Students flock to journalism school despite tanking news industry

[ Follow Ups ][ Guest Post ] [ Post Followup ] [ :: Madison, WI area Radio, TV, All Media Discussion Forum ]

Posted by on April 30, 2009 at 07:30:57:

Students flock to journalism school despite tanking news industry

by Todd Finkelmeyer TCT 4/29/2009 4:09 pm

When Abby Sears was accepted into the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she had hopes of one day working for a public relations firm.

Then she did some work at the Daily Cardinal news desk and "fell in love with writing and reporting."

A Madison native, Sears covered last year's downtown homicide of UW student Brittany Zimmermann. Her reporting led to several appearances on Greta Van Susteren's "On the Record" and a summer internship at Fox News in New York. And she is committed to the craft.

"I definitely think journalism is an incredibly important profession," she said. "It's our job to seek the truth and it's our job to report the truth. There are so many people pushing so many different agendas, and journalists are the people who are supposed to sift through all of that and get down to the meat and potatoes of it, and give that back to the people. I see it as my duty to figure out what's going on out there and make people aware of that -- and do it in an engaging and informative way."

Despite her passion and impressive resume, however, Sears likely will graduate next month without a job. And she won't be the only one.

While the economy in general is slumping, the newspaper industry in particular is tanking. The American Society of News Editors reports that daily newspapers across the U.S. shed 5,900 newsroom jobs last year, slashing the number of employed journalists by 11.3 percent. And in the first couple months of 2009, the situation appears to be going from bad to worse -- with newspapers in Denver, Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich., either folding altogether or significantly cutting staff and putting their entire product online.

According to the layoff tracker "paper cuts," more than 8,400 newspaper jobs -- from editors and reporters to advertising sales reps, pressmen and carriers -- have been lost so far in 2009.

"Some of my students are freaked out by all this," said Sue Robinson, an assistant professor at UW-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "The fear in their eyes is startling. And they should be nervous, because it's hard right now."

And yet, young adults continue to flood journalism schools across the country, with many of these students still dreaming of writing for a print publication one day. According to an annual enrollment survey done by the University of Georgia, there were 199,711 undergraduates enrolled nationwide in journalism and mass communication schools in
2007 -- a jump of 41.6 percent from 1997. Meanwhile, a recent article on noted that journalism schools at Columbia University, the University of Maryland and Stanford University saw significant spikes in applications this past fall -- 30 percent, 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

"Honestly, and it could be because I'm young or naive or all of the above, but problems with the newspaper industry don't worry me all that much," said Emily Bisek, a UW-Madison junior who hopes to write for a daily newspaper when she graduates. "I know the industry is changing; it's in flux due to the Internet and new technologies being used to tell stories. I guess I feel that, at the very least, as a young graduate entering the workforce in about a year, that I'm a little bit ahead of the curve as far as being exposed to the new technologies and being part of a different age of reporters."

Professor James Baughman, director of UW-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the flow of applications to his school has remained strong. Over the past three academic years, nearly 1,400 people have applied to enter the school, with 55 percent being turned away due to space limitations.

And like their colleagues from across the nation, those within UW-Madison's J-school are trying to tailor a successful curriculum which meshes many of the new multimedia technologies with the old-school fundamentals of reporting and writing.

"I am one of those people who firmly believes, who just knows, that there will always be a place for journalism in a democratic society," said Katy Culver, a J-school faculty member at UW-Madison. "I don't know that it will be ink on newsprint arriving at your door every day. I'm suspicious of that notion. Yet despite all the crisis in the media industries -- talk of Newsweek maybe not existing or of 5,000 job cuts in journalism -- I have not really seen any relaxed interest in the major."

Culver pauses for a moment before adding: "But I imagine there are a lot of nervous parents out there."

Not long ago, a newspaper reporter covering an important school board meeting might have been asked to cobble together a 700-word article for the next day's paper.

That same reporter today could be expected to produce a live blog from the meeting, upload video or audio from a key exchange during the event and then write an in-depth follow-up story.

This changing face of "print" reporting has forced J-schools across the country to re-evaluate how they approach their teaching. In this regard, those at UW-Madison feel they are ahead of the curve, as the university revamped the J-school's curriculum prior to the start of the 2000-01 school year.

"Platform agnostic" is the term those within the school like to use when describing this new course of study.

"Journalism education used to be boxy," said Culver, who got her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in journalism at UW-Madison, then joined the faculty in 1999 to design and teach the J-school's foundation skills course, J202. "Students would follow the print track or broadcasting track or advertising track or public relations track, and it was very segmented and separate. It was dominated by thinking about the platform in which you were going to be telling the story as opposed to thinking about the story. So our curriculum now prepares students in a broad-based way so they can adapt either to a changing media landscape or changing employer demands or even the changing mind of what one wants to do in life."

While the J-school was criticized in the past for being heavy on communication theory and short on faculty with professional experience in the trade, Culver said the program realized in the mid-1990s it needed to change its curriculum to meet the changing times.

"We had researchers who were ahead of the curve in understanding the web and the changes in what online communications would bring," said Culver. "It was, 'Wow, this medium is a game-changer, it's going to rip apart the way that we do things.' We didn't exactly know how, but we knew we needed a curriculum that could adapt to those kinds of changes."

At any one time, there are about 400 undergraduate students in UW-Madison's J-school, which also features more than 80 graduate students and the equivalent of 15 full-time faculty. A little more than half end up focusing on advertising and public relations, with the rest following a reporting track. All students must take Culver's six-credit journalism and communications boot camp, which introduces them to everything from writing and print basics to multimedia training in audio, video and online production. The idea is to give students a strong, multifaceted foundation.

