Should journalism degrees still prepare students for a news industry that doesn’t want them?

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 My experience with students supports this: they tend to come onto the degree with a rather outdated, ‘monomedium’ view of working in journalism.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:

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46 thoughts on “Should journalism degrees still prepare students for a news industry that doesn’t want them?

  1. Andy

    What the indusrty need not want {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:”http://t.seesmic.com/thumbnail/bum2QnJbZq_th1.jpg”}”title”:{“value”:”What the indusrty need not want “}”videoUri”:{“value”:”http://www.seesmic.com/video/WOrTGkAwGB”}}}

    Reply
  2. sid langley

    Close on 50 years ago I was apprenticed (yes, my father had to sign my papers) as a journalist to a trade with a craft and industrial base that would have been recognised by Caxton – the hot metal days of the NGA, Natsopa, Sogat and all the Spanish practices that made journalists hate printers so much. Not many years later, post Eddie Shah and Wapping, I was a sub responsible for most of the processes printers once did. Meanwhile, the education of hacks, once a shopfloor concern, slid into the hands of media academics, carving out their own careers. Media, note. Not newspapers. Newspapers are dead, whatever the bosses tell you. Look to a digital future, kids. When I started I earned as much as my classmates who became lawyers, teachers, civil servants. But that slowly slipped and slipped, and even at my giddiest executive heights, suit and all, I earned less than a senior teacher. Now my writing brings me in precisely nothing, because resources are so thin no one can afford to pay me. Study the business, kids, the writing and pictures will look after themselves – or become a teacher of journalism. As I said in a thread started on this topic by Jo Geary (who is heading in the right direction, bless her) my daughters are, significantly, pursuing careers in nursing and teaching (in a primary school, I hasten to add, not a journalism course).

    Reply
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  4. Craig McGinty

    If it’s not already the line between journalist and online publisher will disappear so that journos become both, and an understanding of each skill set will be required.

    Trainee journalists should be finding time to read up on entrepreneurship, online marketing and digital publishing.

    Using their findings to help publications they work for and ultimately themselves.

    Reply
  5. Nigel Barlow

    Paul,

    I think that there are a number of perspectives to this argument.

    Let’s start from the point of view of the higher education system.Numbers are too high in many fields as universities are under pressure to perform as a profit centre.The balance between degree and job places is out of sync especially in the art subjects. But it is not just journalism,look at courses such as law and business related studies.

    Numbers that are too high place enormous strains on the resources needed to teach,the result classes too large and inevitably the standard of teaching diminishes.It is no wonder that employers are starting to worry about the standards of student education and are bringing in their own measuring devices.

    Now let me make that clear that journalism is only one of many subjects that is suffering from those problems.

    With regard to journalism courses,I can only speak for the course that I am currently undertaking at Uclan.The journalist needs to be able to master many skills to compete in the real world and the degree generally tries to do that,given the constraints mentioned above.I would hope to come out of it this time next year having mastered the skills of being able to work in the journalism profession,whilst also showing an individuality and ability to think out of the box.
    That second skill comes more from the university experience than the specific skills of the course.

    Now the other side of the coin,the industry.In a rapidly changing environment,it is increasingly difficult I am sure to match skills to the industry.Courses,as Uclan has done will change to keep up with external developments,but the sheer logistics mean this is difficult to achieve in real time.

    I don’t agree that we are heading for the ground zero option.The nature and the structure of the industry will change,but jobs will still be there.However higher education facilities need to recognise that numbers will go down and must look at applications and adjust numbers.

    Reply
  6. Martin Hirst

    I can see another gulf opening up here, but think it’s one that should be healed and sealed.

    I’m a “former” journalist, now blogger and occasional columnist, but mainly a journalism academic. Some of us go by the nom-de-blog of “hackademics”.

    However you cut it, I’m out of daily journalism and now teaching the next generation. I retain my passion for journalism and my belief in the importance of some form of professional practice.

    Having said that, I think there are two historic poles in this debate, but still lots of (here come the post-modern reference) “wriggle room”.

    You can’t put all J-schools in the “too hard” or “too stubborn” basket. There’s innovation in the journalism curriculum too. Problem is, it takes a while for it to filter through.

    Like the news organisations, we in the academy also face structural and cultural problems. While we’d all like to be at the cutting edge, there’s a whole bureaucracy to deal with and other, equally pressing, issues both internal and external.

    Like coalface journos, we’re struggling to keep up, racing to get out in front and jumping up and down to retain market share.

    Don’t be too hard on us former hacks. Ultimately, we want (pretty much) what you want.

