In Depth

Journalism School: Students Still Hear the Call

 By Elizabeth Jensen

In the mid-1970s, the movie “All the President’s Men” sent high school students scurrying to journalism school, motivated by the glamorous prospect of bringing down a president.

Today, those now middle-aged journalists who are still working in the field are tracking the daily depressing doses of newspaper and television layoff news: 4.3 percent of television news jobs lost in 2008 and 10.3 percent of newspaper jobs, according to Hofstra University’s Robert Papper.

Yet college students are clamoring to go to J-school. Despite the widespread gloom about the current state of the traditional news business, journalism schools are booming. “Bear market for journalism; bull market for journalism schools,” said Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

So what in the world are the students thinking? It’s not the siren call of a big-screen movie. But it may be that the younger generation sees something that others don’t.

“I think that the very, very intense level of discussion about journalism drives interest to these schools,” says Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Journalism School.
“Journalism is very top of mind outside the profession in ways that it wasn’t five years ago,” he says, and students, “are betting that they’re getting in on the ground floor of a new order rather than seeing the utter collapse of everything as a lot of middle-age editors are seeing. It’s hard to believe that every single year will be a repeat of 2009.”

Talking Points Memo founder and editor Joshua Micah Marshall, in the annual Henry F. Pringle Lecture to Columbia’s graduation class last May, captured that thought, noting: “If I were entering the profession — probably going back to the beginning of the 20th century — there’s no time I’d rather enter it than now. That is notwithstanding the challenges that the profession faces right now, but precisely because of it. It’s the people who are entering the profession right now who are going to create the editorial models, the publishing models, the business models, that define journalism in the 21st century.”

School administrators offer up myriad other reasons for the booming ranks. At the University of Florida, where the well-regarded program is trying to accommodate 140 students more than its theoretical capacity of 400 juniors and seniors, Dean John Wright says students are drawn by the numerous job opportunities they see not in traditional outlets, such as newspapers, but working for online news operations or company Web sites. “They can transpose what they get here into all kinds of professional opportunities,” he said.

Columbia, an exclusively graduate program, says international students account for some, but not all, of its booming numbers. The school enrolled 260 full-time master of science students this fall, compared with 211 last year and 200 in fall 2003. Applications for that program jumped to 1,085, from 776 last year and 913 in fall 2003.

Grueskin has only “anecdotal” theories for the heightened interest, related both to the economy and the changing nature of the profession. “Any time you have an economic downturn, graduate schools see a bump, because the opportunity costs go down. You’re not giving up as much as you used to be,” he says.

But he adds that the increasing professionalization of the business may also account for some of the interest. Thirty years ago, he says, learning on the job was an option. Today, a whole layer of mid-level editors, the ones who used to take junior reporters under their wings, has been wiped out in the rounds of layoffs.

“With the cutbacks we’ve seen, there isn’t anyone left to train anyone,” says Papper. “If you’re lucky, someone will explain the computer system you’re using.”

Moreover, says Grueskin, thanks to eternal digital search-engine optimized archiving, a mistake early in a career, even in an off-the-beaten-path newsroom, may never be forgotten. “The stakes for doing something wrong are increased.”

Students applying to the University of California’s Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism are “more prepared than ever,” with internships under their belts and quality clips, says Pam Gleason, director of admissions and student affairs. “They know what they want to do, they have a focus,” she says. The graduate school has deliberately kept enrollment small — currently, 59 second-year students and 50 first-year students — but applications in recent years have been up and are expected to be again this year. (The exception was last year, and the school doesn’t quite know why, although Gleason said there was a drop in applicants from China, when the school wasn’t able to offer the same scholarships for them as it had in the past.)

Berkeley’s program sends its graduates out with a full complement of multimedia skills. Schools that didn’t have such programs before are now adding them; Columbia opens its year with a three-week “digital skills boot camp,” and the University of Florida’s journalism department just voted on a major revision to its curriculum, which makes mandatory a similar course in multiplatform production at the beginning of the program. While most courses at the school already teach online and cross-platform journalism on an ad hoc basis, the new course will make sure that “from the outset [students] have these skills to put to use as they go through their various other courses,” says Wright.

Columbia has adapted to reflect the new realities of the journalism world by breaking its former course on law and critical issues into two separate classes. The revamping of the legal course was a recognition that many students will end up working independently in the field, and, even if they end up at a large news organization, they might not find as much legal support as in the past, due to the cutbacks, Grueskin said.

Ethics, meanwhile, has become a case-study based course. Grueskin said the school wanted to add to its teaching there because, “ ‘A,’ the consequences of bad ethical decisions are more far reaching now; and ‘B,’ because the time frames are so condensed online, the need for journalists to make sound ethical decisions quickly has been heightened.”

Columbia also for the first time now mandates a business of journalism course.

Indeed, schools aren’t ignoring the changes roiling the field, and because they know they will face a smaller pool of applicants if they can’t find jobs for the students they have, they are actively aiding the search for new economic models.

American University’s J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism calls itself an “incubator for innovative news experiments that use new technologies to help people actively engage in critical public issues.” The University of Florida is about to open a “21st Century News Laboratory” in its Center for Media Innovation + Research. Arizona State University’s Cronkite School serves as the headquarters for the News21 Initiative, a joint program by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Knight Foundation to change both journalism education and train a new generation of journalists. Columbia recently sponsored a yearlong investigation that led to a 100-page report on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.”

While students appear to have a much broader idea of what kinds of places they’d like to work, it doesn’t mean they are without anxiety over getting a job, administrators say. Last spring, seniors “were very nervous, and rightly so,” says Papper, the chair of Hofstra’s Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations.

“I can’t imagine a worse time to be graduating in the field than we faced last spring,” he says. Still, his program this year enrolled 596 students in the major, up by 1 student from last year, at a time when the university overall has lost students. That comes on top of recent annual growth of 4 percent to6 percent, he said.

Even in a severe downturn, “there are still tens of thousands of standard reporting jobs out there,” says Columbia’s Grueskin. Newly graduated students, he notes, are both “less expensive” and possess “a very valuable skill set for these news organizations.”

Lemann says it’s worth remembering that the “Watergate-era” journalism students also chose to enter the field at a time of deep recession when there was doom and gloom over daily journalism, as afternoon newspapers folded left and right. “But when you’re 22 you don’t notice that stuff,” he said.

“There’s no credible research that says there are any fewer people interested in or less interested in news than there has ever been,” says Papper. “We’re in a very volatile time in terms of what the business model is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a future. We just haven’t necessarily been smart enough to figure out how that will happen.”

Today’s job crisis for middle-aged reporters is “our reality, that’s not the kids’ today reality,” he adds. “You can talk about how things used to be so much better, and they look at you with blank faces. We need to sometimes get over ourselves.”