It’s not news to anyone who teaches journalism that the allure and prestige of being a journalist long ago vanished. For the past 10 years we’ve seen a steady stream of those who enter even the more prestigious communications schools planning to become journalists switching to alternative majors within the school, including film, advertising and the current favorite, public relations.
This movement away from journalism has been periodically explained by a number of factors: more money; better hours; more money; less stress; more money; better working conditions, and more money. Still, during the past decade my colleagues and I at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University have justified this noticeable outflow from our favored profession by rationalizing that the best and the brightest of our students still flock to journalism. Public relations and advertising might get the numbers now, but we get the smartest, most aggressive, and most committed students. These are the students who are still captivated by our showing the movie, "All the President’s Men." (Some still read the book, though only if assigned.) These students also tend to read and watch each year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors’ award-winning series.
This year only about 100 of the Newhouse students are newspaper majors out of 1,850 undergraduates. Almost twice that amount are magazine majors. We still have more than 300 broadcast journalism majors, though students who want to follow Marv Albert, Bob Costas, and Mike Tirico into sports broadcasting dominate that group. In contrast, we now have nearly 300 advertising majors, another 300 public relations majors, and almost 400 majors in television, radio and film.
Given the state of journalism, it probably is not a bad thing that so few of our students are deciding to major in it. After all, in this age of newsroom cutbacks if we had as many newspaper majors as public relations majors we would be hearing from parents who have shelled out more than $150,000 in tuition, room and board over four years and now want to know why their kids can’t even get jobs as stringers for weekly newspapers.
Because of the small numbers, virtually all of our students who want to be newspaper reporters or copyeditors get to be. And some of them find jobs on great (or used to be great) newspapers. Others have their choice of several prestigious internships, which often turn into full-time jobs. And for the most part, they excel. They do great because they received a good deal of personalized attention in college, did several internships over their college career, and because they are bright, motivated and inquisitive students.
Students and News
But events of the past year are having a profound effect on this cadre of students. It appears that newspapers are now making the same mistake with their future employees that they made with their old clients — the readers. Newspapers took their readers for granted and now have fewer and fewer, particularly younger ones. It is so rare on a college campus to see students reading a newspaper even though on our campus, like many others, they get The New York Times and USA Today for free. (The cost comes out of their student fees, for those of you seeking another circulation scandal.)
The truth is that most students no longer care about news, period. They think news no longer affects them or their lifestyle. If something important is happening in the world, then they are sure to find out about it from their friends, teachers or parents — in one of the four cell phone conversations per day they have with them. Instead of sneaking a peak at a newspaper during class, they are more likely to be glancing down at their cell phone (put on vibrate) to see the latest text message from a friend. When class is over, they don’t take out a newspaper or magazine or glance at the latest news from CNN. Instead, they take their iPod from their backpack, put the earphones on, and go grab a cup of coffee.
This is true even of those hardcore, committed journalism students who were editors of their high school newspapers (at least those high schools who still have newspapers) or ran the high school television station. Even those students see the assignment of reading a daily newspaper the equivalent of reading a chapter of a textbook. Most journalism professors require at least one newspaper to be read each day by all members of their class. The result is that those papers are only read on the days of class in order to prepare for that day’s current events quiz.
How do I know this? Those free boxes of The New York Times and USA Today remain full on Fridays — the day when there are hardly any journalism classes.
These are some very discouraging signs as newspapers and other news organizations try to figure out a way to produce quality journalism in this era of significant downsizing.
Business Changes Affect Student Choices
But what I believe is even more frightening is the impact these changes are having on future journalists. Let me share one e-mail our newspaper listserv recently received from an undergraduate contemplating changing her major:
"So I’ll admit it, I’m not sure about a future in journalism. This week Woodward gets grilled for protecting sources, the L. Times cuts 85 newsroom employees, the Chicago Tribune cuts 100, and Knight Ridder goes up for sale. On top of all of this, Google announces plans for Google Base, which has the potential to replace just about any written periodical anywhere. I’m concerned. I think many of us are. I was just wondering if there was anyone who could provide an explanation I haven’t already heard providing a reason why I shouldn’t be [unsure about a future in journalism.]"
Certainly that comment is not unusual. Similar sentiments probably echo across many newsrooms. But the difference is that a bright 20-year-old said this and not a jaded 55-year-old checking out his 401(k) statement. In previous downturns, rookie reporters reinvigorated the newsroom; now, there might not be any quality, young journalists to take over.
Last year, in my advanced reporting class, our most rigorous course for journalism majors, I started out with 13 students. Within one week, it was down to five. The students simply did not want to put in the time and effort required of the class. (I can’t complain, I dubbed the remaining students the "Fantastic Five," and they undertook a spirited investigation of the Syracuse Police Department and produced a terrific series that ran in the school newspaper.) Still, only two of those five will probably end up in journalism.
Here is what one of those students wrote on our listserv:
"Why do I feel like I’m the only newspaper major who is looking forward to working in the newsroom after I graduate in December? Of the undergrad newspaper students in my three Newhouse classes this semester, I can count on one hand the number of students who are looking for a long-term career in journalism. Sixty percent of students in one newspaper class I took last semester are headed for either grad or law school in May. One senior with a healthy newspaper resumé recently announced that he is headed for politics where he’s going to make so much money that one day he will be able to ‘buy me’ as a reporter. Other senior newspaper majors are even choosing uncertainty over journalism. This idea has infected fresh newspaper alums too in at least two cases where people are looking to ‘get out of newspapers’ as though the career is some poverty-ridden country plagued by an oppressive dictatorship."
Journalism appears to be losing some committed students who were on the verge of entering its workforce. But the reverberations of this past year go far beyond that. Newhouse Dean David Rubin, who teaches about 75 freshmen in a general survey course, has a group of women in the class who have dubbed themselves the "Jumping Ship" students. They all came to Newhouse to major in broadcast journalism, and they have all decided to leave the major. Among the reasons they cited: general working conditions, including the inability to have a life outside of work; low salaries in small markets where they are unwilling to live; the entertainment nature of the business including the focus on soft news, and the general uncertainty about the future of news.
I fear that the difference between today and past newsroom recessions is that in the past there was a strong cadre of young journalists ready and willing to do battle for low pay and under harsh conditions when media companies began to hire again. All indications make me think that this time, what lies ahead for newsrooms will be very different.
Is this depressing enough? It should be. But there is hope on the horizon. Innovative journalism schools are trying to teach students how to cope with the changing technological and economics dynamics of the modern-day newsroom. And some of our students see the current crisis as an opportunity. As one of our freshman journalism majors wrote, "The Internet and new technology present significant challenges. This problem should make us excited, because it is our generation that will be given the chance to reinvent the newspaper. It’s up to us to come up with a solution to the problem, something that’s never been tried before."
Still, unless companies that now own news operations embrace that enthusiasm and take some chances, fewer and fewer talented writers and top-notch reporters will aspire to journalism careers. And that would be the saddest development of all.
Joel Kaplan, a 1985 Nieman Fellow, is associate dean for professional graduate studies at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.