Advice for journalism students now

If you asked editors and publishers today to offer advice to journalism students, what would they say?

In response to a survey preceding a journalism job fair, 86 newspaper editors and publishers from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio said these are the skills students need to put themselves in the strongest position to land an entry-level job in the newspaper industry today:

  1. Diverse skills: multimedia storytelling, including audio and video; Web-first reporting; report/write for both printed publication and online (45 out of 86)
  2. Writing skills: writing on deadline; writing brief and fast, including for Web site; attention to grammar, spelling, clarity, organization (40 out of 86)
  3. Curiosity and enthusiasm (16 out of 86)

Survey respondents could mark more than one answer; these were the three answers that scored highest.

What positions are you likely to fill in your newsroom in the next year or so?

  1. Reporters: 34 (including for Web site, interns, and possible positions not currently existing or open)
  2. None: 27
  3. Copy editors: 9

So, young journalists, take note: While “none” got a lot of votes (as expected, in this economic climate), “reporters” got more votes. And jobs like Web designer or programmer? Not in the top three.

But DON’T RULE OUT the Web skills that are necessary for you to GET that first reporting job! Look at the responses to the first question above, and look at the responses to the last question below.

This is not your mother’s or your father’s old reporting skill set we’re talking about. You need to understand that well and thoroughly.

Could you suggest any reason(s) for college students to consider a career in newspapers in light of the downsizing in our industry today?

  1. Skills of a journalist will always be in demand regardless of format: 29
  2. Important work: 27 (serve as watchdog for the public; expose corruption; ensure justice and freedom; make a difference; do some good)
  3. Still can be a rewarding and satisfying career: 7

Would you recommend that college students/recent grads become a freelancer — either as a way to get experience before becoming an employee, or to make a career of it?

  1. Yes: 71 (provides experience/clips; gets your foot in door; proves yourself valuable to decision-makers for hiring)
  2. Hedged response: 11 (difficult to make a living; not as a career; only as last resort)
  3. No: 4 (difficult to make a living; cannot hire experienced writers in entry-level positions)

This set of answers is quite significant, and I hope that journalism professors (and others who advise young journalists) will pay attention. Out of 86 respondents, 71 said YES, they would recommend freelancing. That’s 82.5 percent.

What would be the single most important piece of advice you could give to aspiring journalists at this time as they see a shrinking job market in the newspaper industry?

  1. Become diverse in skills: 25 (be versatile, including in multimedia reporting; prepare for a career in journalism, not just in newspapers) [I would add: and not just in magazines, or TV, or Web]
  2. Be determined: 12 (never give up; have patience; don’t be discouraged; be aggressive in job search)
  3. Be willing to start at a small paper: 7

This summary is shamelessly lifted from an e-mail sent by my colleague Ron Rodgers, who based it on an Associated Press report published Jan. 31, as seen in The Indianapolis Star. The questions and top three answers have been copied from a sidebar on the Star’s online story page.

I found a PDF summary of another survey from one year ago (post-job fair) that included some great advice for students on what journalism employers look for in a resume, among other things:

Responses from surveyed students indicate there is a high level of just the kind of multimedia experiences that editors said they desire.

When asked to identify multimedia skills they possessed, nearly three-fourths (70%) reported they could assemble photo slide shows; 56.7% said they could create a “reader/user blogging feature”; 46.7% said they could both shoot video and record audio; 23.3% said they could both edit video and prepare a podcast; 20% said they could edit audio.

About a third (30%) reported knowledge of Web and design editing formats (HTML, CSS, InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, interactive graphics).

While the director of student publications thinks that glass is half-full, I might be more inclined to see it as half-empty. Keep in mind that the students surveyed are those who attended the job fair. You’re telling me that almost half of them did not know how to set up a blog? Only 20 percent know how to edit audio?

I think those numbers are far too low for students who are trying to get a journalism job or an internship today.

Some of the 2009 pre-job fair survey results were blogged earlier by Meranda Watling.

