These latest announcements arrive after years of haranguing and naysaying in the journalism industry. Savvy journalism students nationwide have seen a drumbeat of negative news about revenue declines and layoffs in the very industry for which they are training and preparing to enter.
“Journalism is not for the faint of heart,” said Susan King, dean of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It is a difficult time. There’s no certainty.”
Reactions among students vary from angst to indifference. Yet some student journalists and their advisors around the country are maintaining not only endurance, but also optimism in the face of major layoffs.
“I feel nervous,” said Kelsey Sutton, a junior English and journalism major at the University of Maryland. “Definitely. Very nervous. I try not to think about it. I just try to think about being here.”
Sutton, a photographer and intern for the local Greenbelt News Review, said she appreciates the skills that she has learned from UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Still, she finds herself wondering if she is qualified enough for employment after graduation — especially when she hears about major layoffs such as those at Time.
“You have to have this huge range of skills,” Sutton said of the modern journalism student. “Sometimes I feel like you have to be willing to sell your soul for journalism.”
New Era, New Opportunities
Marc Torrence at the University of Alabama doesn’t have those same doubts, even after hearing the news of the recent layoffs.
“At some point, you become almost immune to it,” said Torrence, sports editor of The Crimson White.
Torrence, a senior journalism major, recently accepted a job with BamaOnline.com, where he’ll cover Alabama football and basketball.
He said talk of “the future of journalism” is already outdated. Rapidly developing opportunities in the new online paradigm, led by popular websites such as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Bleacher Report, have begun to take the place of layoffs elsewhere in the news industry, he said.
“I don’t see it as this big doom and gloom thing,” Torrence said. “I think it’s almost a survival of the fittest kind of thing.”
New online efforts continue to pop up, such as Ezra Klein’s Project X for Vox Media, Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media and Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s Re/code.
Layoffs: Part of the Terrain
At the struggling Patch, Andrew Metcalf, 25, was one of the full-time staff members laid off at the Columbia outpost, one of the company’s largest. He was brought on after graduating from Boston University in 2010.
“At the time, I was a little nervous about Patch’s business model and their expansion rate and the quality of journalism they were doing,” said Metcalf.
Over the years, Metcalf said he garnered a strong reputation within Patch and the community, and he saw the journalism practiced there flourish.
“It wasn’t a feeling like I failed over my job,” Metcalf said of his layoff. “When you’re part of these startups and they fail, it doesn’t matter if you did a great job or a poor job. The whole startup failed as a team.”
[Below, Andrew Metcalf reports for Columbia Patch in Ellicott City, Md., during the Superstorm Sandy that swept through the region Oct. 19, 2012]
Now Metcalf is writing for the Associated Press as a freelancer and seeking another full-time job.
Torrence sees the Patch and Time layoffs as part of the changing journalism landscape. “You certainly feel for the people affected, but it’s kind of a reality in the current climate and just with the way that everything’s shifting in journalism.”
There’s more demand for content than ever, Torrence said, and students should focus on building their personal brand, especially through Twitter, however “cheesy” that may seem. Sports journalists in particular stand to gain extensive connections through Twitter, Torrence said.
Forging the Future
At Syracuse University, Kelly Barnett said she was not surprised by the layoffs at Time and Patch.
“It’s a matter of saying, ‘OK, that’s not an option anymore,’” said Barnett, communications director for the Newhouse public communications school. “‘What else can I do?’”
Barnett agreed with Torrence’s focus on networking, though she also acknowledged the practice has a “reputation of being schmoozy and insincere.”
Freelance opportunities abound, Barnett said, and student journalists can craft their own path instead of following the stereotypical model of first working at a small paper, then a mid-size paper and finally a major metropolitan daily.
Those new paths are almost the entire focus for King, who has worked at ABC, CBS and NBC News.
“I’m not personally encouraging people to go to institutions like Time Magazine,” King said. “I don’t see that as the future. … It’s a pale version of itself anyway.”
King described today’s journalism industry as swinging between optimism and collapse.
“Some news organizations have disappeared, and more will disappear,” she said. “That’s the collapse. And for people of my generation, they feel the collapse. They don’t feel the optimism.
“But I think the younger generation, if they learn the big skills — the drive to serve democracy and society — and they’re flexible enough to invent new ways of communicating with the public, they will have options.”
King wants students to focus on diverse topics such as environmental reporting, computer science, broadcasting and digital reporting.
“Our curriculum is more and more moving toward inventing modern media and creating students who will invent it,” she said.
Sutton doesn’t feel King’s optimism.
She wants to write longform journalism or nonfiction books eventually, but she constantly questions herself and her lack of internship experience. Sometimes, she even considers dropping her journalism major.
“I’m generally positive with everything, but you have to be realistic,” Sutton said. “I can’t convince myself that I’m going to walk into The New York Times’ office and set up a 401(k) that afternoon.”