During this course, Culver also tries to stress to her students the importance of thinking about which medium can best be used to deliver a message. It's a message that appeals to Bisek.

"I really enjoy being able to tell a story that is more of a package deal -- where you have the print and a video or some sound slides and a little bit of Twitter," she said. "I think you can represent certain stories and people better in those ways than you would be able to with just a printed story in the paper."

Still, the most important journalism skills are critical thinking and writing, said Culver.

"What we really try to instill in people is that if you are thinking about questions correctly, that's the hallmark of great journalism," she said. "Having an HD camera is not the hallmark of great journalism."

Although UW-Madison's J-school is committed to changing with the times, the pace at which the newspaper industry and multimedia technologies are evolving pose significant challenges. Not only do some of the tenured professors have limited or no real-world experience with audio, video or photo editing software, but finding the time, energy and patience to get up to speed with some of these new technologies can seem daunting.

Robinson requires undergraduate students in her 400-level in-depth reporting class to supplement a printed piece with interactive web elements. (For examples, visit But Baughman, who doesn't even have a cell phone, admits his 400-level course on column and editorial writing is much more focused on print.

"It's not that I'm indifferent to change," said Baughman. "I could make that class more current in some ways or I could play
with it a bit more, but I think some classes offer more multimedia opportunities than others."

The changing media landscape also has placed a new financial burden on the J-school in the form of video cameras, plus audio, photo and video editing software. All of the online tools needed to produce a website can be quite costly.

For a few years, Culver stopped giving video assignments in her class because the cameras that were purchased broke down after a couple years, and no funds were immediately available to replace them. Currently, the J-school's labs are in need of newer computers which have the right processors to run some of the state-of-the-art software.

"I think my only major complaint about the J-school is the lack of resources," said Lara Sokolowski, a UW-Madison senior majoring in journalism and English literature. "We could certainly use some more computer labs."

And more time.

"There are so many multimedia tools out there today that it's hard to learn how to use them all," Sokolowski added. "I feel like sometimes we're just given a brief overview of something, and then we have to move on."

Some students also wish the J-school offered more in the way of real-world internships and career advising. Students at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, for instance, must intern before they can graduate. There is no such requirement at the UW-Madison J-school.

"I feel like the journalism school as a whole taught me how to be a great writer and a great thinker, and taught me good analytical skills," said Ashley Spencer, a senior. "But the journalism school did very little to help graduates find a job. I know other journalism schools, like at Northwestern, have job fairs. And I'm like, 'Why don't we have that? We're a great school, too.' "

When Tom Lea was growing up in tiny Colfax, Wis., he used to tell his mom that he planned to replace Brett Favre as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.

"Once I figured out I wouldn't be able to play sports at that level, or not even close to that level, I figured, 'Oh well, I can always cover sports,' " said Lea, a senior in UW's J-school who has a job covering UW sports for "Sports has always been a joy for me, and it's just something I really, really enjoy. So even though the newspaper industry is in turmoil, I really feel like I picked the right major."

Spencer, a native of suburban Chicago, had a different experience.

Although she came to Madison with hopes of majoring in journalism and becoming a print reporter, a stint at the Daily Cardinal as an editor and political reporter turned her off to the "stressful lifestyle" of being a newspaper reporter.

"Why would I want to be low-paid and really struggle to find a job?" posed Spencer, who still writes feature columns for the Daily Cardinal, one of two independent campus newspapers. "I feel like journalists are completely undervalued and work very hard for very little pay. And with the added stress of the profession and the economic situation, I just decided that this isn't where I wanted to go with my life."

Spencer, who double-tracked in journalism/reporting and strategic communications, now is hoping to land a job in public relations, advertising or magazine writing. She is still looking for a job, as is Amanda Hoffstrom, a UW-Madison senior who will graduate in about a month. Hoffstrom is seeking a reporting position.

"In a way, this is a very exciting time because we can be the ones who can reinvent this industry," said Hoffstrom. A former staffer at the Daily Cardinal who now is an editor for UWire, a student journalist site, Hoffstrom recently started blogging about her job search at

"Even though newspapers are on the decline, it doesn't mean journalism is dead," added Sokolowski. "We just have to figure out what way this new technology is taking the field, and we'll be fine."

Robinson agreed that it's not all gloom and doom. "We're seeing layoffs and some newspapers dying off, but we're also seeing other exciting things that people aren't talking about -- like all of these nonprofit investigative journalism centers that are starting, and all these professional-amateur collaborations with citizen journalists and professional organizations," she said. "And even a lot of the newspapers that are 'dying' are really still alive; they're just online. It's just a matter of appreciating where the industry is right now and figuring out what the needs are, and we're trying to direct students in those ways."

Culver noted that Willard Bleyer -- who is credited with starting journalism education at UW-Madison in 1905 -- once said that the "future of our democracy depends on the character of our newspapers." She said the statement holds true today with one tweak.

"I would say that the future of our democracy depends on the character of our journalism. It's not tied to a medium. It's tied to the practice of going out and seeking information, skeptically challenging institutions and maintaining accountability. That's the nature of journalism."

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup




Optional Link URL:
Link Title:
Optional Image URL:

Enter verification code:

[ Follow Ups ][ Guest Post ] [ Post Followup ] [ :: Madison, WI area Radio, TV, All Media Discussion Forum ]

postings are the opinions of their respective posters and site ownership disclaims any responsibility for the content contained.