Is any university in America still admitting students as print journalism majors?
That question popped into my mind last week when I read a LinkedIn research post that claimed that newspapers have shed a larger percentage of jobs that any other industry in America over the past five years, losing more than 28 percent of its jobs during that time.
I mean, wow, everyone in the business knew that newspapers were shrinking, but dead last? And dead last in a down economy?
When you consider that many newspaper companies have been trying to add or at least redeploy positions to their online operations, the jobs picture becomes even more grim for the print side of journalism. As far as jobs go, this is – literally – the worst part of the worst industry in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Given that job market, why would any students want to major in print journalism? More importantly – why would any ethical college or university allow those students to do so?
College today costs an obscene amount of money, an outrageous expense that’s often justified by the extra earning potential that college graduates enjoy over those who do not earn a college degree. But median wages for college graduates (adjusted for inflation) are shrinking, not growing. And given the collapsing job prospects in print journalism, it seems to me mad to invest tens of thousands of dollars in training to work for newspapers.
And, yes, I wrote “training.” Journalism schools long have considered themselves professional schools, with a focus on training over scholarship, and if you doubt that, consider the relative dearth of PhDs on university journalism faculties, compared with the large number of adjunct faculty and instructors. But it’s going to be increasingly difficult for journalism schools to retain support within their universities if employment prospects in the profession for which they are training their students continue to collapse at the rate that newspapers’ are.
Students are wise to all this, of course. I’m hearing plenty of anecdotal accounts that students are abandoning print journalism, choosing instead to apply or transfer to programs in online journalism, public relations and communications. Add that newspaper companies are no longer enjoying the massive double-digit annual profit margins that led them to fund million- and billion-dollar foundations to support journalism education, and journalism schools are facing a one-two punch to their revenue with many feeling declining enrollment and donation support.
Fortunately, there’s some very good news in the LinkedIn analysis. Take a look at the top three growing industries over the past five years. There’s the Internet at number two and Online Publishing at number three. That’s the future of journalism education right there – fulfilling the growing need for instruction and guidance in profitable and community-building communication in the growing online publishing media.
Unfortunately, too many journalism faculties aren’t well staffed for this shift. While the core principles of sound reporting, clear writing and honest imagery remain for online journalism, today’s journalism students also need instruction in entrepreneurship, as well as building and leading communities in a dynamic, real-time, interactive publishing environment – skills where print veterans too often lack needed years of real-world experience. Worse, too many print-focused instructors advocate journalists maintaining distance from the communities they cover in the name of objectivity – advice that I believe harms 21st century journalism students.
The situation reminds me of the dilemma that newspapers have faced over the past generation, as they tried to diversify the ethnicity of their newsrooms, while at first holding their size steady, then laying off workers. It’s next to impossible to make the numbers work for adding new people from different backgrounds into a work environment that you’re trying to shrink. It’s far easier to diversify a growing industry, where employment opportunities abound.
So, too, will it be difficult for journalism schools to find the empty positions to recruit and hire community-minded entrepreneurial online journalists – who often have plenty of competing career opportunities – while those schools feel funding pressure due to the newspaper industry’s collapse. Journalism schools shouldn’t abandon instruction in print journalism, for jobs and opportunities remain the field. And the history of print journalism needs to remain a part of any journalism or communication school’s curriculum, for the lessons learned (and ignored) by that industry remain instructive to publishers and journalists in any medium.
But with the newspaper industry collapsing faster than any other segment of the American economy, it’s time to quit actively directing students into print. FWIW, I could make the same argument about many professional schools in which colleges and universities recruit and admit far more students that their fields need, including law schools and some departments of business schools. Over-recruitment of students for shrinking fields is an emerging national scandal in higher education. Or, at least, it ought to be.
Students considering professional programs deserve hard facts about job market in those fields, not to discourage them from learning, but to help them be fully informed about their prospects in the future. The primary responsibility for journalists is to tell the truth. So journalism educators should lead the way.