Today’s News Scrum Discussion: Study finds more than a quarter of journalism grads wish they’d chosen another career, by Andrew Beaujon at Poynter.
Media monitoring site Poynter writes about a study by the University of Georgia in which 28% of their J-school grads say they regret pursuing a degree in journalism. To their credit, Poynter immediately caveated the statistic by quoting the study’s admission that a good chunk of fresh, probably jobless graduates from any major will inevitably regret their choice, and there’s no standard from other fields to base that figure against anyway.
Nonetheless, journalists have a bleak outlook: While the industry has regained some vigor and esprit de corps since the mass executions of legacy papers and anecdotal exodus to the Internet by some scattered survivors, the future of journalism funding is still uncertain. Patch, the hyperlocal experiment by AOL, has failed financially and probably won’t recover. Regional papers continue to die, stranding veteran journalists and reducing the job positions available to greenhorn graduates, who face becoming (usually unpaid) perma-interns.
And yet, for our society to survive, we’re going to need young, vigorous, enthusiastic journalists who are willing to stick it out through the crappy post-2008 media life. Amidst the litany of world events that shaped the 2000s, America suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history and promptly decided to partake in a decade of invasion, clandestine foreign assassinations, and a re-commitment to global control. This probably shouldn’t have happened, says NSA leaker Edward Snowden, but it did, largely because the U.S. media failed to inform its people:
After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power — the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government — for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.
The young journalists taking their first steps need to be pioneers who take inspiration from good reporting during the last decade and learn from the mistakes of the media establishment that chose to cheerlead violent American foreign policy while simultaneously ignoring warning signs about their disappearing business models. They need to believe in digital futures, in alternative reporting mediums and social networks yet to exist, and believe that we will figure out how to pay quality reporters a decent wage again. Despite the current administration’s obsession with secrecy and imprisoning people who speak out, like former security consultant Jon Kiriakou, who was jailed for confirming the use of torture in Guantanamo, young journalists need to believe that Americans deserve the truth.
I am personally impressed that, in this frightening job market and with our current government continuing Bush’s censorship under the magic words of "national security" (and prosecuting whistleblowers and journalists alike), the study found that ONLY 28% of students regretted getting the degree. Keep up that enthusiasm, young journos. We’re all going to need you. — David Lumb
When I first read that headline, I thought, "Only a quarter?" That’s not a knock against journalism. It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. Being in a position to not only report the news, but delve into it to find the hidden stories and add context to important discussions going on in various industries is a dream job. That’s not to mention the fact that you get to meet so many interesting people through those you interview.
So a little more than a quarter of journalism students wish they’d chosen a different career? That’s not bad at all. I’m sure a quarter or more of those in any career wished they’d chosen a different one. I mean, most of my friends are doctors, bankers, and lawyers—and man, talk about people who hate their jobs (mainly the lawyers, but hey). More than half of the ones I know want to get out.
Yes, journalists don’t make a lot, but you know what? That’s our own damn fault. In the age of online reporting and with the majority of media consumption happening through digital platforms, many budding journalists are hoping to get into the game by writing articles for websites for free. Here’s a tip: DON’T DO THAT. It cheapens your talents and turns writing into nothing more than a commodity. And if journalism becomes nothing more than a commodity, everyone suffers: the journalists, the media outlets, and the readers—because it drives the prices for quality work down. And the good journalists, why would they stick around? Why do all that hard work (and journalism is a lot more than sitting down to write a story) if you can’t make enough to live off of it? — Michael Grothaus
I have to agree with Michael and David that the 28% figure seems low. It's not that I personally regret my decision to major in journalism, but as somebody who now stands on the other side of the lectern (and works in media), I understand why second thoughts might abound among recent grads.
For a while there, I wasn't sure I'd wind up working in journalism, despite having been the editor of my high school paper and eagerly signing up for the News-Editorial Journalism sequence at Temple University. I took what some might call the scenic route to my bachelor's degree, focusing more heavily on starting my career. Even in 2006, as it turned out, web design and tech jobs were more plentiful than writing gigs, so I took on those and wound up working in a very full-time, multi-hatted role overseeing digital publishing at a weekly newspaper company in Philadelphia. One class at a time, I eventually managed to graduate.
Along the way, I thankfully amassed enough random freelance writing clips to win me a gig blogging for ReadWriteWeb, which turned into a full-time thing with pay comparable to what I made at the newspaper. I've been a full-time tech writer ever since, and I haven't looked back.
These days, I also spend one morning per week at the front of one of the very same classrooms in which I learned about the multimedia side of the craft I now practice. As a lab instructor for a course called Design For Journalists, I show kids around Photoshop, InDesign, and WordPress. I also routinely give guest lectures about online journalism to other classes. It's cool to get so much face time with younger people whose seats (literally) I sat in not that long ago.
