May 10, 2007

How J-School Students See the Future

When it was released last fall, University of Georgia professor Lee Becker’s annual study of journalism graduates entering the job market contained some counterintuitive—if not downright surprising—news. Despite revenue and circulation problems, job cuts, and budget slashing in many newsrooms, 73% percent of 2005 print journalism graduates found full-time employment in their industry. That was the highest percentage in six years and a four-point increase over 2004.

Becker says those numbers make sense when you consider that most starting journalists are not looking for jobs at the big metro newspapers, the category that has been hit hardest by the industry’s financial ills. The more local and small-town newspapers, which have fared better, are offering recent grads their first jobs, he says.

That relatively rosy picture is, to a substantial degree, borne out by PEJ online interviews with 14 journalism and communication students from six schools.

Even as the students acknowledge that their chosen profession is in the throes of dramatic and uncertain change, they also project a pretty sturdy sense of optimism about their careers and the future of journalism. And despite the perception or theory that journalists are driven by a reformist desire to change the world, many of these students say they were motivated primarily by their love of writing. On the subject of journalism education, a majority of our sample say their hands-on experience at school papers or professional newsrooms was more beneficial than course work in preparing for a career.

And that one core skill that many of them fear they still haven’t mastered after their college years? The art of the interview.

The students came from Columbia University, Georgetown University, Michigan State University, University of Missouri, Northeastern University, and Ohio University. Eight of the 14 were seniors or MA candidates graduating this spring; one is an MA candidate graduating next year; four were underclassmen; and one graduated in December 2006. Each student was emailed nine questions asking about their education, career aspirations, and the future of journalism.

Why journalism?

Half the students we interviewed say they are heading into the journalism field primarily because of their love of writing. Several indicated that they had spent earlier years writing poems and fiction before focusing on a career in journalism studies.

  • “I always loved writing. I’ve been writing stories, poems and essays since I was seven,” says Chelsea Petersen, a junior at Northeastern. “Since creative writing isn’t the most lucrative of fields, I figured I would try journalism.”
  • “I’ve loved writing and sports since I was a little kid,” adds Christopher Estrada, a Northeastern sophomore. “This is my gift from God and I intend to use it to tell stories about great feats and great people.”

Four of our interviewees say they were attracted to journalism as a life-long learning opportunity, offering the chance to better understand interesting people and the major social and political issues of our time.

  • “I like meeting new people and learning what they are passionate about. I like that each story is a mini education,” explains Lauren Phillips, a Michigan State senior. “For example, I knew nothing about horses and hadn’t even seen one up close until I wrote a story about a 4H team.”

The crusading instinct to change the world does not have a particularly strong hold on our student sample. Only three of them mention the idea of journalists serving as watchdogs on the powerful forces in society.

  • “I’m attracted by both the selfish desire to break important investigative stories and to better people’s lives,” said Benjamin Poston, a master’s student at the Missouri Graduate School of Journalism. “In too many instances, the only way corruption is exposed or bad guys brought down is through reporting.”

What they learned. And didn’t learn.

About two-thirds of our students say they are working for their school paper or interning at a professional media organization while they complete their course work. For them, this practical experience has generally proven to be a more valuable teaching tool than classroom academics. Without actually getting a chance to work in a newsroom, many say they would be ill-prepared to thrive in a professional, full-time capacity.

  • Tom Keller, a Michigan State senior, credits his experience at the school’s daily paper, The State News, as a key factor in his education. “It was really about those day-to-day news decisions that taught me what journalism is about,” he says. “My courses were a good supplement, but without practical experience, they’re like a meal of side dishes that wouldn’t have provided me with all the training I needed.”
  • “Most of what I know about journalism I learned on the job at the Missoula Independent,” which is an alternative weekly in Montana, echoes Mike Keefe-Feldman, an MA student at Georgetown. “My co-workers often commented that my work experience taught me more than I would have learned in J-school.”
  • “A lot of [my preparation] came from hands-on experience done through internships and co-ops. Journalism is a field that most greatly benefits from these types of experiences,” adds Glenn Yoder, a senior studying at Northeastern.

Three students did single out a particularly inspiring professor or class that they feel will make them better journalists after they have entered the workforce.

  • “One of my journalism professors at Brandeis also inspired me to go into journalism,” explains Elana Margulies, a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “In all the courses I took with him, he challenged me, and would not let me settle for anything less than 150 percent. Now, three years after I graduated from Brandeis, I still consider him an invaluable mentor.”

