Getting (and keeping) a job in journalism

How many j-schools are permitting students to graduate with a journalism degree and inadequate skills to pursue a career in journalism?

I’m not asking for a count, but the question needs to be raised — and perhaps even shoved into the face of some deans and department heads. I don’t mean “shove” as in “break their nose” — but something like glue it to their nose until they finally get it.

The announcement of editorial cutbacks at The Boston Globe inspired me to write — because of this:

The New York Times Company is offering a voluntary buyout plan to newsroom and business-office employees in its New England Media Group as part of an effort to cut 125 jobs at The Boston Globe and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette … excluding some parts of the group’s operations, like, according to a memo sent by P. Steven Ainsley, publisher of The Globe and head of the group.

Keith Jenkins of The Washington Post (not, mind you) wrote:

Traditional news organizations must not invest in transitioning people to this new world; we already live in it.

Instead, we should be inventing this new world with people who already populate it. Real bloggers, photobloggers and vloggers — embrace them and learn from them. Only then can we continue to be relevant.

And this is the word from inside the Atlanta Journal Constitution newsroom, by way of news graphics editor Michael Dabrowa (with his permission granted for me to republish):

We here at the AJC are rapidly and somewhat radically reworking our newsroom to [an] online first, print second format. Jobs are being reworked to meet the need to get dynamic content up fast. I am shifting out of my Graphics Editor role to a frontline online-artist position, developing online graphics. Very soon the entire graphics department will be regularly producing interactives (and statics) for online. Doing this we are still in solid position to produce print graphics, when we were doing it the other way online was getting the short end of the stick because it was too late in the day to be posting graphics. We now have two Graphics Editors who coordinate content for the department with a strong eye on online posiblities. We also have a Graphics Director, the newly appointed Joanne Sosangelis, who will work on planning and will make sure we move through this change as smoothly as possible. Emily Murphy is our Director of Multimedia, who also works directly with us as well as with Michael McCarter from the Photo Department. It’s just [a] busy hive here right now. We have as many questions as we do answers, it’s really a moving target, but I believe we are getting good traction.

What does this tell us — whether we are educators, job-seekers, working journalists or current students?

The future is online.

I am far from being the ONLY person who has already been saying this for years. Far too many people, however, are still plugging cotton into their ears and shutting their eyes.

If a student in a j-school today thinks it is okay NOT to learn how to make Web pages, NOT to shoot video, NOT to gather audio, NOT to read and write blogs — then that student is not getting a message that is very, very necessary. Now, let me hasten to say that some of those students are the very ones who are deliberately plugging their own ears and closing their eyes to reality. They are attached to a dream of becoming someone from the past — maybe photojournalist Eddie Adams, maybe gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson — a journalist who only took pictures or who only wrote (okay, Thompson did a lot besides just writing, and some of it pretty unsavory too, but as for the journalism, he was a writer).

Some students will persist in this dream no matter what anyone tells them. But some of them are surely encouraged by their teachers and other mentors to imagine that there still exists a world where people only read, and mostly on paper. Or a world where photojournalists have the luxury of being a lone wolf, cut off from all their colleagues on “the print side.”

So I would ask, or even plead: Everyone who teaches journalism, whether in the classroom or the newsroom — get real and talk straight, starting today. Tell the next generation that even though writing is not dead, it is not enough. They need to know more, they need to do more.

  • Get off of MySpace and Facebook and start making Web sites from scratch.
  • Quit wallowing in the verbiage of Slate and Salon and start searching the blogs. Get an RSS reader and learn to use it.
  • Stop watching YouTube and start making videos of your own (and then post them on YouTube).
  • Take the earbuds out and buy a microphone.
  • Stop mixing music and start mixing interviews and natural sound.
  • Start figuring out why this Web site is easier to use than this one.

This advice also applies to every one of you who isn’t a student. All my fellow educators. All of you working journalists. Stop making excuses. This is necessary now.

Someone with a journalism degree certainly ought to be adequately prepared to have a career in journalism, don’t you think?

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41 Comments on “Getting (and keeping) a job in journalism

  1. I literally just got finished interviewing Howard Owens via IM for the ICM weblog. I plan to post the transcript on Monday. There’s a lot of overlap between what he said and what you wrote. Watch for it.

  2. Ha, Howard and I do think alike on some things. Not all, but some!

  3. Mindy, you and I do agree on this one. Very good post. Very necessary post, and as Bryan pointed out, the interview we did today addresses many of the same points.

