As I read about the latest contractions in the newsroom of the New York Times (100 reporters and editors) and the San Francisco Chronicle
(investigative reporting staff–gone), the question occurs: Why are
universities across the country continuing to churn out journalism
graduates? Do they know something that the rest of us don’t? Do they
have some reason to believe that demand for academically-trained newbee
journalists is about to stage an extraordinary recovery across the
Job openings for graduates of all professional schools have fallen
sharply in the last year. Lawyers, accountants, engineers, newly-minted
MBAs and teachers are in excess supply in a cyclically depressed
economy. But there is reason to expect that those markets eventually
will recover, even if they don’t return to the growth levels of the
recent past. Journalists, however, face bigger obstacles. Traditional
news media will continue to shed jobs, even in a general recovery,
faster than digitally-based replacements for those businesses can be
invented and built.
One explanation for journalism schools’ still-open doors is that
surviving news organizations are looking to them to provide
professionally trained, but cheap, labor to replace veteran
journalists whose skills and experience no longer justify their premium
cost. Under this theory, journalism school education is substituting
for the de facto apprenticeships that news organizations used to maintain to train their new journalists.
But if so, it’s fair to ask whether this is really a function that
journalism schools should be providing. Does it make sense for them to
be subsidizing the accelerated dislocation of one generation of their
graduates to make room for a younger generation of their graduates? In
the investment world this is called a Ponzi scheme.
Another explanation is that most journalism school students (whether
they know it or not) are really headed to careers in public
relations–for which demand will, in time, recover–rather than
journalism. Fair enough, but journalism school is not (and never has
been) the appropriate background for PR. This is not a criticism of the
PR profession. Public relations specialists, like lawyers (a club to
which I belong), lobbyists and ambassadors, are all professional
advocates. Being an effective paid advocate of a client’s point of view
has absolutely nothing to do with journalism, other than perhaps the
writing of press releases (a skill that can be learned in about 20
One thing is clear: journalism schools that continue to operate as
such need to focus their energies on teaching their students, as future
journalists, the skills necessary to fully exploit the journalistic
applications of digital technologies. I’m talking about more than
posting videos to YouTube or tweeting the headlines of daily news
stories. Any 12-year-old in America can now do that.
The challenge is to adapt the skills of enterprise reporting to an
online environment in which creative exploitation of digital media is
an essential and integral aspect of the story, not an after-thought.
More than a clever headline and powerful photos, the possibilities of
online technology have to be integrated fully into the
reporting–something that can best be done, in the first instance, by
the journalist writing the story, not the techies in another building
who run the paper’s website.
Time is running out. Bill Keller, the brilliant Editor of the New York Times, confessed in a talk to some of his staff last month that he has only recently begun to experience the Times mainly in its digital format. This notwithstanding that most of the Times’ readers today view the paper on the web rather than in print; that virtually all of the Times’
readership growth in the last ten years has been online; that five
years from now, ten at the outside, there will not be a print edition
of the New York Times–which is true whether or not the paper
resumes charging for online access (which I think it should do, but
that’s another column).
Hopefully, an all-digital Times will still have an edit
staff of over one thousand reporters and editors located around the
world providing an intelligence and depth of news coverage that is
unparalleled and stands as a model for all other news organizations.
But that won’t happen if the journalists persist in viewing the web as
merely a paperless replacement for the paper’s traditional print
Therein is the opportunity for our best journalism schools and their future graduates.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.