    I will shovel some video content your way soon to further elaborate and to demonstrate my geeky-cool, early-adopter persona.

    In the meantime, a partnership will be more productive. The way I see it, universities have a longer (predicted) shelf life than newspapers.

    However we cut it, professional reporters and editors, or citizen journalists (problematic term for me), we will still need educated intellectuals for the foreseeable future.

    Reply
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  9. Teach_J

    Having just spent two weeks in Tempe, AZ in the Walter Cronkite school at ASU – I would recommend that school as a forward thinking j-school. They really “get” it. They call it convergence journalism – print, video, web, audio, photo plus the basics of journalism. They still learn interviewing, editing, writing, law, etc. But all of it is now focused on being platform agnostic – being able to do journalism on all platforms, not just one.

    Reply
  10. Matt @ PRBristol

    […]So what should journalists be trained in? I believe that there will be always a demand for news and the basic journalist skills of finding and crafting a story into engaging content will always be needed, as long as there are news addicts like you and I. Naturally there needs to be training in blogging and online news gathering in order that traditional news sources can compete with fleet of foot blog sites such as Guido Fawkes and the Huffington Post. Many newspaper chains have made the mistake of letting very good quality journalists go in the name of cost saving but now do not have the content to drive traffic and interest online. Its a catch 22 but ultimately a blog or website is only ever as good as the content.[…]

    Reply
  11. alex

    Hello Paul, another timely, great post.

    I agree with yourself and Andy Dickinson about the snobbery against the degrees, and urge industry to take on board the benefits of theory that helps journalism graduates develop awareness of their practice. I would also add that, having just been through a validation process with our degrees at Sunderland, you really can get things done reasonably quickly. We had some student feedback on our degrees, and some market feedback, and we changed from one to four degrees over the year period. And I think we’ve found a lot of room to develop the programmes so they’re delivering the skills required.

    I’ve got a skills-world background, so wanted to add another element to the mix. As I’m sure you know, the publishing industry has just moved to come under the remit of Skillset, the Sector Skills Council (SSC) for creative media industries. http://www.skillset.org/publishing/

    Previously, publishing, including journalism, had sat outside of the SSC network, administering itself and working with its trade bodies, the PPA, NCTJ etc.

    Skillset does some good work, incuding engagement with academia e.g. the Skillset Media Academy. It’s emphasis is very much on AV and multimedia.

    The role of the SSC is to improve skills relevant to what is happening in industry. They are also brokers. But more importantly, they drive forward creative media mindsets and skillsets (or should do, and have done when operating at their best – by the way I didn’t work for them but a ‘rival’ SSC!).

    So, at the macro-level, there may be a really big opportunity right now to bring journalism much closer to the other creative media industries, and this could have some important outcomes for our industry and our academic work: at both a practical level, but also at the political level, and in industry mindsets.

    I know Skillset are ‘taking it cautiously’ with publishing due to the traditions and history, but we could take the opportunity to reframe journalism away from the idea as a ‘craft of writing’ into the frame of a ‘skillset for creative media journalism’ at the policy level.

    Finally, I really liked Kevin Anderson’s point that this is the biggest opportunity for journalists to build a business. Absolutely. the NCTJ have, in response to industry, just introduced a new exam as part of their accreditation called the Business of Magazines. I’m looking forward to teaching it next year — I want all 14 students on that module being inspired, when they leave, to think they could create their own journalism practice as they want it, and have the acumen to do it.

    Reply
  12. Azeem Ahmad

    I shall be adding my thoughts to this interesting topic over the weekend. I thought I would be able to record a video and send my views in but I’d like a more broader perspective after reading everybody’s comments and watching each video reply.

    My views might be interesting to some as I have recently graduated from a journalism degree.

