Journalism remakes itself, students follow

Old-school news jobs wane, but digital future beckons

March 31, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,

The newsroom of The Diamondback, the student paper at the University of Maryland, College Park, retains the feel of an old-school city room. Framed front pages line the walls and bound volumes of yellowing issues collect dust on tables. Daily meetings are oriented toward producing the next morning's newspaper.

The staff members know it might be the last newspaper they ever work for.

As the industry sheds jobs by the thousands and papers close or go digital-only, there is a rethinking of journalism education. Still, a crush of students want to join in.

"All of the kids in journalism school still have idealized visions of journalism," said Steven Overly, 21, a Maryland junior and editor in chief of The Diamondback. "We've all seen All the President's Men and that's the journalism we fell in love with - the print paper, what we put out in high school, what we're doing now. And the idea that that might not be there is gut-wrenching."

Readers and advertisers are migrating online, where competition for eyeballs and ad dollars is fierce. Almost 16,000 jobs were lost at U.S. newspapers last year, according to a tally maintained by Erica Smith of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on a blog called Paper Cuts. She estimates half those jobs were in newsrooms. As revenue has plummeted this year, 6,800 more jobs have been lost.

Paradoxically, journalism schools are more popular than ever. Maryland received 25 percent more applications this year than last for its graduate journalism program. Columbia University's program saw a 40 percent increase; the school is planning to enroll more students than usual to meet demand.

Why? Journalism professors and experts who convened in Washington on Monday to discuss the "future of journalism jobs" said that journalism will and must survive, even if newspapers don't.

"I see this as being like a forest fire," said Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia. "It damages a lot of trees, but once the smoke clears, you see the buds come out."

Journalism deans say the ethics and skills they teach - skepticism, fairness, accuracy, persistence - are highly valuable in a world where truth and reality are increasingly hard to discern. And with curriculum overhauls, they say, students are getting the tools in audio, video and the Web that will allow them to create the new media of the future.

The schools now require online journalism courses and incorporate digital storytelling in all classes. They say major news organizations seeking to reach younger audiences will covet those students, and the students, like free-agent athletes, will market themselves and become their own brands.

"I don't know that there will be jobs. There will be careers," said Charles Whitaker, a professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, which teaches more about the business side of media than in the past. "We're telling students they need to be much more entrepreneurial about their careers."

The traditional path for young journalists - start at a small paper or TV station and work your way up - is vanishing. But new paths exist for those with expertise and specialized skills. Deep knowledge in, say, energy policy or the ability to produce stories that pop online are valuable, said John Harris, editor of Politico. If you're not enterprising, he said, you're in trouble.

"For people who are just plain worker bees and are pretty good, I don't find it an appealing career," Harris said at Monday's conference on journalism jobs at the Newseum in Washington. "I just don't see why somebody would go into the business unless they thought they could be an A at something."

Still, students are rushing into the field by the thousands. Columbia graduates about 224 master's students each year, Northwestern about 320 and Maryland 59. Maryland also has 492 full-time undergraduates in journalism and Northwestern 674.

Professors say they don't expect students to get jobs at newspapers in the numbers they used to. But they say there are other jobs for people who can communicate and dig up information - with nonprofits, in government publications, in public relations.

The demand for multimedia skills could be seen last weekend at Columbia's spring job fair. More than 100 employers attended, including but not The New York Times newspaper. More Web sites - such as The Huffington Post,, The Daily Beast and - showed up than newspapers and radio stations combined.

"It may not be writing 6,000 words for The Atlantic or The New Yorker ... but there are enough jobs if you have the right mind-set," said Anup Kaphle, who graduated from Columbia and is a media fellow at The Atlantic, working to develop its Web site. He said students must be willing and able to work with audio, video, graphics and Web design.

"These aren't traditional journalism jobs," Kaphle said, "but you're still telling a story."

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