UC Irvine vs. the Shrinking J

Already a creative-writing machine, Irvine turns to literary journalism

Illustration by Kathryn Hyat"A low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange, seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures."

That's how Hunter S. Thompson once described journalism, and it looks like UC Irvine wants to get a lot more people hooked on the bad stuff. The university's fabled English and Comparative Literature Department will offer the first class in its new undergraduate literary journalism major in January.

It's the first new major offered in this department in more than 30 years, according to Linda Georgianna, one of the professors who helped build the program. It's also the only undergraduate journalism program in the University of California system.

"In our proposal, we wrote we hope to produce the next Susan Sontag or Joan Didion," Georgianna said. "We're not planning that for the short run, but we have high ambitions."

Or maybe the department is just high. In case they haven't heard, the field of literary journalism and the world of workaday journalism suffered some major blows this year. Rolling Stone—the pop standard for the kind of feature-length nonfiction UCI will teach—announced to considerable feather ruffling this summer, that it will dump most of its literary journalism. Instead, its pages will be filled with the shorter, punchier, humorous articles and newsbites most often seen in boobs and beer mags like Details, Gear and FHM, this last one the alma mater of Rolling Stone's new managing editor, Ed Needham. Worse yet, in their 2002 census of the nation's daily newspapers, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that almost everyone wants to leave the field. The exodus of journalists from newspaperdom was the highest in 25 years, according to the census: 1,979 editorial employees, mostly in dailies with mid to low circulations, just up and left their jobs.

But if it seems the smart money is fleeing journalism, it has never been better for academia. Academic journalism programs increased by 16 percent in the past 13 years. There were 394 journalism schools in 1988; by 2001, there were 458, according to an authoritative University of Georgia study.

And it keeps getting more popular locally. Cal State Fullerton's undergraduate journalism school, for example, reported a student increase of 25 percent this year, from 319 students in Fall 2001 to 400 students in Fall 2002.

But those numbers can be misleading. What's really driving "journalism" courses is, in fact, business-related communications, said Roy Peter Clark, a scholar at the Poynter Institute, a think tank/advanced school for journalism.

"The journalism parts of the schools have become weaker or more diluted over the years," says Clark. "They've been superseded by public relations, advertising sequences, or media and society sociology perspectives. I think it's fair to say the 'j' has been shrinking in j-schools."

Georgianna, the UCI professor, said the new literary journalism major would conservatively attract 25 majors in two years and would employ two professors and a director, plus assorted lecturers, probably Southern California writers who would conduct seminars on their craft.

And if this high-falutin' education doesn't lead to a regular paycheck, it isn't UCI's problem, said Georgianna. "I have to resist the notion that a UC education should respond only to immediate market pressures. The fact is that we offer an education, not a guaranteed job upon graduation. Literary journalism majors will work hard on their writing and also study the history of prose-writing as part of their education, not as a job requirement."

There's a glimmer of brightness on the literary journalism horizon. Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutten recently wrote the appetite for serious literary journalism has grown since the attacks of Sept. 11, and old literary magazines—like Harper's, The New Yorker and Atlantic—have been the beneficiaries. Rutten didn't offer numbers to back up his claim, but we hope he's right.

 
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