    Reply
  13. Jim Tucker

    I’ve just returned to journalism education after a three-year stint running the NZ Journalists Training Org – and having seen the ennui in industry, I’m in the middle of an experiment to create a modern approach to teaching journalism.
    Gone are the days (I had 20 years of them) when we could base a one-year programme on print, with a bit of photography, radio and TV thrown in for good measure.
    Our new multimedia diploma has its own news website, students are equipped with Nokia N95s or Canons with high quality video (they own them), we’re cutting out most of the tests and exams, we’ve reduced the number of lectures, and put even greater emphasis than before on students operating a geographic news round from which they are required to produce 35 “real” news stories for publication on the website.
    They produce text and stills for every story, and add video for those where it suits.
    With 26 of them beavering away out there in the community, we have become one of the largest (in terms of “staff”) newsrooms in the country, and we certainly generate enough “copy” to fill the website.
    We set this up with the help of Dave Lee, a journalism grad from Lincoln, who was imported for six weeks to establish the website and teach the use of sound slides, audacity (audio) and Windows home movies.
    Our original quote for the website was $137,000 in the first year – Dave did it for a few hundred dollars by using open source software.
    Our site (after three weeks of operartion) has brought widespread acclaim from the NZ industry and abroad.
    This, to me, is the way to teach journalism.
    The basic tenets – accuracy, writing skills, photography, interviewing, ethics, law, numeracy, court reporting – haven’t changed. We still do all those things.
    NZ journalism courses (there are 10) have always been strong on students producing real news stories for publication in community newspapers, but that has dropped off in university-based programmes as academia and research has pressed in.
    One problem was having to rely on newspaper editors to use the stories – now we publish immediately, and they can have the stories, too, if they want them. Already, the newspaper publishing turnaround time has improved.
    Dave said he thought our programme is a far better way to go than anything he’d seen in the UK. Incidentally, he also started to teach himself shorthand while he was here, because it was an option nobody bothered with on his programme.
    Have a look at the website. It’s called NewsWire and it’s hosted by WordPress – http://www.newswire.co.nz
    You’ll note one of the downsides of being a j school and running a news service: we have a shortage of copy during breaks. Hey, but nothing’s perfect.
    When you read the stories, be aware that these are coming from students who started their course on June 3. Watch it get better.
    Wherever these grads end up – most are aged 20 and above (up to 56) and many already have degrees or significant life experience – they will be well-equipped to work in any kind of news media operation.

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  15. Simon Harper

    I can see Neil MacDonald’s point where he suggests that “the industry will have been transformed” in the duration of a three-year degree programme, but I think it misses one of the strengths of journalism degrees, in that students can explore the issues surrounding developments and trends though the more academic content of the course. Perhaps that puts them in an ideal place to then consider developments which emerge later, teasing out the themes behind these changes, assessing strengths and weaknesses, business models etc.

    I think that one of the most important things journalism courses should seek to do is better prepare students for life after graduation, in terms of how they go about selling/placing their work, starting up their own enterprise, or marketing themselves to organisations as either a potential employee or freelancer. As has already been suggested by others, I think a sense of realism needs to be communicated to challenge the mindset of graduates who expect to follow the ‘traditional’ route to a job i.e. leave university, spot job advertisement, apply with CV etc.

    Although there are certain writing skills that need to be taught, I think that there should perhaps be more of an emphasis on the thinking behind new methods of both gathering and distributing information (not necessarily form above content, but they need to have a grasp of generating sources and what happens to their words after they’ve written them, i.e. knowledge of the whole publishing process), as well as a grounding in the business of journalism via highlighting the need to be entrepreneurial (or intrapreneurial, as part of a larger news organisation).

    That way, they are more likely to have the knowledge to survive in a future where journalists will also inhabit the role of publisher (and also possibly marketer too, even if only in the sense of marketing their own capabilities to potential clients/employers).

    Reply
  16. paulbradshaw

    Alex (comment 12) – that’s a very salient point, and politics are obviously hugely important, especially as public funds become more important too. Witness the battles between BBC, C4 and even The Guardian…

    Reply
  17. paulbradshaw

    Jim (comment 14), I’ve seen Dave’s/your site and think it’s fantastic – already commented on his blog. I’ve been working towards something similar for some months now so kudos for investing the time and money to get Dave over and give students N95s (something I dream of)

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  19. Fiona

    As a working writer/editor in print and online media, I’ve had to diversify my skills and mindset over the last eight years to stay competitive. I’m not sure that the term ‘journalist’ covers what I do anymore. If I’m finding it hard to keep up with the industry then I pity the poor academics/lecturers who are supposed to stay on top of it and formulate training that will be suitable.

    And just to add that despite the new media frenzy, it’s still traditional media outlets (though not so much newspapers) that are giving me the work. Change is often slow and does not necessarily signal the end of traditional forms, though new media forums tend to give the impression that the doom-laden end is nigh.

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  21. Sam

    The problem, I believe, has more to do with media personnel themselves. They have closed the door to budding journalists. They are more interested in the so-called celebrities. In this day and age, chat shows, sports programes, name them, are all given to personalities who have no training in journalism. The qualification one needs is to appear in a TV show like BB and by Jove! you are now a star.

    Meanwhile, student journalists are more inlined to be elsewhere because their own colleagues have made it difficult for them to be in the profession.

