The Accidental Cyberjournalist
Why do so few j-school students plan to go into online news?
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
Most of today's online journalists share a common bond: We all planned to do something else. In college we saw our future selves pounding the pavement, hammering out column inches, reading the evening news or catching the perfect camera shot — and many of us spent years doing those things. We never meant to wind up on the Web; it wasn't even an option.
The current generation of journalism grads, however, should be different. Having grown up with the Internet and being heavy online news users themselves, one would expect a fair number of them would be planning to hitch their professional wagons to the medium of the future. But, not so much.
When I visit journalism classrooms, I always ask how many students plan to be online journalists. The response, almost always, is none. Maybe one. A few colleagues have reported the same puzzling and somewhat humbling experience.
The University of Georgia's Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates at 97 schools backs that up. The 2004 report revealed that far more students go after jobs in traditional media (20.6 percent for TV and 19.5 percent for daily newspapers) than the Internet (6.5 percent).
But the most publicized headline of the 2004 report was that the median starting salary for j-school graduates who take online jobs is $32,000, higher than for any other sector. Cable TV jobs followed at $30,000; newspapers were $26,000 and broadcast TV was a paltry $23,492.
It's not about money. If it were, they'd major in computer engineering and pick up a sweet $51,297 out of school. But isn't this the generation that's abandoning newspapers faster than any other? The Pew Research Center's reports — and plenty of other research — tell us that 18- to 29-year-olds rely less on newspapers and more on the Internet for news than any other age group. These kids are literally leading the new-media migration. Why, then, are so many of them boarding the old-media ship — especially when it's casting off staff at a worrisome rate?
There are several likely reasons, and most of them are not about journalism education. There's no doubt that colleges and universities have been slow to embrace or even understand online news as a core part of the curriculum. But there already are a lot of good graduate programs out there, and at this moment brilliant folks are working on efforts to revitalize journalism education; the Carnegie-Knight initiative led by former MSNBC.com Editor in Chief Merrill Brown is one example.
An obvious reason for the meager interest in pure online journalism jobs is that there aren't enough of them. Media companies are still structured so that virtually all of their reporting resources are tied to the core medium, with a small team assigned to repurpose that work for the Web. ("Repurposing" has a monotonous ring; no wonder interest is low.)
Meanwhile some companies are moving — nominally, at least — toward a merged newsroom in which everyone contributes to all channels. That's the gist of the New York Times' recent decision to combine its print and digital news staffs. So it's also possible that some students seeking jobs in print and broadcast assume they'll work on the Web as well. One in five students in the University of Georgia survey who landed a job is doing some amount of writing and editing for the Web.
That philosophy has merit; everyone in a news organization should have a little bit of Internet in his or her job description. But there's a danger that the converged newsroom will cheat itself out of the online expertise it needs in order to compete. As traditional news companies vie with online news aggregators, Internet-only newsrooms and now a flood of community journalism networks, they need to dedicate more specialists to the Web. They need to be doing more than repurposing; they should be cultivating community journalism, refining online storytelling and multimedia formats, learning best practices in design and layout.
Cross-pollination is a great thing; today's online news managers and editors are well served by their previous experience in print and broadcast. It's also encouraging that so many students are still following traditional media programs because that means they're probably interested in reporting, and we're all dead in the water without good reporters.
At the same time, online news should have evolved by now beyond a supporting role, something people stumble into when they meant to do something else. It should be a destination vocation: a career that promises high satisfaction and attracts people who aspire to it.
Perhaps those people aren't going to come from journalism schools in the near term. Skills like multimedia storytelling and community-building certainly are different from conventional reporting and editing. Identifying and encouraging the right young people wherever they are — and snagging them before Google does — would be the best thing the industry could do for its future.
It's been fun operating in our ad hoc style, everybody with a different vision of what an online journalist does, everybody from different backgrounds. But it'd be gratifying to walk into a classroom and see a few more hands of students who understand the job and want to do it.###