  4. Right, you can get off Myspace, but realize learning PHP, HTML, CSS, hosting/serving your pages/code requires time, a lot, a lot of time. And once your page is up, how will you get traffic to it? Then there’s traffic analysis, bandwidth issues, etc. Then the stuff you can’t learn in school, either because the knowledge is kept quiet by those exploiting it for profit, or because it’s outdated by the time college professors discover it.

  5. PJ, you are overcomplicating things. Anyone can start making simple Web pages with as few as 10 pairs of tags. There are no secrets in HTML, XHTML or CSS — there are thousands of tutorials online in dozens of languages. There are thousands of CSS resources.

    As for hosting — most universities and colleges offer free hosting to students and faculty, and it is an absolute no-brainer to begin using it. They set it up for the simplest ways to get started — otherwise, they would need too many tech support people on hand!

    People THINK it will all take “too much time,” but that is just an excuse. Journalists and others in journalism must stop making excuses now.

  6. First of all, Amen sister Mindy.

    I have just spent the last two days working in Flash, only to emerge remembering why I became a journalist in the first place: people. We might be able to surf the web, but if we are not out in the ‘biomass’ telling stories and listening then something is missing. I agree that many J-schools are not up to speed on technology, but learning how to tell stories is the key part of an education. The technology curve can be overcome if the basics are taught.

    The danger exists for some of us to become iPod People™ while others have no access to the internet and news; then what have we accomplished?

    So, get up to speed and get J-schools on track, but don’t forget to get your feet wet with humanity.

    The rest of my rant can be found at my blog.

  7. Preach it!

    I am glad you found Michael’s comments on Visual Editors and quoted him here. Thanks for the link.

    These conversations come up a lot in VizEds forums and in my work.
    Let’s get right to the point.

    1) What won’t work is newsroom managers creating yet another silo of specialists.

    2) These new story techniques and skills need to be understood and practiced by nearly every journalist on staff.

    3) The newsrooms that embrace that concept stand the best chance of surviving.

    Wise leaders realize that retraining and reorganizing is no longer optional and are investing in it sooner rather than later.
    The alternative is not healthy.

    P.S. I love your blog and your links!

    Robb Montgomery
    CEO – Visual Editors

  8. Right on (as usual), Mindy… The main thing I’d add (along with an absurdly sensational headline, a pun, and a digression that’s sure to get me in trouble) is to make sure those new grads don’t escape without up-to-date research and reporting skills along with the new multimedia storytelling skills. If even a few of them head in Adrian Holovaty’s mash-up direction, all the better.

  9. Add critical thinking to the mix and there’s surely hope for an informed world. Thanks, Mindy, for keeping the argument out there and doing it so well.

  10. I agree with Mindy. I am a (mature) reporter, I live in a small country (France) where new elite journalism faculties open every year, even though work is scarce and lay-offs are many.It makes me think of “become a model” schools. You know one aspiring model in ten or one hundred thousands is going to make a decent living out of it, but the lure is too strong to fight it.Unions have been trying to raise concern about this situation.For nothing.

  11. Claire, that’s something I have not heard about here. Do you mean there are expensive private journalism “schools” opening in France? Or are these faculties within the existing universities and colleges?

  12. Both public universities and private schools are opening journalism courses- graduate, post graduate, you name it. Including the very elitist Ecole nationale des sciences politiques (nicknamed science-po)where half of our political staff graduated.

  13. This post highlights the urgent need of both journalism students and the journalism industry to recognise the importance of online reporting.

    Although print based journalism is not dead, there is no denying that online journalism is catching it up and may already have overtaken it in what is increasingly becoming a multimedia world. This post offers some useful tips on how aspiring journalists can become more at ease with online journalism and its complexitities.

  14. As a student of journalism, I wholeheartedly believe in the necessity of becoming a well-rounded, computer-literate individual. I am also, however, one of those students you refer to in your post who has my ears plugged and eyes closed. Part of what initially attracted me to jouranlism was the romanticism of it all… congested newsrooms, telephones that ring off the hook, rough draphs bleeding red ink, dramatic editor-writer discrepencies… the whole idealistic, 1930s movie scene. Blogging journalism just doesn’t sound as attractive. It is for this reason that I have alienated the field altogether. If I can’t have my utopia, I don’t want any part in it.

  15. All too often we get stuck looking at online journalism as nothing new. Look at Google or Yahoo!’s news services — where many get their online news — and they aggregate an AP text article with a few links inserted.