Whatever they learned in and out of the classroom, five students of the 14 canvassed say they are still deficient when it comes to interviewing skills. In an era when journalists are increasingly emailing questions to sources and subjects, these students express considerable anxiety about conducting telephone interviews.

  • “Interviewing! I am so terrible at it! I’m a pretty shy person to begin with, so I dreaded every assignment that involved cold calls,” says Northeastern’s Petersen.
  • “I think journalists should receive either empathy training or training in how to be able to face people that automatically don’t like you because of the fact that you’re a journalist at a paper that has wronged them before and still be able to interview them effectively,” adds Steve Babcock, who graduated from Northeastern in December 2006.

Three students also wish they had done more coursework in multi-media training. They say the ability to produce video or shoot photos for a news organization’s website is increasingly regarded as an essential skill in a rapidly digitizing journalism universe.

  • “I absolutely wish I knew more about shooting my own photos and video. Some of my younger colleagues are learning this stuff, but it seemed to come up in classes more as I was on my way out,” says Ellie Behling, senior of Ohio University. “In the future, I will probably try to train as a photographer.”

Their Career Hopes

Most of the students happened to be interested in careers in either print or online journalism, fewer in television and radio. Very few say they would be willing to work in other fields where their journalism degree may be applicable, such as public relations or advertising.

Three of the students say they will begin full-time, permanent jobs once they’ve completed their studies. Several, however, have been offered internships for the summer, at both traditional media organizations (The San Diego Union-Tribune) and more niche-based media properties (MLB.com).

Despite understandable anxiety about their futures, 10 of the students in our sample feel relatively optimistic about careers in their particular area of academic concentration. Two are fearful that they would not find jobs in journalism. The remaining two students, both of whom had already landed jobs, did not elaborate on the issue.

  • “I’m certain something good will come. The only anxiety is that I don’t know how it will come,” says Michigan State’s Keller. “This MLB.com internship originated almost by happenstance; what leads me to something after that could be just as unpredictable. I’m confident that I’ve worked hard enough to this point to have that opportunity.”
  • “Some days I’m very confident. Other days I wake up in a cold sweat with nightmares of being a cashier,” adds Alisa Hofsess of Missouri’s Graduate School of Journalism. “On the whole, though, I would say I’m pretty confident that I’m going to find something where I’m going to be putting this degree to good use. It might not be what I planned on when I started, but I keep telling myself that the first job out of school isn’t the job I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”
  • Ashley Traupman, a sophomore at Northeastern, is not as sanguine. “Every day I worry that once I graduate and it is time for me to find a job there will be none available,” she says.

And the Future of Journalism

In addition to the expectations they have about their individual careers, we asked the students to take a step back and evaluate the future of the profession they hope to enter. Virtually all acknowledge that journalism is changing dramatically. They point out that technology, namely the Web, is producing more and more content, but not necessarily making the citizen better informed. Furthermore, they see the emergence of so-called “citizen journalism” as a competitor to traditional journalism, forcing media companies to adapt and innovate in ways they may not be sufficiently prepared to do.

While most students remain fairly confident the profession will weather the storm and remain an educational force in American society, they demonstrate varying degrees of optimism. And some of them offered their ideas on how journalism needs to change to remain relevant.

There was certainly a sense among some that the journalism profession must shed any reluctance to change and move briskly into the new media environment.

  • Journalism is at a crossroads,” says Ohio University senior Molly O’Hare. “New technology and new methods are changing the way people want to get their news, and traditional journalism is losing its prominence. That said, media outlets have the opportunity to adapt and become a vital part of this revolution. If people in the industry can stay ahead of the curve and not get stuck in old ways of doing things, there is no reason why journalism should not continue to be an influential and valuable component of future society.”
  • “I don’t think the ship is sinking as much as we’re led to believe,” says Northeastern’s Yoder. “I think journalism is changing for sure, but that we just have to be prepared to steward it to its next phase. Fighting the future is fruitless in a lot of ways. It’d be much more productive to embrace the changes (as difficult as that may be right now, with staff reductions and the like) and try to make sense of the new technologies and means of reporting. Besides, society stands to prosper from this, as long as great storytellers remain.”

And at least one student says the industry’s success may hinge on its ability to stay ahead of the new wave of user-generated content.

  • “I am afraid for the profession because if we don’t make the right shift and include the digital aspect into newspapers we will definitely run out of subscriptions and readers,” adds Bessie King, a junior at Northeastern University. “We need to figure out a way to keep making money but become innovative enough to avoid getting run over by citizen journalism, YouTube, and others.I do think, though, that people will always want information to be delivered to them, so in one way or the other, reporters and journalism will survive.”