Reboot camp

Aspiring and seasoned US journalists alike are looking to tech-savvy graduate schools to help them survive and thrive in a new multimedia environment. Jon Marcus reports

January 6, 2011

Jennifer Hellum's first semester as a graduate student in journalism school taught her, among other things, how to function with almost no sleep.

That experience came courtesy of the "boot camp" for new students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, covering news reporting, writing, radio and television journalism, online media and other topics, four days a week, beginning at 7.45am, for 16 weeks.

Even for Hellum, who already had an undergraduate degree in journalism, "boot camp was exhausting in a way I had never known". But by the end of it, she says, she and her fellow students "were competent multimedia journalists".

The Cronkite School - part of Arizona State University, and named after the broadcast journalist - is among 113 US journalism schools working to prepare students for an industry in dramatic upheaval.

More than a quarter of US newspaper jobs have disappeared in the past decade as circulations nosedived by an average of one-third, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. Some newspaper companies have lost as much as three-quarters of their value. Several are in bankruptcy or have closed. Advertising revenue has dropped by 43 per cent in the past three years.

Yet students continue to come to journalism schools. Overall enrolment fell by half of 1 per cent last year, the first decline since 1993, but the number of first- and second-year students rose slightly, suggesting that the numbers will at least remain level.

Students are aware that the only way to stake a claim to one of the diminishing number of journalism jobs is to return to higher education to master not only writing and reporting, but videography, social media and other increasingly complex platforms.

Many are like Hellum. Two-thirds are women. Typically, they are older than traditional university graduate students (Hellum is 43), and many are mid-career journalists who need to learn the new requirements of their profession. There are also growing ranks of ethnic minority students, who now make up a third of undergraduate and 42 per cent of graduate journalism students.

"It was precisely the uncertainty in the industry that made me feel like I needed to be part of it," Hellum says. "As I ran my daily errands, I would listen to the radio all day about the plight of the news industry. It made me wonder how people are going to get the information they need."

Not in the old ways, as it turns out. Six in 10 Americans now find their news online, for example. And while online news sites command only a fraction of the advertising revenue that traditional print newspapers did - and still don't pay much - they are growing exponentially.

"I'm struck when (prospective) students come here with their parents," says Christopher Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School. "You have parents who ask, 'Why am I sending my kid to journalism school?' and invariably the next sentence out of their mouth is, 'Journalism is dying'. Well, journalism is more robust than ever."

The challenge for journalism schools is keeping up with a rapidly changing profession and providing students with the sophisticated knowledge they now need and demand.

"It's really tough to turn battleships around, and that's what these journalism programmes are that are deeply rooted in the past," says Lee Becker, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who tracks enrolment in journalism schools and postgraduate employment.

"You have faculty and curricula based on models that don't really exist any more, and it's difficult to get them moving in the right direction. Every programme in the country is struggling with that."

The magnitude of that struggle has been evident at Northwestern University near Chicago, which suspended faculty governance for three and a half years during a drastic revamp of the curriculum at its Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications, one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious journalism schools. Academics condemned the move, although their protests were largely fruitless. An expert in media strategy and management, John Lavine, was brought in as dean. Strategic goals were rewritten to put "audience understanding" at the top. Every academic was made to take 10 weeks of instruction in producing multimedia content.

Critics said that teaching how to report and write the news was being abandoned in favour of teaching how to market it. In fact, Lavine says, the writing requirement at Medill has been doubled.

He makes no apologies for his approach.

"We are a professional school," he says. "Journalists used to say, 'Our job is to inform so that citizens can be smarter and make better decisions.' Today, the verb has changed. Instead of saying our job is to inform, in the sense of being gatekeepers, I think that today you would say our job is to enable people to be better informed."

He demonstrates what he means by typing a common noun into a search engine on the computer on his desk. In a fraction of a second, it delivers 224 million hits.

"You have this tidal wave of information and yet nobody has one second more time," Lavine says. "Journalism is informing people so they can make smarter decisions in the midst of this cacophony, this tidal wave of facts."

On top of the high-tech labs and training, journalism schools, which have always encouraged hands-on training, now are providing news themselves. Many have launched real-world reporting collectives. One such initiative is News21, a collaborative effort by 12 leading journalism schools that produces original investigative stories for daily newspapers including The Washington Post.

News21 and similar undertakings help address the dearth of investigative reporting by conventional media that no longer have the staff, the space or the money to do it. They also test new ways of delivering content, and give students valuable experience at a high level. Such initiatives position journalism schools as leaders in the industry, instead of simply serving as talent incubators.

The idea, says Eric Newton, vice-president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the project's co-sponsor, is that "rather than do research and development in the lab, we would demonstrate new applications to try to accelerate media innovation. The digital age has made it possible for anyone to lead the development of the future news and information systems. What we're trying to do with News21 and other projects is to see whether or not journalism schools can become the engine of change, rather than the caboose."

It's another significant advantage for hard-working students. Natalie Podgorski, an undergraduate at the Cronkite School, co-anchored a "town hall" meeting on the night of the mid-term congressional elections in November, snippets of which appeared on ABC News and the BBC. Podgorski also is the newscaster on the school's nightly news programme, which is broadcast not just to the campus, but across the state of Arizona.