  16. I liked your post. I am a student studying journalism and I have been advised many times to consider taking courses outside of the “print” courses. I am currently in an online journalism class and have been taking other courses to help broaden my sense of journalism. While it is important as a journalist to know how to write and work with print media, it is also very important to know how to work with other types of media as well.

  17. Mindy, I am currently a J student at the University of Iowa and I am currently taking an Online Journalism course for the very reasons you stated in your post. I feel that by giving myself a chance to cover numerous bases, rather than simply just obtaining my degree and focusing entirely on print. Hopefully we’ll have more students who accept the challenge of the always-changing world of media and journalism, otherwise we may have plenty of college grads with journalism degrees and no job opportunities.

  18. Mindy, your post makes me wonder what you believe about the future of media corporations. By claiming that just writing is not enough, I can’t help but think you believe these corporations will go the way of print journalism. I say this because if these corporations do survive, then *just* writing would be enough, as the corporation would have departments for each of the responsibilities that you mention. Or, do you believe these companies will no longer look for specialists in these niches, and instead search for journalists rounded in production, writing, and broadcast journalism?

  19. I wonder: is The University of Iowa kind of ahead on this issue? I began attending the UI in 2004, and from the minute I walked in the doors, I have heard threats that not having experience in EVERYTHING would doom my career. So I have taken classes that gave me working experience with video, web, print, and even PR. I totally agree that these experiences will be a great assest as I graduate. The threats came from so many people here, though, that I thought journalism students everywhere were being told how important it is to be versed in all types of media. On the other hand, it is my understanding that the The Daily Iowan, UI’s independent student newspaper, has been ahead of the game by converging with the student TV news cast and creating an amazing website!

  20. Well, a lot of journalism students have weighed in on my post, and I’m very happy to see it.

    Elizabeth characterizes a whole segment of journalism students when she says she doesn’t want to be a journalist if she can’t be the kind we see in Amercian movies from the 1930s. I don’t think she needs to worry. That kind of newsroom doesn’t exist anymore, so she simply won’t be hired.

    B. Smith wrote: “… if these [media] corporations do survive, then *just* writing would be enough, as the corporation would have departments for each of the responsibilities that you mention.”

    Obviously B. has not been following the industry very closely. The New York Times is merging online and print together in one newsroom. So is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — and all of Gannett. In more and more formerly “print” newsrooms, everyone is expected to do online work now.


  21. As a journalism student at Iowa, I completely agree with Elaine. Ever since I started J-school, everyone has preached the importance of knowing all aspects of media because of convergence. I can’t believe other schools wouldn’t tell their students the same. I think maybe this problem is not as widespread as you think.

  22. I as well am a journalism student at Iowa, and as other students have said, we have been told continuously to take a variety of courses. I do believe these are great skills to learn as I am about to enter a multimedia world; however, I came to Iowa with the intention of writing because it is obviously an essential party of journalism. For my own professional career, I would hope for a happy medium by using writing skills and other media skills from taking these courses while in college.

  23. First off, I am a little offended by the snide attitude you take toward students both here, and in your response on our class blog.

    I think you are wrong to think that we don’t know that we need these skills. We have grown up in an online world, it is no secret that we need to know how to function in it. The problem would be, then, how and when we are given the information we need to survive. Perhaps the solution that you are looking for is to make an Online Journalism course one of the required introductory courses in a journalim program, right along with history and ethics. That way, people will have some idea where to start learning how to function, and can get out if they realize that they are not cut out for it.

  24. I apologize if I seemed to be snide. I didn’t intend to be.

    I think it’s great that all of the Iowa journalism students know what’s what in the journalism workplaces of today. That reflects very well on your program and on you.

    Our students at the University of Florida also know the score about the role of online in today’s journalism work.

    But familiarity and competency are two different things. I would say that some our our students have a high competency in online journalism — but only some.

    At Iowa, are all the students well-prepared to do online journalism work when they gradaute?

  25. Very interesting. I graduated from journalism school about a year ago and never once was I taught a thing about online journalism or the intersection of multimedia and reporting. It was all about newspaper reporting, as you say, circa the 1970s.