22 Comments on “Advice for journalism students now

  1. You make an interesting point: While “none” got a lot of votes (as expected, in this economic climate), “reporters” got more votes. And jobs like Web designer or programmer? Not in the top three. But DON’T RULE OUT the Web skills that are necessary for you to GET that first reporting job!
    You’re exactly right. The truth is you need those skills just to be a reporter. Even if you don’t use them every day, editors are looking for them in new hires. They need a team of utility men who can do a bit of everything, not a team of writers and photographers and copy editors working independently. To extend that metaphor, there are whole clubhouses of better, more experienced writers looking for jobs today because just being a “reporter” isn’t enough. I don’t know if it ever was, but I do know, in newsrooms today, it is not.

    At a minimum, new hires need to know how things like blogs, rss feeds, twitter and google alerts work just to leverage them in reporting and to monitor the beat online. But you also have to be confident and competent enough to grab a camera and a laptop and run to the scene of a fire when you’re the only one around. Oh, and while you still need to be able to craft that compelling narrative for tomorrow’s front stoop, you also need to write cleanly and quickly on deadline for the Web.

    I don’t use my Web skills in my day job every day. But I do use them. And when there’s a new idea I suggest or they want to try, because I have those skills and exploit them more than any other reporter here, I’m the go-to person on experimenting with the cool new things we’re doing. I can’t complain about that.

  2. @Meranda – Thanks for your helpful response. It’s good to hear from a young reporter who has a regular staff job at a daily newspaper!

    One of my favorite scenarios is:

    You’re on a highway, and traffic comes to a dead halt across six or eight lanes because of a semi-tractor-trailer accident. A truckload of 10,000 bowling balls has spilled all over the road.

    If you have a 7-megapixel point-and-shoot camera in your pocket, and you know how to use it, your photo will be on Page One tomorrow morning. You don’t need to be a photojournalist to get a good picture.

    If you know how to get clean video on that little camera, and you can interview the truck driver, or some witnesses — whoa, baby, your video is going to bring a bunch of people to your news organization’s Web site. (Think of it — 10,000 bowling balls!)

    No one else is going to be able to get to the scene. You are there. Are you able to deliver pictures and audio? That’s what you need to be able to do in that situation.

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  5. Getting a 10,000 bowling ball picture would be a great front-pager!

    I am sometimes discouraged from taking photos because if a photog does show up, my pictures won’t even be considered most of the time, and if they are, they’re rarely chosen. I should start toting around my video camera and regular camera, but that’s a lot of luggage …

  6. Thanks a lot, very helpful. At University of Memphis we are in the process of revising journalism curriculum to better reflect many of these skills.

  7. You are a lifesaver, Mindy.

    I am Web director at my student newspaper, and I am in a constant struggle to convince many younger staff members that multimedia and Web skills matter.

    I’ve been trying to find either survey results or data to help convince them, but hadn’t quite found what I was looking for … until now.

    Thanks for giving me a post to pass around a section budget meetings and e-mail to our staff.

  8. @Emily Ingram – Keep nagging them! I hear from so many students who have already graduated saying they wish they had taken the time to learn the multimedia reporting skills they so desperately need now. Everybody always has excuses for why they did not do it. (They were in such a hurry to graduate, they couldn’t take that one class …) But the excuses don’t help them after they have graduated.

  9. With the start of another semester, I’ve also been thinking about what I should tell my journalism students … so thanks for pulling all this info together. Solves my problem.

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  11. These skills are highly suggested for students studying any mass communication (advertising, PR, etc). The PR and/or advertising professional who can use “new media” and integrate it into their work is definitely desired.

    I wish these classes had been offered when I was working on my undergrad, and I plan on trying to integrate some of them now in my masters work.

  12. @Mindy I recently graduated myself (Chico State) and only now are they adding more multimedia classes and emphasizing these kinds of skills. I’m glad they’re getting these classes in on a budget crunch but that doesn’t help me. They had some when I went through and I took them, including online journalism and design courses, but will that be enough?

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  15. You speaketh truth about the industry, and about curriculum changes which are already shaping the next generation of journalists. Ultimately, it’s that generation that has to become the collective Bill Gates of the time, i.e., they have to look at this moment in journalism as an opportunity to take journalism to new levels instead of a crisis.

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  17. Great post, Mindy. I’m a student journo at University of Sunderland, UK, and know I have to take it upon myself to learn such multimedia and web skills.

    It was great to finally see some numbers on this issue, rather than individual comments here and there.


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