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Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D.

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Freefall or Flight? Predicting a Future for New J-School Grads

Posted: 07/06/2012 4:20 pm

Each time he attends a journalism conference, Google spokesman Sean Carlson is confronted by eager future reporters seeking work.

They usually approach with resume and story samples in hand, but Carlson is not very encouraging. "I always ask them, 'But can you code?'" Too many times they do not have the requisite digital skills and mostly want to report and write, he said.

That's not to say reporting and writing skills are bad. They worked for job seekers approaching editors with clips in the '70s when Woodward and Bernstein inspired young people to become journalists. Presenting editors with clips also worked through the '90s. In the 21st century, job applicants need digital skills just to be taken seriously -- the ability to monitor social networks, mine government data, shoot video, and package Web stories.

The idea that anyone graduating from a journalism program should invent their own job is hardly popular, even though the same is the case with many other academic pursuits.

Journalism's latest delivery system is the mobile device, iPads, e-readers and other tablets that readers use in their bedrooms or pack in briefcases for work. Today's journalists need to care how their stories are delivered to make sure they are noticed. They need to build stories for an interactive format and hope they go viral on search engines. Journalists often must file stories fast with less editing.

The international picture for journalism careers has always been unstable and highly competitive, but now is "scary," as undergraduate Christopher Earley put it. He will take an internship over the summer with the San Diego Chargers. His classmate Michael Lewis was just paid $25 for writing a large spread about a pressing community issue at a local power plant. It is actually the print sources he most treasures because "there's so few of them." However, such experts as Mark Briggs, author of the 2012 book Entrepreneurial Journalism, say the outlook for students like Earley and Lewis is better than they might think. The students have chosen the right field at the correct historical moment, Briggs said.

His view was challenged by Moor, director of Editorial Operations for Yahoo.com. "From a purely supply and demand perspective I can't believe that it is a great time to be a journalist," he said. "In the U.S. in particular, major media companies are shedding workers at a rapid rate. There is greater supply than there is demand." Those best positioned to get hired need a grasp of the changed digital landscape in which they will be working. This can mean knowing how to market yourself and gauge what your target audience wants, once the purview of business students.

A study of how newspapers are faring in replacing ad revenue with digital revenue found the economic model for journalism still is undeveloped, even absent. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, for every $1 earned in digital advertising, $7 are lost. One executive told the research team: "There's no doubt we're going out of business right now," according to an article on the study by PEJ's Tom Rosenstiel, Mark Jurkowitz and Hong Ji. A key question of this researcher is how to help undergraduates and graduates find stable jobs, and whether such jobs exist. This column includes commentary from Briggs; Google's Sean Carlson; Yahoo's Moor; Warren Webster, co-founder of Patch.com, and Placeblogger.com CEO Lisa Williams.

On the Job Hunt, Abandoning Platform
Briggs says his book presents one answer to students figuring out their job strategy after graduation. "It's a good starting point for journalists who are looking for real examples of success and some guidance on how to get started themselves. In fact, the book is organized to be about half-and-half, practical examples and how-to advice."

While Briggs admits not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur, he says opportunities for journalists are definitely expanding and everyone can be open to innovation. "When I got out of college in the early '90s, the only options were newspaper, radio, TV and magazine. Now with the proliferation of websites, mobile apps and social media, plus the commitments that tech companies like AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft have made in journalism, there really has never been a better time to enter the field."

The future will be about being able to create a publication and not writing for one, Placeblogger CEO Williams said. Her advice to young journalists is "to expand their idea of where they should look for jobs. Both Facebook and Google hire journalists said Williams. "Ask yourself: 'Where will the next great newsrooms be built? 'Inside the walls of Google' is not a bad guess."

The number one company hiring journalists in 2011 was America Online/Patch, a hyperlocal chain of online community newspapers, and the outlet continues to grow, though at a much slower pace. Williams surprised Patch officials with her comments that she does not recommend the firm as a good job opportunity for new journalism graduates. Williams pointed to a link to a report on Pando.com about layoffs at Patch that Patch officials quickly declared to be false. E-mails to Pando.com were not answered, but the story links to another report at BusinessInsider.com that quotes a disgruntled employee as saying, "I'm taking my 15K payout and running the hell away from this disaster."