But while I can't say I regret my own academic path (unconventional as the trajectory may have been), I sometimes feel conflicted standing in front of these kids, especially when the conversation turns to career stuff. The fact of the matter is there are far, far more of them than there are jobs writing and producing content for audiences. Even though Temple has done an exemplary job, as far as J-schools go, of injecting digital storytelling and new publishing paradigms into their curriculum, the jobs just aren't there, especially in Philly. Of course, we're only two hours from New York, but I still cannot wholeheartedly say to a room full of 20 kids that they're all going to get to do what they're aching to do with their lives. That sucks.
At the same time, the job market for the types of skills they're learning isn't limited to newspapers and magazines anymore, nor are journalists limited by geography. (In the last two years, I've written for editors in New York, Portland, San Francisco, New Zealand, and Sweden. Students who are learning about social media storytelling tools would love to go work for Al Jazeera, but if that doesn't work out, countless companies across innumerable industries need people who can competently manage a public-facing social presence. Even storytelling itself is something that brands and nonprofits could use, if only on their own company blogs.
Today's best journalism programs do have that going for them: Even if the journalism jobs don't materialize, many of the skills can be used doing other things. Some students have no problem stomaching a job in PR or something else totally unexpected. For those who cringe at the thought, the option exists to start out doing something different and then slowly work their way back into doing what they love the most. I mean, that's what I did. — John Paul Titlow
28% of journalism grads have regrets? I'm not surprised, but not as bummed as David, either. I think this stat speaks more to the aimlessness of the average journo undergrad than to the jadedness of journalists in the field. Journalists aren't so different from entrepreneurs: we’re both risk-takers. So are scientists. Neuroscientist Michael Kahana at UPenn, who I spoke to this morning, put this very well:
You have to have the type of personality where when somebody says something can't be done, you say it can, just to be contrarian. That's the personality of a CEO, or somebody who starts their own business, or maybe decides to break off on their own and become a writer, without any promise of fame or fortune. You have to be a risk-taker. You have to be willing to work hard and try to do things that other people didn't think were possible.
Writers I know don’t do it to get rich, they do it because pursuing their curiosities and telling the world about newfound discoveries seems like the best job imaginable. In this sense, they’re like entrepreneurs who, as we discussed in our earlier scrum, need to believe in something, and can't be driven only by a vague desire for success.
As the Poynter article points out, many communications majors don't ever plan to enter the field. In my experience, some students simply coast into the major because nothing else grabs their attention. That's not to say there aren't brilliant, dedicated undergrad journalism majors. There certainly are. My college had no journalism department, but plenty of English majors, including New Yorker editor David Remnick and creative nonfiction writer John McPhee, went on to lead brilliant journalism careers. But I don’t think the statistic is necessarily representative given that a lot of the best journalists come from different majors.
To earn a living in this business, you've got to be driven by that intellectual hunger, tenacity, and a compulsion to keep learning. Most journalists have it, but not all people who say they want to be journalists in college do. — Taylor Beck
As Michael mentions, journalism is more than a commodity and should be valued more highly, both in monetary and intellectual terms. And this fits into my understanding of why people should pursue journalism: They should do it if they can't imagine doing anything else. People fall into journalism for all different reasons, and at different times in their lives, but once they arrive it seems to me that only those who feel totally captivated by it can and do stay. Because, as David points out, the industry is in rough shape right now. And even in better economic times, journalism has always been extremely demanding, and at times demoralizing.
So that 28% of journalism graduates should mosey on. And more will follow. No hard feelings. If there is ever something I want to do instead of journalism, I will do it. It's not so much that journalists are trapped, as that they are most content when they feel like there is nothing else for them and journalism is doing them a favor by existing. That's how they come to tolerate the low pay and long hours: Stockholm syndrome! And the thought that "it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it," really is true. There's a lot of crap that goes with being a journalist, but at the end of the day you get to feel pleased with yourself for contributing something to democratic discourse (no matter what you're writing about). And that feels pretty important. —Lily Hay Newman
I am one of these pesky self-taught writers—I still balk at describing myself as a journalist—who has no idea what people learn during a journalism degree. I did tech jobs for many years and just started writing on the side as a way of working through my own thoughts. However, I do think that the motivations of people who go into professions like science or software or journalism are similar, despite the surface differences. We are driven by curiosity. We want to understand how things work and what makes people tick. That probably accounts for the relatively high job satisfaction level in all those professions. The novelist A.S. Byatt describes a concept she calls "narrative greed", or the desire to rush to a conclusion and find out "the secret." Journalists get to satisfy that greed more than most.
The journalist who covers a particular subject area, like technology, also gets to delve into complex and fascinating subjects, and talk to the top people who work on them, without all the bother of having to develop a product or do years of post-graduate research. That seems like a good deal to me. — Ciara Byrne
[Image: Flickr user Torbakhopper]