    I’ve been coding HTML and writing in my own blogs, shooting video and audio, etc, just for fun for years. It just so happens I quit pursuing a computer science degree in favor of journalism. At the time I thought these fields had nothing to do with each other, and my two years in compsci were a complete waste.
    It ends up the skills I harvested on my own for enjoyment and augmented in computer science classes were most attractive to potential employers after my graduation, and landed me a job I really enjoy.
    Right now one of the projects on my plate is a Google maps mashup for our website as well as an audio/video presentation on certain kinds of software (I’m in the B2B). I’m really glad I learned the storytelling and storysearching skills from journalism school, but these multimedia skills are completely self-taught. J-schools are doing a disservice to future journos by not giving them even a basic tutorial on piecing together a multimedia presentation. – Maria (aka Hanna)

  26. mindy,
    i think that as years progress, so does the competancy of the online journalism programs as well as the knowledge of Iowa students. i agree that a push toward students’ becoming acclimated with creating websites and posting, etc can only help them once they get out into the work force. however, based on speaking with friends/students from other j-schools around the country, i feel as though there are too few schools with instructors that are capable of teaching the skills you mention in your artice that are neccesary for students to gain the proper knowledge of online print, posting, blogging, etc

  27. The reality is that J-schools are churning out grads in a rapidly-shrinking job market. While learning skills from the online side of things is important and will greatly improve the odds of being hired these days, it won’t guarantee a job.

    Most media companies are using freelancers and part-timers rather than new hires these days.

    More important than the computer course are the acccounting and biz courses that will allow one to survive as an independent contractor. No matter how committed one is to a career, one still needs to eat.

  28. I don’t think Mindy’s comments were snide toward students. In fact, as one of her former students, I can attest to the diligence of her teaching and her concern for students.

    Of course, many students get it that they need the online skills. But many also do not. And many of the students who do not are going to embrace the mentors who also choose to close their eyes. They would be living in a bubble, relatively safe from job pressures inside their universities. But it’s the students who will have to pound the pavement looking for a job and compete with all the other recently laid off reporters.

    Universities should not simply have a mandatory online class; that is a no-brainer. Instead, every class should have some online component in it, from introductory reporting to copyediting to journalism law and history classes.

    Journalism is still about making the world better. Some editors will still be tempestuous, tyrannic farts. The thrill of chasing a breaking story is still alive and well. It’s the delivery method that is changing.

  29. Danny, there ought to be a book titled “Working for Tempestuous, Tyrannic Farts.” Will you write it? Hee hee!

  30. While it’s important to understand the technology behind the move to online journalism, I wonder if it might be more important to make each newspaper hire a strong tech person.

    Maybe not Holovaty, but someone who can create (or install) and maintain an application that makes *your* job easier. Wouldn’t you like it if you could focus on reporting, and when you’re done writing your copy, you simply click ‘send to editor’? Your article moves up to your editor (or however the workflow works), who can then click publish. Bam. It’s online and sent to the print shop.

    I may have shown my ignorance, since I have nothing to do with newspapers, other than a very strong interest in working for one one day. As a, you guessed it, tech person.

  31. Mindy, even at the L.A. Times, where I work, we are seeking journalists with solid web and multimedia skills — and not just for the web staff. I’ve heard several stories from the print side of hiring decisions that came down to which candidate had more online experience. This is not a drill, folks.

  32. Thanks for posting a comment, Eric! I have heard the same even from some very small daily newspapers. They get a stack of applications for a job, and they simply throw away all the ones that do not have online skills and interests listed.

    And that is for a print newsroom job, such as reporter or photojournalist.

  33. only picked up on this thread now Mindy… my apologies. good stuff all around – esp. the comments about the workforce realities in today’s media work market – where practitioners have become “independent contractors” indeed, for whom multimedia skills are really just the benchmark, the beginning of a skillset that will land them many clients necessary to make a decent living.

    However, I do feel focusing on the technology too much is a mistake. Ultimately, new technologies and the new labor market have one thing in common: all the responsibility of using and managing things in your life gets shifted towards the individual.

    Whether its or a Web browser: it (seemingly) puts you in charge, control shifts to the user, and the quality of what you get out of it is dependent of what you put into it.

    It is that kind of self-reliance and taking personal responsibility that we’re not teaching or we are not able to teach in our overcrowded, massified, standardized, and anything-but-creative higher education system. It tends to be up to individual and inspired faculty (such as Mindy!) to remind students and colleagues about the need to take charge, to lead – whereas most of us just follow (and hence get stuck in mid-20th century definitions of what “journalism” is and what “citizenship” means…).

  34. Mark!!! I didn’t even know you were reading this blog.

    You’re right, of course, about the hardware and software — usually we say, “Don’t teach button pushing,” yes? I teach less and less of it as the years pass. I assign books and Web sites and specific links and require the students to learn on their own.

    Of course, when they get stuck, I’ve got to be able to at least give them good advice.