    I have practised for many years as a journalist but I have decided to be elsewhere. I’m in academia now and having a fastastic time.

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  23. Jonathan Walker

    As I can’t work out how to reply in the Seesmic thread with a video which has been uploaded (rather than recorded directly) I’ll just link to my reply here. It is broken into two parts:

    http://www.seesmic.com/#/video/y9I4tY2bvH/watch

    http://www.seesmic.com/#/video/UDjms1VZ4M/watch

    One point I want to clarify – I make a remark about “ordinary reporters” which may seem slightly disparaging, but I am, of course, an ordinary reporter myself:)

    Reply
  24. Jonathan Walker

    Re: Jim Tucker:

    I had a look at the website the students have produced (http://www.newswire.co.nz/) – great site, and I voted in the opinion poll!

    I would suggest potentially going even further at some point in the course, if time allows, and asking them to set about designing a site from scratch – right down to seeking out information on the different free CMS options (Joomla, Drupal, WordPress etc) and then installing the one they want to use.

    I say this because I think your students would probably find it is *easier than they think*, which is always a great lesson to learn. Of course, it wouldn’t mean they were trained to become web designers, but it could help to plant some ideas about i) what is out there, ii) (even better) how to find out what is out there and iii) how they can set about creating or having an input into websites where their work may appear, if this is what the future holds for them.

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  30. Sara-Ellen Amster

    Profits as large as 20 percent are too high to allow for enough support of the news-gathering operation itself. Maybe newspaper firms will have to get used to the profits of grocery stores or retaurants.

    But the Web is more efficient, more compelling and easier on the hands than newsprint. I am lucky enough to be working at a university willing to support a graduate program in digital journalism. It will be all online.This is National University. We will be accepting students very soon.

    We will train journalists to think of their work the way readers want to experience it. That doesn’t mean good writing is dead — just that journalists need to gather more raw and direct material to share with readers/viewers. The problem I think a lot of print journalists have is a desire to remain anonymous. They don’t want to think about style and only want to worry about substance. It will be hard to get them to think a lot more about presentation and modes of interaction.

    I think the written word still has a great deal of power. There is still the so-called “holy shit” story in the words of Ben Bradlee, but why can’t video, photo galleries, message boards and blogs be added to it if it means more people will read it? As college educators, we will need to train our students to make themselves invaluable to news organizations by having some extra skills. It is the only way they will get themselves jobs. Period.

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  33. James

    As an aside, what’s worrying me recently is that for over 10 years of using the internet, I can’t remember ONE time where I have looked at or truly followed an advert online. My eyes just totally avoid them, always.

    I sometimes worry where the money is going to come from to support new online news orgs.

    Has there been any studies that suggest that online advertising actually increases sales? I can’t imagine it does greatly. And with content mostly free, where are the billions going to roll in from? I can’t really see major companies thinking “right, lets flood millions into online adds” because surely they know as well as I that most people don’t really notice them?

    Anyway, great article.

    Reply
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  42. James

    If I had my time again, I wouldn’t have done a Journalism degree. I’d have done something else and then maybe done a post-grad in Journalism. The post-grads that I worked alongside in my final year basically did all the important, necessary things. My other two years was filled with nonsensical theoretical assignments and modules which didn’t expand my knowledge, nor did they set me up for a career in journalism.

    My problem with the course is that you go out half trained. I took the print/online route, so have no experience in broadcast. You need to be an all-rounder now, and do a bit of everything, and in that sense university let me down. I went there to learn the skills I required for the industry, to go on top of my enthusiasm, desire and existing knowledge for a career in journalism and I came out half prepared. I’d suggest that if a course was to run for three years, then the second year must be focused on print/online and then the third year supplements that knowledge with comprehensive training in broadcast. What’s the point of me chucking £3,000+ a year at a course if I’m going to finish lacking the skills I need?

    Fortunately, as I’ve done quite a lot of work outside of my studies, I got a job immediately after I graduated, although working as a content producer at a media company, rather than as a “proper” journalist. I recently went to an assessment centre for another job, and while I had a very good interview and my writing and proof reading skills were solid, one part of it saw me conducting a TV interview. Having never ever done this before, I was out my depth. I tried my best, but can’t help but think there will have been someone else on the day much more comfortable than me.

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  43. ILEAD India

    J-schools should prepare the students for almost all sectors of work. Preparing students for congested fields should not be the only plan for the colleges. Widening of the scope is definitely required. Overall I agree with this post that variety should be included in the course structure.

    Reply
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