neon Tommy’s incoming editor. “Yes, there will always be obstacles. That is in every facet of your life, in your job, your personal life, your health. Obstacles are just things you overcome with the help of friends, family and co-workers.” Or, as Khazan said, “I know they [obstacles] are there. I think new business models will emerge, and we will find some way to weather through it. I don’t have the solution. I don’t think anyone has the solution.” Grant said the pessimists’ view is “a lot of bullshit. They’re talking about it, we’re doing it right now. If you’re not doing it, you don’t have a right to talk about it.”
I smiled. I was once like that. Nothing was going to stop me either.