UPDATE (Aug 7 ’08): The Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates suggests employment opportunities and salaries are not affected.
J-schools are generally set up to prepare students for the mainstream news industry: print and broadcasting, with a growing focus on those industries’ online arms. There’s just one small problem. That industry isn’t exactly splashing out on job ads at the moment…
The LA Times is cutting 150 editorial jobs and reducing pages by 15%; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cutting nearly 200 jobs; the Wall Street Journal cutting 50 jobs; Thomson Reuters axing 140 jobs; in the UK Newsquest is outsourcing prepress work to India, while also cutting jobs in York and Brighton; Reed Business Information, Trinity Mirror and IPC are all putting a freeze on recruitment, with Trinity Mirror also cancelling its graduate training scheme and cutting subbing jobs. In the past two months almost 4,000 jobs have vanished at US newspapers (Mark Potts has this breakdown of June’s 1000 US redundancies). In the past ten years the number of journalists in the US is said to have gone down by 25%.
Given these depressing stats I’ve been conducting a form of open ‘panel discussion’ format via Seesmic with a number of journalists and academics, asking whether journalism schools ought to revisit their assumptions about graduate destinations – and therefore what they teach. The main thread is below.
The responses are worth browsing through. Here’s my attempt at a digest:
There is a general agreement that this is just the beginning of something very serious indeed. Alison Gow, a journalist at the Liverpool Post, described recent events as the “first rattle of pebbles before the avalanche that follows”; Kevin Anderson of The Guardian doesn’t think it’s unrealistic for me to talk about a ‘worst case scenario’ in three years’ time where many newspapers fail and recruitment is zero.
Kevin draws parallels with the downsizing of IT industry and a need for multiskilling – subbing, writing, etc. Jo Geary at the Birmingham Post says “students now shouldn’t be educated for media organisations as exist now” and that they should also be made aware that newspapers are not what they think they are. My experience with students supports this: they tend to come onto the degree with a rather outdated, ‘monomedium’ view of working in journalism.
There is a general desire for the news industry to start working harder to attract graduates who can help steer it through the coming shift. Andy Dickinson says the university system and students have been underwriting the training and development of the news industry for a long time. The industry needs to make it more attractive for students to make the financial sacrifice. That includes making it more exciting to work there and “not something out of the 1920s”. Alison Gow points out that journalism graduates will have the choice between having their own website and joining a newsgathering organisation, which gives them a stronger bargaining position and hopefully better salaries. As an industry we will need these people and will need to provide packages that make it an attractive place to work.
There is also a healthy journalistic scepticism about some of the figures: Jo Geary asks how many of the redundancies are production staff, and how many content creators. I wonder whether the oft-touted stat on the decline of American journalists is so severe because it only looks at the mainstream media and at those with the ‘journalist/reporter’ job title. Does it overlook a rise in the likes of community editors, content moderators, multimedia producers and web editors?
In the light of that, there are still jobs in the industry. Andy Dickinson makes the distinction between “training people that the news industry wants, and training people that the news industry needs.” Sarah Hartley of the Manchester Evening News points out that newspapers have multimedia arms, TV stations, and radio stations. “You should prepare students for news organisations, not newspapers. They should be flexible, able to work in different formats.” She notes the biggest shift in newsgathering and news production and that the role “may be more to curate or manage content created outside of the news organisation.”
Neil MacDonald at the Liverpool Post stirred things up by asking “Why would an aspiring journalist now do a journalism degree? The industry will have been transformed by the time you graduate. What can you learn in three years that you can’t in one?” Online journalist Patrick Thornton would not hire the majority of journalism graduates and said “Most J-schools are obsolete”. Journalism entrepreneur and founder of Spot.us David Cohn said that, while he doesn’t regret studying his Masters in journalism at Columbia, he wouldn’t do it now. “The job description is changing, but universities aren’t adapting to change the changing mindset and skillset.”
Andy Dickinson and I both shared the view that the old 12-week training course just will not suffice in the modern environment; that the news industry needs to get over its snobbery about journalism and media degree graduates who have studied the theory as well as the practice, because these are the people who can ‘think outside the box’ about the industry’s future.
The increasingly diverse nature of the journalism ‘job’ presents an increasing range of elements that need to be taught – and a decreasing amount of space to do so. In this context it’s about teaching ‘mindset, not skillset’, as Kevin Anderson, Mark Comerford, Andy Dickinson, David Cohn and others pointed out.
Kevin perhaps put it best when he said:
“So many journalists think ‘If I’m a good writer, that’s all I need’. That’s bullshit. There is an arrogance among journalists about the craft of writing. Journalism students will need more than the ability to craft a good sentence.”
It’s also about separating teaching journalism as a process from teaching it as a type of production, as Reed’s Adam Tinworth put it and JD Lasica. It’s a great point – but complicated by the question that in a new media age, are the two increasingly one and the same? (This very debate is an act of the journalism process being published).
There is a general view that entrepreneurial and business skills should be taught. Kevin Anderson points out that this is the biggest opportunity for journalists to build a business. David Cohn says this hasn’t happened “Partly because news organisations have a culture similar to the military, there’s a chain of command and no leeway to make your own decisions. Journalism schools are equally structured.” Anika says universities should show students how to better market themselves. Tom, a freelance journalist in China, thinks learning other languages will be increasingly important. JD Lasica thinks we need journalists who can reinvent the industry.
And Emap’s David Cushman emphasised the importance of teaching students how to build partnerships and added the observation that “everything is in beta now” – university courses should be no different.
The conversation remains open - I’d love to know your thoughts either via video on Seesmic or in the comments below. I’ll update this post as new replies come in. You can also find comments on blog posts by David Cushman and Andy Dickinson.
Note: Kevin Anderson posted via YouTube and so his replies (and mine to his) aren’t included in the thread above, so it’s embedded separately below:
UPDATE: JD Lasica has added his response, ‘The Great Decoupling‘ separately – also embedded below: