Are journalism students completely screwed?
December 10, 2008 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Given the never ending stream of bad news coming from print media companies, what is the realistic job outlook for a college student who will be graduating with an undergrad print journalism degree in the next 1-2 years? In other words, am I completely screwed?

I'll be graduating in the fall of 2010, with no plans for grad school. Assuming I want a career as a writer/reporter in journalism proper (mainstream newspaper, magazine or online) and not in a related field like marketing or PR, and assuming I am skilled in this regard, what can I expect the job market to look like when I graduate?

Getting objective advice on this from within the J department at my school is rather difficult, as they would seem to have their own reasons for making things seem rosier than they appear (e.g., they certainly want to keep their own jobs in academia and not have to experience this for themselves).

Having said that, one of my professors recently told the class that we are actually in a very good position, since media companies will be interested in hiring new grads on the cheap to replace costlier veteran employees. Sounds plausible, if not terribly reassuring in the long-term.

On the other hand, an employee from our city paper recently spoke to the class, and pointed out that the paper has been under an editorial hiring freeze for the past two years, with no current plans to change that policy.

Given what we know now and making an educated effort to look ahead, how panicked should I be?
posted by anonymous to Education (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
As a former J-schooler myself, I agree that the schools make the field seem much rosier than they actually are. Good on you for figuring that out ahead of time.

Most print journalists, and indeed many of my former school chums, start out with small town papers. I don't think that market will be affected as badly, so if that's your career plan you should be ok. Maybe by the time you've paid your dues the market for print will be a little rosier. That said, print (as in newspapers) is on the way out, so I'd start thinking about how you can apply your skills in an online news environment.

All that said, get started now. It's never too early to start pitching and freelancing. I know J-school is a lot of work, but there's no replacement for building up some actually published clips.
posted by yellowbinder at 12:51 PM on December 10, 2008

First, let me congratulate you to your choice of line of studies. You'll have all the tools and mindset to make it in any field of work when you graduate (ie curiosity, reasoning, attitude of questioning established truths).

Unfortunately I do believe that print media is on the decline. I do think there will be newspapers and printed magazines for the forseeable future, but only a handful. The circulation is going down and ad-revenue is moving towards online-media. Print media is not dead, but it's shrinking.

Your professor is right in the short term: It's cheap for the papers to recruit new (fresh meat) reporters and whip the living daylights out of them for a couple of years, as opposed to keep older, knowledgeable reporters with well-worked contact-network. But as you point out: You to will also be an old dog someday (and probably in a not to distant day).

So, with my eye set on the horizon of the future I'd like to say to you: Do take your exam, do get a job on a print-magazine or paper – so you can tell your grand-children about how we used to cut down trees to make paper, print it and ship it around the planet - and do look around for a second career besides print-media.

Finaly, a reassuring note: There will always be a need for news and journalists. Online and broadcast-news will thrive. Perhaps the business-landscape will change and reporters will work more ad-hoc as independent freelancers with a handfull of newsoutlets as customers, perhaps there will be only a few, big news-companies that do "everything".

Whatever: You have a bright future ahead of you.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 1:01 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

People, it's bad. When I was in J-school they always had some line or another to make us think the lemons were lemonade. UC Berkeley's J-school recently held a panel on "alternative jobs for journalism students." This used to be the kind of thing you only heard about at Ph.D lit departments.

There is a lot of romance in newspapering and it is hard to come to terms with the fact that most of it is just going away.
posted by Kirklander at 1:17 PM on December 10, 2008

Given what we know now and making an educated effort to look ahead, how panicked should I be?

Very panicked. This industry is collapsing at a rate nobody foresaw -- because they didn't take into account the newspaper firms' unwillingness to take reduced profits or sustain losses in specific areas of the business. Jobs are vanishing at a startling speed, and papers are beginning to fold. By 2010 I expect there to be far fewer papers printing, especially in the UK. What jobs remain increasingly will simply be churnalism.

This makes it difficult for you in all sorts of ways.

One: good starter jobs will be more difficult to find, and if you find one, it'll be grim anyway -- you'll be expected to be up to speed, and will have very few of the excellent time-served journalists to learn from, as they're expensive and are being laid off as we speak.

Two: the job market is going to be soaked with talented journalists out looking for work -- they're leaving the worst-hit papers and trying to find better berths.

Three: all the other opportunities that journalism training prepares you for are also being swamped by excellent journalists. I know of a university PR position advertised in Glasgow recently that attracted over 250 applications, which is an incredible number given the size of the industry here.

Four: We're facing the mother of all job market downturns. This of course means it's harder for you, but fewer job ads mean less money for papers, so they're even more doomed right at the most critical period in their history.

You basically have one hope: you're young and are likely to have online skills that these guys don't. That's your edge. If you want to work in news, it's going to be TV or online. TV is already cut-throat, so I'd recommend focusing on online. Sadly, nobody's figured out how to make newsroom-supporting levels of cash from a website yet and competition is massive, so adjust salary expectations accordingly.
posted by bonaldi at 1:30 PM on December 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

The whole media landscape is moving right under our feet.
What you are learning in journalism is finding sources, checking facts, telling a story, quoting people accurately, etc. This will not change.
What is changing is everything else, for example, publishing your topic online early, involving other people in an open search, learning to use every new tool available (facebook, twitter, mobile, photo, video) for research as well as for publishing, blogging, continue your story online after publication, etc.
Read every post of Jeff Jarvis.
Learn how to interact with people online (encouraging participation, helping people post, moderating).
This is a wonderful job with a great future if you can concentrate on journalism and if you can think that all media are research tools and publishing outlets.
Welcome to the club and good luck.
posted by bru at 1:31 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you technical at all? The NYT (where I worked until recently) has a relatively new department called Interactive News Technology, which is basically a few journalists and a few techies that work together to make stuff like this. It might be worth looking into positions like that if you want to expand your options a bit.
posted by rachelv at 2:01 PM on December 10, 2008

"Most print journalists, and indeed many of my former school chums, start out with small town papers. I don't think that market will be affected as badly, so if that's your career plan you should be ok."

Um, no. Unfortunately, at least in my region, it's the local rags that are taking the hit and shutting down bureaus, and have the greatest chance of disappearing altogether.
posted by availablelight at 2:03 PM on December 10, 2008

I worked for weekly papers for a few years in the first half of this decade, and even then it was bad. In my neck of the woods, most had either gone under already or been bought up by regional conglomerates, and wages ran from the neighborhood of $20-25k (editors) down to minimum wage (almost everyone else). This is in southeast Michigan/northwest Ohio—where there's always a recession!—so you might want to take this with a grain of salt.
posted by pullayup at 2:10 PM on December 10, 2008

Anecdotal insight: I have four friends who graduated from a very good journalism school in '06/07. Only one actually went on to work in "journalism proper," and even he was hired under some kind of a temporary situation, rather than as a full-fledged employee. Editorial hiring freeze indeed.
posted by gueneverey at 2:22 PM on December 10, 2008

Read every post of Jeff Jarvis.

Or, don't, because he's a hyperventilating provocateur who has a massive financial incentive, in his role as a consultant and talking-head, to make the most extreme argument in all cases. Only a fool would suggest that things aren't bad in the industry, but I'm getting slightly sick of fellow journalists working themselves up into an unproductive lather about how bad things are. Obsessing about industry conditions will get you nowhere. Learn well, be flexible in how you're willing to apply your skills, don't develop overly expensive tastes, and remember that you'll get far more satisfaction working even in a declining industry, if you're passionate about what you do and think it matters that there are people who do it, than working in an up-and-coming industry you don't care for.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:23 PM on December 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

Along the lines of gueneverey's comment: Few years back, I caught up with the Berkeley J-school class of '01 at a bowling alley, and there weren't many of us doing journalism. The other day I spoke to a classmate who was one of the top reporters for a mid-sized city paper, and she told me she was thinking of leaving for a sales job at Old Navy, where she could make real money.

No lather here. It's just that newspapering is no longer a reliable middle-class career path. It's fine, back in Jacksonian America, I don't think you couldn't make much money in journalism either.
posted by Kirklander at 2:36 PM on December 10, 2008

Agreed about Jarvis, but

remember that you'll get far more satisfaction working even in a declining industry, if you're passionate about what you do and think it matters that there are people who do it, than working in an up-and-coming industry you don't care for.

is a million shades of wrong. If you're passionate about what you do and think it matters that people do it, you'll go absolutely insane as this meltdown builds. You'll watch executives and managers make short-term expedient decisions that destroy the quality of what you're doing; you'll see budgets slashed so far that any ambition or idea you have will be stillborn unless it's free; you'll see departments merged and newsrooms reorganised to the detriment of everyone involved; and you'll watch the cream of modern journalism laid off while the cheap no-hopers remain.

Most crucially you'll see fewer and fewer "people who do it" around. Though there will be plenty of people exhorting you to be "flexible" and telling you not to get into a lather about the death of a fundament of society. No shortage of them at all.
posted by bonaldi at 2:54 PM on December 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

I know several people who left the industry for PR (they were fairly young -- still in their 20's). I know a photographer who left to become a firefighter. Some people just jumped ship and decided to chance it freelancing. I think reporters are going to stick around a little bit more than others (such as editors) but even they are going away.

I also have a former coworker who left to take another job and once she got there was told, oh, sorry, there is no longer a job.

I think some of this will settle itself out eventually, but I don't think it's going to be in two years, I'm sorry to say.

If you get a job, you're not going to be paid much of anything. But while you're in school, learn everything you can that's media-related. Learn how to take decent photos with a point-and-shoot (or a better camera, if you can). Learn about shooting video. Learn everything about the Internet you can -- from blogging, networking, basic HTML. Learn how to edit. The more you know, the better off you'll be. Everyone wants people who can do a bit of everything, even if they can't do those bits of everything very well. If you can do them well, you may have a better chance at a job. (I think the whole "MoJo" concept is silly, but it seems like that's what newspaper management wants.)

But things are pretty scary. I just ended up in print journalism by chance but there is a lot of me that loves it, and loves the work. All of this is breaking my heart. I would not want to be in your position.
posted by darksong at 3:33 PM on December 10, 2008

I actually think you're lucky that you're still in school rather than working out in the minefield like us pro journalists. Now's the time to do what I wish I had done more of when I was still in school (I graduated a mere 3 years ago):

-- Ignore your professors who say everything will be just fine.
-- Realize that you might be working freelance one day, and take the appropriate classes to learn how to run your own business.
-- Get internships/mentor with people who are doing cool, new things in journalism.
-- Save your money.

The fourth point is important. That's what allowed me to go from employed journalist, to unemployed journalist, to employed journalist again. That's the way things go these days.
posted by girlmightlive at 3:47 PM on December 10, 2008

See if you can learn to say "I'm a public relations officer" with sincerity and pride.

Get that part nailed down, rationalize yourself to working in that field, and you have a bright future.

Traditional newspaper journalism is dead and just doesn't realize it yet.

I'm a former journalist and can't tell you how many of my friends who were in the business have lost their jobs in the last year.

And, the slaughter is just beginning.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:53 PM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Given what we know now and making an educated effort to look ahead, how panicked should I be?"

Depends on where you are and what you want to do. Magazines are still decent, though much, much more niche focused. Papers? Well, they're hiring in Allegan, Michigan, from what I hear, but over 500 people just got dumped from the LA Times where I am.

I graduated in '07, and I work for a pornographer because they were the only ones hiring for anything near a living wage (seriously, when I got this job, the opening that I applied for at the LA Times would have been working nights and weekends for $19k a year as an "independent contractor").

I send out resumes all the time, but don't really hear back, and the only cool opportunities seem to mean working for free. And now, after a year and a half at this job, my clips are growing stale and I can't show anyone the stuff that I've written here, even though the writing is OK.

I've ended up talking to a couple of folks who had connections, like for a lower-level staff member doing editorial research at the Daily News, and he said that I shouldn't feel bad about never hearing back because they got over 300 applications for the job (only to promote from within), and anyway, their newspaper's on the rocks too.

My friends who graduated with me are either at small-town papers, out of journalism, or doing their own thing and not really getting paid for it (a lot of citizen journalism with coffeeshop jobs to support it).

I'm usually one of those folks who is trying to mitigate the utter doom and gloom that has pervaded the journalistic profession ever since I joined (and I was writing before I went and got my degree), but the combination of bad business practices, an industry in transition, a terrible economy and the sheer fucking evil of my job have made me despair for anyone else looking to get in. Sorry.
posted by klangklangston at 3:55 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Possibly the only smart decision regarding higher education I ever made was to reject Columbia's J school and then when I moved out to Berkeley to go there, to drop out right after orientation. It's been tough since then (I'm planning on nursing school now), but I can't imagine how much more screwed I'd be with all the student loans that I would have accumulated. I wince though every time I hear Michael Pollan on the radio, it would have been cool to take his class.

Seriously, can you switch your major in the meantime to something where you can make a buck? I don't want to be crass. But I have an undergraduate degree in jazz bass (from a pretty prestigious conservatory). And it's been pretty much worthless to me since I graduated, job wise. My current plan is to get a degree doing something where I can always have a job, that allows me to have some free time, and pays enough that if I want, I can use that free time to pursue the creative projects I want to do. Or buy a house. Or dinner.
posted by sully75 at 4:05 PM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I work on the advertising side of the business. The business of newspapers is indeed changing, and not in a good way. That being said, I don't think they will be going away altogether, and that eventually there will be a resurgence in the need for quality journalism. It may be in print, or it may be online, but journalists will be needed and eventually news outlet owners will re-learn that people need a reason to read your product. (Without ads, there's no news. Without news, we're another shopper publication begging for attention in a mailbox.)

A bit of background on what's going on with newspapers these days - obviously, everyone knows that things have gone downhill in the newspaper world. Some of this is due to factors beyond a newspaper's control - for example, a few years back Macy's bought Robinsons-May. The R-M stores that weren't closed were turned into Macy's stores. Both of these companies were big spenders with newspapers. Now instead of two there was one. That meant a loss for some papers of over $1 million per year. The same thing has happened as other chains have either been bought or even gone out of business altogether. These accounts are known as "majors" and they spend a lot of dough with the media. The credit crunch has also curtailed other majors from advertising as much as they used to. Another example is craigslist. A newspaper could cut rates on classifieds if it wanted to, and many did. However, with CL your listing is online right away, with photos and as much text as you want, and you don't even have to give out your name or interact with anyone. Next example - the bad economy means companies aren't hiring. (The employers who do advertise with us are reporting overwhelming response to their ads these days, with so many people out of work.) So the help wanted ads are way down. Real estate is another obvious one. These categories represent a huge amount of a newspaper's revenue. They've gone down, in some cases by over half. That would hurt any business.

But then there are other factors related to past decisions. Most newspaper chains these days are carrying a HUGE amount of debt, a lot of which was fueled by a newspaper buying binge a few years back. (The Tribune's bankruptcy is largely due to the company taking on $13 billion or so in debt to take the company private.) When profit margins were fat and happy, this wasn't an issue at all. But now revenue has dropped like a rock and it's getting worse. Suddenly it's getting very tough to make the debt payments. Combine the revenue drop and the debt loads, and it's easy to see why the papers are racing to cut costs. They're slashing payroll and content. The problem is, if you slash payroll you can always bring it back, but when you slash content you give readers less of a reason to open your paper. So circulation drops. Then the ad count does as well. (One thing I hear a lot these days is "There's nothing in the paper to read anymore.") Too often these days that cycle repeats. The revenue drop is bad enough without the debt load, but combine the two and the results for the industry have been catastrophic.

The business will bounce back eventually, although drastically altered. Many newspapers will change hands, hopefully into those of owners who know journalism instead of being run by people who crunch numbers all day. Eventually there's going to be a new demand for journalists, as there's always a need for "gold standard" news that is actually trustworthy. But when will this happen? I don't know.
posted by azpenguin at 4:34 PM on December 10, 2008

The downturn is not just because of recession. Printed newspapers have been in decline for 20 years, but it's gotten a lot worse in the last five years.

The big villain (or hero) of the story is CraigsList (and its imitators). It's cut the legs out from under the print newspapers by taking away their classified advertising business. It's cheaper, more immediate, more convenient, and in most ways better, and both advertisers and those looking for the things being advertised are increasingly switching over.

That's going to continue, and as newspaper income from classified advertising continues to collapse, the newspapers will continue to suffer even after the recession ends and the overall economy picks back up. The fundamental business model on which a hundred newspaper empires were built is no longer viable.

The Tribune corporation just filed for Chapter 11. The NYTimes just mortgaged their building in Manhattan, the last remaining un-mortgaged hard asset they had. This situation was exacerbated by the recession, but the writing has been on the wall for newspapers for a very long time. They're dying, and they won't get better.
posted by Class Goat at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2008

I work at a big city newspaper. I graduated from University 4 years ago. I've watched my peers and other friends struggle through this, both on the photography side, and on the print side.

Don't let people who aren't in the business tell you it's the apocalypse. It's bad, but there are jobs for young reporters. When you read about job losses, it's usually buyouts, not layoffs. Buyouts are old people leaving, and some are replaced by new grads. Layoffs come from the most recent hires. (It's a union thing.)

This spring we hired full time about 8 of our previous summer interns. Their good fortune was that we did a buyout a few months earlier. Everyone in the newsroom over a certain age was eligible, and a lot of reporters took the buyout. It opened up spots for the new reporters.

Of people I went to school with, I'd say about the top quarter have landed well. (i.e. staff jobs, or regular freelance if they've chosen to go that way.) Small papers, big papers, there are jobs everywhere. This isn't as good a percentage as some other fields, but it isn't horrible. It's actually pretty good. Even if you don't think you're in the top quarter of your class, it doesn't really matter. What matters is how hard you work and how well you market yourself to prospective employers. Everyone in journalism seems to know everyone else. Do well at an internship, or on contract, and word will travel. Talent finds a home.

There are also more magazines than there were 20 years ago. Freelance isn't for everyone. I'm sure everyone in school is anxious about getting a staff job. I have mixed feelings about my staff job. When I was freelance, I lived cheap, traveled lots, worked on my own projects, and took lots of interesting gigs. Then I got a full time offer. Now I have 3 weeks of vacation a year, and a lot less freedom to do the things I want to do.

Good luck!
posted by thenormshow at 5:08 PM on December 10, 2008

The only way to do well in this insane climate is specialize extremely well, not by medium but by subject matter. Specializing was always good advice in journalism-- the idea that you can learn everything you need to know about a subject to cover it in 10 minutes by calling experts on "both sides" and writing it up, if it was ever true, is no longer. Be an expert on a particular beat-- pretty much anyone can cover the political horse race or celebrities but not everyone can cover climate change or neuroscience or economics. The business beat will be ever more important.

A new business model will eventually emerge-- the skill of helping people understand the world and what's going on will always be in demand. Anyone can blog-- but not anyone can blog well enough to attract an audience regularly. Good, clear writing will always be needed-- we just have to work out how to get paid for it again.

If you specialize, you can also write for specialist publications, which aren't going away and still have to pay people. Again, not everyone can write for Biophysics. I certainly can't! So, by specializing, you narrow the competition and increase your chances of getting work.

The best advice I ever got about working in journalism was "know something about something," rather than simply knowing the trade itself. And (fingers crossed), I've been a successful freelancer for years now in Manhattan writing for major publications.
posted by Maias at 5:17 PM on December 10, 2008

I graduated with a degree in journalism in 2005. I spent a fruitless year looking for reporting jobs with newspapers before I gave up and shifted my focus to online media. Once I did that I found a job instantly.

My advice, while you're still in school learn everything you can about online publishing. Learn basic web site design and HTML. If you have excellent writing skills combined with a working knowledge of online publishing you'll have an easier time finding a job.

Once newspapers realize that bandwidth is way cheaper than paper their going to need people who know how to write for online audiences.
posted by geekchic at 5:32 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ugh, every single day I am thankful for waking up and still having a job.

I was lucky in a way because I studied online journalism while in college. For this reason, I get to be a paginator/online girl, and I'm pretty sure if layoffs are coming, it's not going to be me. Not yet, anyway.

My suggestion echoes many people. Learn everything you can about online publishing. Learn basic HTML, various CMS systems (Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress), image processing for the web. Learn a bit of basic Photoshop/Illustrator skills so you can whip up a quick graphic for the web if necessary. Learn basic video editing, even, if you can, as a lot of newspapers are into making video for their websites, so you can create "packages" for your stories.

And have a backup plan for when newspapers eventually collapse into themselves. Me, I hope to open a bakery :)
posted by kerning at 7:08 PM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Small town newspapers aren't going anywhere. I haven't heard much about layoffs at the small newspapers. Problem is they rarely pay a living wage. If your goal is to work at a metropolitan newspaper you're gonna have a tough time breaking in at this point as a recent graduate (when you graduate) unless you're a phenom or know somebody. I work at a major Metropolitan newspaper and we haven't hired any reporters in years. We've had layoffs/buyouts at least once a year for the past 3. We're losing money left and right and every day I go in I expect the doors to be locked. The future of print newspapers is bleak.

Consider applying for a Hearst Fellowship. You'd work at 3 different major Hearst newspapers over 3 years where you could make contacts and good impressions. Most Hearst Fellows end up at one of the 3 papers. Make an effort to research newspapers and pick the cream of the crop to apply to for internships because in this competitive climate it really does matter. You might end up at a small newspaper, but if you work hard and have real talent and endless drive, anything is possible.

Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree you should definitely learn all you can about "new media" (the future of journalism) and even photography and video. If you're in a big city look into the alternative news sites and see if you can contribute to one. Check out the various -ists. Good luck.
posted by wherever, whatever at 7:21 PM on December 10, 2008

Ex-small town reporter here. I now do data entry for pay. If I were you, I'd do PR.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:27 PM on December 10, 2008

I wonder why so many people go into journalism, it's always been super competitive and often low paying. My suggestion is to look into freelancing skills and PR. People often think of PR as a "Thank you for smoking" kind of gig but PR actually has a lot of options, including doing internal communications for a large company or the government, or PR for non-profit.

good luck!
posted by Gor-ella at 7:43 AM on December 11, 2008

One thing to consider, with all the buyouts and layoffs, if you do get a job, you might not get as much guidance/training from veterans as you would have in the past. There are definite disadvantages to that sort of situation (as the seeming declining quality of papers in recent years shows), but you also might get more responsibilities/opportunities too.
posted by drezdn at 7:17 PM on December 14, 2008

It's big, but read this:

If you still want to do journalism, launch a blog and get to it. If you are unique and fill a need, you will succeed. and don't read too much Jarvis. read some metaprinter, shirky, rosen, and carr too.
posted by Paleoindian at 6:02 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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