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Home > Publications > Quill > Quill Feature: The Eternal Optimists


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Thursday, December 3, 2009
Quill Feature: The Eternal Optimists

Despite foreboding job prospects, journalism majors remain at near-record levels. What are students teaching us?

By Bob Wyss

We all know the news is grim. One out of every five newspaper jobs that existed in 2001 is gone, and fewer than 50,000 remain. Television news staffing and revenue are down alarmingly. Online news is attracting more viewers, but not generating enough advertising to be sustainable. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported this year that the state of the profession is the worst that it has ever seen.

Yet journalism enrollment and the number of undergraduate degrees granted remain near historic highs. The University of Georgia, which compiles a survey that dates back to 1937, indicated that last year, 58,831 undergraduates were enrolled in traditional journalism programs that include print, broadcast and, increasingly, online journalism. It also found that 14,763 earned undergraduate journalism degrees. That’s down slightly from the all-time high for both numbers reported for 2007.

Where are all of these students going to get jobs?

As a journalism professor, I worry about that a lot. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the bridge of the Titanic. Yet other times I hope I’m living in an age more promising than Gutenberg’s.

“I love journalism, and I am willing to struggle to find a job rather than work in an occupation I absolutely abhor. I guess I am putting my happiness before my financial success.”

Journalism schools around the country are trying to re-invent themselves even more rapidly than the profession. No one is getting rid of the basics, but besides the lessons of who, what, when, where, why and how are others in interactivity, multimedia, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and wikis.

At the University of Connecticut, where I teach, some of us have literally been tearing up the curriculum that was just rewritten two years ago. We encourage students to take a range of print, broadcast and online courses, offer more technology workshops out of the classroom and incorporate more multimedia requirements even in introductory courses.

We are also brutally frank about what is happening in the profession.

Still, I recently wondered whether the message was sinking in. I asked about 75 of my students a very basic question: Why are you a journalism major?

The answers surprised, pleased and encouraged me.

Some students are intimidated, if not downright scared by what is happening. Many had not realized conditions in the profession were so bleak.

Yet only a few said they were so worried that they were thinking of bailing out of the profession. One student admitted that while he was thinking of either going to law school or teaching, he was also having trouble giving up his dream.

“My hope is that some day I will find a job, whether full-time or part-time, writing for a publication,” he wrote. “I am just not sure that the time for that is now.”

The vast majority echoed the comments of Jeremy Katz, who said that with the field shrinking, this certainly poses a challenge. “But it only makes me more determined to succeed,” he said. “In a competitive job market, it magnifies the fact that you have to be the best.”

Michelle Jarvis, who switched from English to journalism because she thought she was choosing a more stable career path, was still having difficulty accepting that print journalism might be dying. “There is something about print that legitimizes the news behind it,” she wrote. “If it has been written, then printed, then transported to thousands and delivered on their doorsteps, then the words mean something, they have value. Online, your work and reporting shares space with the endless abyss of ads and junk.

“While the future is terrifying, I am at least excited to write about it.”

A number of students felt the same way. They not only yearned to be journalists, but they wanted to help where they could.

“I keep hoping that the growing masses of journalism students will revive the newspaper business,” Caitlin Emma said. “Journalists have changed the world, and I believe that we still have the potential to do so.”

Students also pointed out that not everyone majoring in journalism wants to go into the profession.

About 10 said they planned careers in teaching, law, public relations, acting or other vocations. One — clearly a comedian — said that he wanted to be a comedy writer.

This may also help explain why the numbers in the annual survey taken by the University of Georgia are so high. Besides surveying traditional journalism programs, researchers survey mass communication programs that also have advertising, public relations, telecommunications and other offerings.

Figures for those mass communication disciplines are at all-time highs for enrollment, degrees offered, the number of programs and full-time faculty.

Stephanie Bousquet, who is still sticking to her hope of getting a magazine job, said that she knew the writing skills she had developed could only help. “Journalism is a great foundation, and I feel confident that being a journalism major will ultimately benefit me in the long run no matter what job I find.”

Probably the most passionate statement about why journalism is so important came from Allison Lex, who transferred to the university specifically so that she could major in journalism. Rather than being intimidated by what was happening, she said the problems in journalism are what drew her toward the field.

Lex felt that journalists had to share the blame for the collapse of the profession, because increasingly the news too often stressed entertainment and trivia rather than what was important.

“I want to be a journalist because I am committed to doing my best to resist this trend,” she said. “The thought of a someday newspaper-less world overtaken by a shallow media is devastating, and the only personal solution I can see is that I do my part to prevent this from happening.”

How does one put all of this into perspective? No one has a blueprint for how journalism will survive in the future, and it is difficult to tell if such idealism is part of the answer or dangerous naivety.