"We could compete with local television stations," she says of her work and that of her classmates. "I think some people would say we're cocky. But I think we're confident. I'm confident I'll get a job as a reporter. I just don't know yet where I'll be doing that."

In addition to its statewide television newscast, the Cronkite School also has its own news service. Medill students work in storefront newsrooms in inner-city Chicago. Students at New York University and the City University of New York (CUNY) run neighbourhood blogs for The New York Times. University of Maryland journalism students staff bureaux in Washington and in the state capital of Annapolis that produce stories for Maryland newspapers, a nightly newscast that airs in suburban Washington, and an online magazine.

These and other changes are happening at journalism schools both old and new. The top-rated, long-established Columbia University School of Journalism is adding a dual master's degree in journalism and computer science, which starts next year. Syracuse University and the universities of Maryland and Missouri have opened new buildings for their journalism schools within the past two years, and the University of Southern California has just announced plans for one.

But it is the newer programmes that have proved the most nimble in adapting to a new age. The Cronkite School, which was spun off as an independent unit of Arizona State in 2004, occupies a brand-new, six-storey, $71 million (£46 million) building in downtown Phoenix that bristles with new technology. It has 14 digital newsrooms and computer labs, two television studios and 280 digital student workstations, more cutting edge than those of some of the media companies where graduates go on to work.

"It's an analogue of the media business, isn't it? The older operations are diddling around while the newer ones, the online operations, are succeeding," says Tim McGuire, a former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune who now holds the Frank Russell chair of journalism at the lavishly equipped Cronkite School. "The same is true of journalism schools."

CUNY opened its Graduate School of Journalism from scratch in 2006, when the pace of the decline of conventional newspapers and broadcast media was only beginning to be fully understood.

"It wasn't quite apparent six years ago that there would be such a collapse," says Steve Shepard, the school's founding dean and a former editor-in-chief of Business Week. "Had they been able to forecast the future, whether they would have started it, I don't know."

In the event, says Shepard, the timing was ideal, allowing CUNY to be in on the ground floor of the information revolution.

"It was a great thing that we started when we did, because we could create a brand-new school for what was quickly becoming a brand-new age for journalism," he says.

"We didn't have entrenched faculty or an established way of thinking. So what seemed like hardly a propitious moment to start a journalism school turned out to be a great opportunity."

Not all journalism programmes in the US have fared so well. Nearly 40 per cent report that their budgets have been cut, victims of both the downturns in higher-education funding and the chaos in the once-profitable journalism industry that historically supported them. Four out of 10 have hiring freezes in place. The University of Colorado in Boulder is considering eliminating its school of journalism altogether, with a decision expected in February.

Nor is it much easier to find jobs than it is to get through first-semester boot camp. The most recent cohort of graduates found a job market even worse than that of the year before, when record low levels of employment were recorded, according to a University of Georgia survey. Salaries were stagnant for a fourth year in a row, meaning graduates were earning less when inflation was taken into account. One told the pollsters that he would recommend succeeding students "stay in school forever. It all goes downhill from there."

But graduates armed with in-depth multimedia training and a track record of real-world reporting while in journalism school are landing jobs better than those obtained by their predecessors, who faced a hierarchical system that demanded they begin in small markets and work their way up.

"Now The New York Times will hire straight out of journalism school if it's someone who knows how to write computer code and do great journalism," Newton says.

Besides, says Becker, "What part of the economy would you want to be going into these days? Banking? Finance? Those aren't particularly healthy either. Young people see an occupational landscape that's in transition, and is likely to remain in transition, and they see communications as exciting and challenging. It's something they do all the time."

Hellum isn't worried. "We're going to be the people hired over the traditional journalists who are not ready to embrace social media, and who aren't ready to embrace taking on new tasks in the newsroom," she says. Her own goal is to become a social-media or community-engagement editor, something that until recently didn't exist, and still barely does - a liaison between a newsroom and the public, who manages a media organisation's Facebook and Twitter accounts and moderates reader comments. As for the salary issue, she says, "No one's ever gone into journalism for the money."

Huge numbers of people like Hellum will ultimately be needed to drive the information revolution, Callahan says.

"Newspapers - maybe not. But we don't have print journalism or newspaper journalism or anything like that any more. It doesn't exist. We have one degree. It's in journalism, and it's multi-platform. These students embrace the uncertainty and the notion that they can help mould the future."

Like Callahan, Lavine has faced his share of sceptical parents. One asked him if, given the chance, he'd go into journalism now as enthusiastically as he did in the 1960s, when he edited and published a chain of newspapers in Wisconsin.

"I said I would choose today (over the past). That's how exciting and opportunity-filled today is," he says.

It is, in fact, "the best time in history to be a student in a journalism school", says Newton. "It is the worst time to be the parent of a journalism student. The students are going to invent the news and information systems of tomorrow. The parents are going to see that only some of the students do that.

"The opportunities have never been greater. The risks are higher. And that attracts really smart people - people who are not afraid of taking risks."

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