Ask A Pro
Bucks County Community College
Falling ad revenue. Plunging profits. Layoffs. Downsizing. Bankruptcy filings.
The news in the news business can’t get any worse. Some days it seems as if those who write the first draft of history have little in the way of a future.
So what are journalism professors, those charged with grooming the next generation of reporters, editors and producers, telling their students these days about the news business in general, and print journalism, that seemingly most endangered of species, in particular?
“I'm telling my students to find a new profession,” says journalism Professor Tony Chan of the University of Washington at Seattle.
“Print, as we know it, is dead. Kaput,” he adds. “Print is ‘Dead Man Walking.’”
But others are more optimistic.
“The newspaper business could not be in worse shape,” admits Columbia University Journalism Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan. “But there’s a hunger for information we’re seeing in everything from the business meltdown to the Mumbai attacks to the automotive industry.
“People want information, people want to know what’s happening,” he continues. “They may not want it in the way we’re giving it to them, but they want it. And there’s more need than ever for good journalism.”
At Columbia, Sreenivasan says, there’s a much greater emphasis these days on training students in using new media, and in specialized reporting in areas like business and the arts.
That’s not to say that students aren’t worried about what kind of job market they’ll face after graduating.
“Students have concerns – they always do,” Sreenivasan says. “But we’re very bullish on news gathering. We’re banking our future on journalism.”
Steven S. Duke, managing director for training and an associate professor at the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University in Chicago, says he and his colleagues are stressing versatility.
“We're telling students they must be prepared to practice journalism across all platforms, and not to think of themselves as TV journalists, newspaper journalists or even Web journalists,” Duke says. “Everybody has to be able to do a bit of everything.”
Students, Duke says, “have to understand audience needs and interests so they can tell important stories in ways that will engage and interest people. If they can't stimulate interest, no one will read or view their stories, no matter how important.”
Duke also says he encourages students to take the long view of the changes happening in the news industry.
“We also tell students that just as at the inception of radio, and later television, this is a time of disruption of old models, but also an opportunity to create new ones. The most entrepreneurial journalists will fare the best,” he says.
Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington says the key phrase in his department is multi-media journalism.
“We tell our students that employment opportunities exist in multi-media journalism even as cutbacks roil through newspapers and broadcast stations,” Washington says.
Washington says all students in Temple's journalism department receive training in software like Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Flash. They must also take the program’s Multi-Media Urban Reporting Lab course, in which they prepare multi-media reports from inner-city neighborhoods and then post those reports on a website.
Surprisingly, Washington says some students still resist the multi-media approach, especially if it falls outside their particular area of study, such as magazine journalism.
“At the beginning of every semester, we have to go through a drill pointing out how the media-scape has changed radically during the past five years, pushing the fact that convergence is the current wave and they better get on this wave or be left standing on the beach,” Washington says.
Washington and other professors interviewed for this story say enrollment in journalism courses has remained steady or even increased despite the industry’s problems. “There remains a strong interest in journalism as a career,” Washington says.
That interest may be justified. A study released in August found that the job market for graduates of college journalism and mass communication programs remained largely unchanged in the second half of 2007 and the first half of 2008, compared to a year earlier.
The study by University of Georgia researchers found that nearly the same percentage of graduates in 2007 found full-time jobs within six to eight months of graduation as in the previous year, though salaries remained static.
Still, the job situation has worsened since that study was released. Ann Cooper, a former NPR foreign correspondent now teaching at Columbia, says, "it's a little surprising that the high anxiety in the media business has not translated into lower interest in journalism school."
Cooper maintains that journalism students "instinctively know something that gets forgotten in anxiety-ridden newsrooms: however the next few years shake out, journalism will survive."
Cooper wants her students to understand that the current crisis is economic, not journalistic. "The problem is how journalism will pay for itself in the future -- not that no one wants good journalism any more."
"I'm encouraged by the energy and curiosity of our students, and I am guided by them," she adds. "I don't believe they would be here if they didn't think journalism would survive and find new economic models to finance it."
Fred Bayles, director of the Statehouse Program at Boston University, says he tries to be "fairly realistic with my classes, but I'm not that much doom and gloom. Last year almost all of students in my program found jobs in the business."
Bayles says he's seen "lots of opportunity: Websites, multi-media driven reporting for even small newspaper websites, on-line magazines, etc. An example would be a current student who will be hired by the Globe to set up a 'hyperlocal' page for a specific town on boston.com. That was a job that didn't exist before."
Bayles says enrollment numbers "have held steady through this academic year," but adds, "everybody across the university -- and all private universities -- is holding their collective breath about next fall."
Andy Bechtel, an assistant journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says “our enrollment is still strong. I'm still turning away students from my editing classes because of lack of space.”
Bechtel says his department is updating its curriculum to make sure it meets the needs of the profession. He too tells students the news business is undergoing a sea change.
“No one is sure what the future holds, but it's apparent in the growth of readership at news sites that people still want professionally produced news,” Bechtel says. “The problem is how to make that sustainable economically -- and what that means for jobs for our graduates.”
©2009 by Tony Rogers. Used with permission of About, Inc. which can be found online at
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