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Media Educators and the Shift, Not Shaft

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If you are under age 35, perhaps your eyes were drawn to Matt Miller's Washington Post comment suggesting "young Americans get the shaft." His basic argument is that earnings are down, globalism is coming, and higher education costs are rising too fast.

It is fair to examine why the cost of college in 1980, the year I graduated, represented 12 percent of median income and now is at 26 percent. The costs for a university education vary widely based upon a lot of factors, including public versus private tuition, housing and scholarships. Increasingly, state legislatures and regents expect users to pay more and limit the increasing expenses on taxpayers. My generation reaped benefits from taxpayer subsidization of the costs for a public university education.

During that era, journalism programs were struggling to keep pace with two major technological shifts: 1) Typewriters were being replaced in newspapers with "front end" computer terminals; and 2) Television stations were replacing film cameras with "electronic news gathering" (eng) tape systems. Those shifts were fairly traumatic for academic programs teaching typesetting and film developing skills.

At my school, University of Illinois, they suspended admission of broadcasting majors while they made changes. Some of us majored in political science, minored in journalism and communication, and learned broadcasting skills on the job while still in school. In other words, we adapted to the shift rather than take a "we've gotten the shaft" view of life.

Although Urbana was an early adopter of computers, they were still for programmers and tinkerers. By the time I entered the media job market in the early 1980s, tape was the standard, and working broadcast journalists knew how to use it.

I graduated with an undergraduate degree and $10,000 in student loan debt. While that is not a lot by today's standards, it was more than my annual income in my first radio news job. The larger issue for my generation was high interest rates. When I purchased my first car, the bank loan was at more than 14 percent. By the late 1980s, our first mortgage was nearly 12 percent. We later refinanced twice. I'm sure some from my generation were thinking if felt like the shaft.

By this point, media were shifting to desktop computers and publishing, and media educators were busy again revising curriculum. With each shift -- digital audio and video editing, web design, digital photography, social media, and mobile -- survivors have moved to reposition media education.

Why, then, does Howard Finberg think "journalism education cannot teach its way to the future," which will be "unbundled" from traditional journalism education?

Technology will create a student-focused culture, in much the same way technology has created a more customer-focused media industry.

In much the same way that news became available whenever a reader/viewer/user wanted it via online and mobile devices, so will education. Students can go to school -- or go back to school -- online without having to really go anywhere.

Finberg represents part of the two conversations I mentioned in my last posting here on wayfinding.

His context is the disruption during the past 20 years to the media industry and its looming impact on media education. Finberg, however, is less focused on the perspective of the disrupters, whom embrace change and stand to benefit from it. I think online education represents more the technology of the shift than the fundamental differences.

The journalism school model, which was replaced by mass communication programs, will need to refocus on the larger communication landscape. Some of it can be found in the growing field of public relations and corporate communication. In a social media world, we are less likely to look for the adversarial journalism model than to leverage information through crowdsourcing behaviors.

Progressive media educators understand that while it may not make sense for a top undergraduate PR major to leap into graduate school immediately following graduation, additional course work following significant professional experience at mid-career makes a difference in future career options.

None of this exciting future sounds like young people are getting the shaft, rather the shift. Retirement of baby boomers will require us to make good on the promise of Medicare and Social Security, but it also means that we can build new job opportunities around the new demographics. Health communication, for example, is an important specialization, as the nation grows older.

The over-emphasis by some commentators on flatness of aggregate wages and worries about global competition miss the larger perspective. As Warren Buffett frequently tells student visitors, compared with any other country at any other time in the history of the planet, being born in the United States continues to equal that "you've won the lottery." Media educators and their students need to embrace change, elevate enthusiasm and seize opportunities. Good jobs and a good life await those who learn how to write and communicate, become master storytellers and use state-of-the-art tools. Communication educators will remain relevant and vital by teaching the fundamentals.