Journalism: The Poetry of the ’00s

Jared Sugerman is tired of hearing about the Death of Newspapers.  A Northeastern University senior and journalism major, Sugerman says he can’t count how many times a week someone asks why he planned his studies around a field with so few jobs. Even worse, some well-meaning types imagine he hasn’t heard the news about newspapers, and take it upon themselves to share fun facts like, say, the estimated number of journalism jobs lost in 2008: 16,000 nationwide, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

 “I get tired of having the conversation,” says Sugerman, who grew up in Rhode Island.  “It’s a topic of discussion that simply never goes away.”

According to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, journalism graduates are facing the worst market in the 23 years that the association has studied job placement.  Only 60 percent of 2008 graduates had jobs by graduation, compared with 70 percent a year earlier.   While the local journalism schools surveyed say they do not track job placement among recent graduates, they are re-vamping their curricula and trying to adapt to the market – a challenge, since nobody knows quite where the market will go.  But most seem to be hoping multi-media skills will give their students an edge.

 “Everything is taking place against the backdrop of dramatic change in the economic model, and the way journalism is done and delivered,” says Northeastern University School of Journalism director Stephen Burgard. “We’re adapting on a number of fronts to modernize and keep pace with change.”

At Northeastern, students can now minor in interactive media through the university’s new Creative Industry department, which teaches web design and gaming. Boston University is also trying to work audio, video and Internet skills into many of its traditional writing and reporting classes, says journalism department chair Lou Ureneck.   “We have one foot in the timeless verities of journalism – writing; verification – and the other in adapting to new technologies,” he says.  And at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, journalism program director Karen List says her department has added courses in  “Writing for the Web” and Multimedia Journalism.  

The three administrators would not release specific enrollment and admissions data, but said that despite the bleak job market, they have not seen a change in the level of student interest in journalism during the last five years.   Student interest may stem partly from youthful optimism and faith in multimedia, but also from adaptation of a different kind. Some local students now speak of the journalism major the way generations of poetry and fine arts and music majors defended their choice to anxious parents: I love it, and it’s teaching me skills I can use in many fields.  Or, in other words: Don’t worry, Mom. I know nobody gets paid to be a journalist.

Jared Sugerman says he chose journalism because he liked sports and likes writing.  He has loved his classes and his current internship at a local sports TV station in Rhode Island, and says his major has prepared him well for his anticipated future career – as a lawyer.  And his parents’ financial stability enabled him to study journalism “without thinking too much about whether it’s profitable or not,” says Sugerman. “As it turns out, I’ve discovered an interest in law and will probably go to law school so that problem may have resolved itself.”

For Dan FitzGerald, a journalism major at Boston University, passion for journalism outweighed concerns about the job market.  “I grew up reading newspapers and loving them,” says FitzGerald, a senior from Austin, Texas. “It’s a tough market, but I don’t think career choices should be made on the swings of the market. I’m doing it for the love of the job, not the financial stability.”

Ironically, while the journalism job market may make finding the first position harder, it may also enhance the student experience.  As local media are having trouble paying for content, they are turning to students who will produce it for free – and for course credit.   At Northeastern, students can take an Investigative Reporting class that might get them front-page placement in The Boston Globe. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, gets an in-depth story at no cost.

 “We’re trying to educate our best students in real, forward-looking journalism and also contribute to good in-depth investigative reporting in the field,” says Burgard, the school’s director.  A similar initiative, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, offers students at Boston University the chance to produce content for the Globe, WBUR, NECN, and other local media.

Student-created journalism is, on the one hand, an ingenious model for media outlets: rather than a newspaper paying a cub reporter $30,000 a year and having to train them, students seem willing to pay that amount (or more) to a university, which will give them the great skills and great clips twenty-somethings once got working for small-town papers in the Midwest.   But it may not be such an ingenious model for students in the long run, unless they eventually find a place that will pay them enough to pay off the debt incurred learning those great skills – or they too develop an interest in law school. 

As finding a way to fund the creation of journalism remains a great challenge for industry professionals, local students hope their elders figure it out fast. Gal Tziperman Lotan is managing editor of Northeastern’s student newspaper.  She says she’s committed to a career in journalism, but wishes her courses focused more on the business side of the industry.  “I don’t know if they don’t think it’s relevant or don’t know how to teach it,” says Lotan, a third-year student from Israel.  “I know a lot of people who’ve had second thoughts about journalism. I did, but then I thought, no, this is what I want to do.” 

She pauses, and then laughs. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a job and won’t have to live in a box.”