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Peter Scheer

Peter Scheer

Posted: October 22, 2009 06:26 AM

With News Jobs Vanishing, Why Are Journalism Schools Still Enrolling Students?

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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 land?

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 minutes).

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 distribution.

Therein is the opportunity for our best journalism schools and their future graduates.

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Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.