Lee B. Becker, the journalism professor at the University of Georgia who supervises the enrollment survey, said that so far his study shows no indication that students are abandoning the major.

“Our students have not associated journalism with a dying profession, and maybe they shouldn’t,” he said.

The answer may be found by consulting the past.

Read the research:

-2009 Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrollments: tinyurl.com/yfnu87g

-2009 State of the News Media Report: tinyurl.com/cxkog2

-1989 Endres/Wearden study: Journalism and Mass Communication Educator (Spring 1990)

History shows us that journalism was never that popular of a major until the 1970s, when the glamour cast from Watergate helped cause the number of majors to explode. That trend continued through the 1980s, declined in

the early 1990s and has been climbing steadily since 1995, according to the Georgia surveys.

Twenty years ago, two journalism professors at Kent State University were also curious why so many students had chosen the major.

The news business was quite different at the time. The nation had 1,626 newspapers with a circulation of 62.6 million. Publishers were so wealthy that in 1993, The New York Times bought The Boston Globe for $1.1 billion, more than anyone paid at the time, or since, for a single paper.

Today there are 200 fewer newspapers, including major closings and print cessations in Denver and Seattle and 14 million fewer readers. The Times has lost so much money that earlier this year it threatened to close the Globe.

Fred P. Endres and Stanley T. Wearden, who conducted the 1989 survey, talked to two categories of majors: those going into print, and what Endres and Wearden called radio/TV. Both groups said they had chosen their profession because the fields had strong public credibility and offered a variety of challenging assignments.

But what was far more interesting was when they discussed the problems they foresaw in their future professions.

Print majors said the field was very stressful, the pay was poor, and there were few opportunities for promotion or for a comfortable working environment. Radio/TV majors were just as pessimistic, saying their profession had poor job security and was not promising either for promotion or professional development.

Neither group seemed very worried about these problems.

Another way to look at this research is to suggest that journalism majors 20 years ago were risk-takers. They saw problems, but the opportunities not only to do fulfilling work but to make changes were too tempting to resist.

That doesn’t seem very different from the students of today. Or, as I think about my three decades in the newsroom, that label seems to fit a great number of reporters and editors with whom I work.

“My hope is that some day I will find a job, whether full-time or part-time, writing for a publication. I am just not sure that the time for that is now.”

To make it in the news business, one must be cynical and idealistic.

Still, it is clear that this new generation of journalists will have a far more difficult challenge than their predecessors. What can we do to help this next generation of journalists succeed? What are the most important tools we can provide?

First, I suggest that we need to keep students informed as much as possible.

For better or worse, they want to be part of this uncertain future. Many students have told me that they thought journalism was a secure future until they took their first journalism class.

“I was caught off-guard when I learned about journalism’s future,” Emily Volz told me. But “I’m not about to abandon ship.”

Students also still need to be grounded in the fundamentals of the business, from reviewing grammar to learning how to take notes and interview sources. Despite the upheaval, and perhaps because of it, it is now more important than ever for students to understand the basics of reporting and writing. Most of the students I surveyed said they were also drawn to the profession because they enjoy writing. In my classes, I make sure students have plenty of opportunities to write.

Many programs have specific tracks for print, broadcast and online. My program has never adopted that concept. Students should have the flexibility to move back and forth taking various print, broadcast and online courses. In large programs, such segmentation may help students specialize, but it may also guide them into jobs that will wither in the future.

This may sound contradictory from the last point, but specialization is also increasingly important. I’m not sure how many general interest news sites are going to exist in the future, in any medium, but I can virtually guarantee that there will be specialty sites for news on science, religion, sports and other fields. Graduate programs are best designed to fill this niche, but undergraduate programs have to start pushing students in this direction.

Many programs have begun to offer training in entrepreneurial skills, and this needs expand. We need more than a specific course; we should offer training in entrepreneurship across the curriculum in everything from contacting editors to managing money.

Now, more than ever, faculty members have to remain current on what is happening in their profession. We also have to remain open-minded, rather than just ridiculing something new because it has a silly name such as Twitter.

This is especially a challenge because the University of Georgia survey indicates that of the 6,804 faculty it found teaching full-time, more than a quarter of them will turn 66 in the next decade. That figure also offers an opportunity, as retirements occur, to a new generation of journalists who are closer to the changes afoot.

Finally, we need to recognize the idealism and risk-taking that students are exhibiting and make use of it in the classroom. Pinky Gaba, a student who only late in her college career discovered journalism, echoed the same beliefs journalism majors have been espousing for decades.

“I love journalism, and I am willing to struggle to find a job rather than work in an occupation I absolutely abhor,” she said. “I guess I am putting my happiness before my financial success.”

Bob Wyss is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Connecticut and the author of two books.

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