  35. Small business entrepreneurship and management is the other new toolkit J schools are leaving out. As journalism is decentralized and more reporters work as free agents, it’s not enough to manage a “career” working full time for others; most journalism jobs will be outside the corporate firewall.

    So you’ll need to know all those non-editorial skills: how to be a business person, how to market yourself and your work product, how to build and sustain professional networks, budgeting, professional service bookkeeping, buying health benefits, intellectual property licensing and contract law basics, liability insurance, supervision and team building, the laws of reporting in international jurisdictions.

    In this new world, aren’t these survival skills?

    Phil Wolff, editor, Skype Journal

  36. Phil, you are right. I’m going to make a future blog post about this.

  37. Mindy, thanks for your posting. Right out of college, I jumped into journalism and spent five years as a public radio and daily newspaper reporter. Now I’m taking a break and traveling, since I don’t see a future in the traditional print newsroom. I know I can get a job, but with staffing cuts and the constant elimination of important beats, I think I’m unlikely to find a job I want. So after this long preface, I’m wondering – do you know of good journalism programs (preferably in the northeast) that focus on skills necessary for online and freelance reporting? I am hopelessly short on these skills and finally, after years of denial, I’m convinced I need them. Thanks a lot.

  38. I’ve read every message in this post with great interest. I am a mid-career journalist. I attended one of the top journalism schools in this country and I graduated without an ounce of online experience. My j-school education is so outdated that we were taught to measure columns with pica rulers.

    All journalism schools must push multimedia education and anyone who wants to be in the business must pick up the skills. It’s a reality of the digital age.

    Still, Mindy I caution you to take a more critical approach to your argument. Nowhere is there any discussion of the quality of the work that is being produced online, the quality of the journalists being turned out by journalism programs, or the affect these changes are having on the quality of life of people in the profession.

    As an editor who has worked with a large number of freelancers – many who have full-time jobs at decent-sized media organizations – much of the so-called talent out here is shabby. (I’ve worked in newspapers, for wires and in an online environment).

    Sub-par is mild adjective to describe the quality of the reporting, writing and research that I have seen. There’s little evidence self-editing and I’ve seen numerous instances of outright plagiarism. If I wasn’t a better editor, my most recent news organization could have been sued by companies with much deeper pockets. However, I was experienced enough to see inconsistencies and verify my suspicions.

    The expectation that every journalist should have the ability to write, report, edit, record audio, tape video, design graphic elements and post stories online is ludicrous. As a daily newspaper reporter, if a story merited a photographer, one was sent out with me. If we were short on staff, I took a camera – and that was fine with me. I learned perspective.

    But how on earth anyone is expected to turn out stories that matter, work that involves deep reporting, multiple sources and perhaps some expertise in a subject and be a designer, audio tech, videographer, is beyond my comprehension. Work that will make a difference, help people and make our leaders accountable – whether it’s the local school board or our president – takes the kind of effort, skill, intelligence and perspective that a multimedia journalist with multiple responsibilities won’t have the time, energy or expertise to tackle.

    Journalists are human beings. We have to eat, pay bills and raise children just like the readers we serve. This has never been a profession that’s led to great wealth for many, but increasingly, the demands have become so great that throngs of quality journalists are moving to other fields. What’s left in many cases are news stories that are vapid, poorly reported and meaningless. We’re focused on Britney and Anna Nicole instead of poverty, a shrinking middle class and an unjustified war.

    Will multimedia journalists be able to eke out the time to fill out FOIA requests? Will they learn how to uncover fraud? Will they be able to take the time to add context and depth to stories? I’m not sure, but in addition to learning how to set up a podcast and shoot video, journalists need to learn how to report and write well and news organizations need to figure out which people will play which roles. One-stop multimedia journalism will never replace the strength of collaborative efforts or work that’s produced when journalists are allowed to develop a specialty and hone the craft of being a journalist.

  39. Well, writereditor72, I agree with most of what you wrote here. But while there are organizations where individuals are asked — or required — to do too much, reasonable news organizations don’t expect one person to do it all.

    A journalist has to know how to gather news in more than one format — and also how to produce it FOR more than one format. But if someone tells you to produce it for all formats — to write Web text, write print text, and shoot and edit video, for example — that’s getting to the point of ridiculous.

    I agree with you that a lot of people who apply for journalism jobs are not good reporters. And there are people who graduate with journalism degrees but cannot do journalism work.

    Part of the blame for poor quality should be laid at the doorstep of the news organizations, in my opinion. If they paid people a living wage, they might be able to bring in a retain better workers. That’s the simple truth in any business.

  40. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Blogger byebye

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