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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
David Vaina for PEJ