Although Williams criticizes Patch for new journalists, the link actually only refers to sales positions at Patch.

Henry Blodgett, CEO of BusinessInsider, could not be reached for comment, but a woman answering the publication's general line, said, "He's not going to comment on that. No one is. Good luck."

Patch officials defended the operation, saying that Patch has hired close to 1,000 new journalists since 2009, a majority in 2010. According to Janine Iamunno, vice president of corporate communications for Patch, "We have not had a single editorial or sales layoff. Period."

Patch hired around 50 interns last summer (2011) and plans to hire at least the same number in 2012, Iamunno said. "We've worked with hundreds of colleges and universities in our Patch U. network. A recent intern who did a piece on Kent, OH's changing landscape won first place in region 4 for the Society of Professional Journalists. She proudly pointed to another SPJ award for a student journalist at Iowa City Patch

William Webster, co-founder of Patch, explained the types of job candidates the firm seeks by saying, "We place a premium on entrepreneurialism -- an excitement and willingness to build a media outlet in their community. We look for people who are "net natives" -- steeped in social media and up on the latest web trends. And we look for people who have a vested interest in their community, and the value of raising the level of information and dialog in their community."

Webster said there's no way to address the numbers who will be hired by Patch who have been let go by other, more traditional media outlets. However, he said he is "glad we can offer meaningful work for journalists and we will continue to hire journalists as needed." Webster said that "the contraction of traditional news outlets is concerning, but I think there is a growing, positive trend in pure-play online media that should be encouraged, and Patch is part of that trend."

Some of Patch's critics may continue because, as Webster says, "There is no doubt that being a community journalist -- in many ways a one-person show -- is a hard job. And it takes a certain type of person to be able to juggle the many competing priorities everyday." But, he continues, "We've found, though, that the vast majority of our editors have found ways to make the job not just manageable, but a flexible and rewarding way to make a good living. We are always looking at ways to make our employees' work life better, and we frequently hear from editors how much they love being a big presence in their community, a force for positive change, and working for a company that is making a big difference across the country."

Iamunno said Patch cannot discuss salary ranges of its community editors, but she said the wages are competitive with their previous employment with 75 percent earning more. Because they are employed in small towns and cities, the salaries would not compare accurately with what a journalist earns in New York.

The Elephant in the Room

Google is the elephant in every room where discussions about the survival of journalism take place. But Google spokesman Carlson is not ready to say that his company wants legions of out-of-work journalists to look for work there. While participating in various journalism conferences, at times I've been approached by resume holders asking, "Are you hiring? I'd really like to write for Google News." The enthusiasm and interest is wonderful, but since Google News is algorithmically driven I typically have to then ask what type of code they write. Our intersections with the journalism community are focused primarily on technology and the ways our tools can help with research, reporting, and the presentation of stories."

Thus, the idea that Google is getting ready to open a huge newsroom of the future is not a sure thing by any means, but journalists who do not open their minds to learning -- even mastering technological skills may find themselves less desirable, even less functional as truth-tellers.

On a worldwide basis, Google employed 32,467 full-time employees as of December 31, 2011, up from 31,353 full-time employees as of September 30, 2011. Last year's number rivaled the population of the city of Danville, Ill.

Carlson said the year 2011 was the biggest hiring year in company history. While we don't expect to break any records in 2012, we will be actively hiring with a focus in sales and engineering. Check out our jobs page for a full list of open positions," he said. Carlson boasted that Google received applications from more than 800 schools around the world including Australia, Brazil, Egypt, and Romania.

Carlson said, "Our culture is centered around promoting collaboration and the open exchange of ideas, values shared with the journalism community -- and you'll find Googlers with journalism experience in communications, marketing, policy, consumer operations, sales, and other departments here."

Yahoo's Moor said the company has roughly 200 journalists in the U.S. and is always looking for more. Most of Yahoo's work for writers is national and not local in nature, he said, although he beta tested Yahool Local and it was discontinued. What's critical is that job applicants come with a strong knowledge base in tools and technology including an analytical and entrepreneurial mindset. In addition, they should grasp the importance of marketing and branding, he said.

 

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