J-School: The Next Generation

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of journalism's death are greatly exaggerated. Journalism isn't going away - and neither are J-Schools. In fact, higher education is counter-cyclical; in a recession, people head to grad schools. Columbia, Stanford and NYU applications increased 38 percent, 20 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from the previous year, reports Forbes. The bigger question: where will these budding Bernsteins work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2016, the post for entry-level reporters and news anchors will increase 2 percent, while those for experienced writers and editors will rise 10 percent. We asked two heavy hitters on the academic front - Stephen D. Solomon, associate director, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, and Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University - to weigh in on what their graduates can expect.   

How are J-schools positioned today?
Stephen D. Solomon:
Those who take media seriously recognize they must learn how to be skilled at reporting and writing. Our focus and training have changed in at least two significant ways. First, NYU is instructing its students to produce news and features for the new platforms. Students blog, shoot and edit videos, produce slideshows and podcasts and write for Web sites. Second, in our graduate division, most students enroll in programs that focus on content as much as medium. In our business and economic reporting program, students take half of their courses in the MBA program. For jobs still in print and broadcasting, employers increasingly want journalists that have mastered the subject matter.

Nicholas Lemann: The old-style programs taught students to be general assignment reporters at big-city newspapers; it was assumed a higher skill set would be acquired on the job. Because journalism is becoming more targeted, Columbia offers four specialized areas of study: arts/culture, business/economics, politics, and science. We also teach professional values, as well as the economics of journalism. Students need to learn to think like journalists; to approach the search for truth with rigor and discipline.

Given print's woes, where will your graduates work?
Many still secure jobs in print and broadcasting. Those who develop wide-ranging skills and a deep knowledge of certain subjects have an advantage. Others get jobs writing for Web sites - either independent sites or ones attached to a traditional print publication. If jobs continue to contract, more students will make a living by working in jobs that pay their bills and pursue writing in their free time.

Lemann: The business is being reconstituted. They will now work for small, new or established news organizations - and be expected to perform at a high level quickly. That's why we teach tech skills: digital media training, working in content management systems, specifically writing for the Web, audio and digital photography.

How do bloggers impact journalism?
The traditional media is losing its near-monopoly over news presentation. That's a good thing - a democratization of media that had been largely controlled by big corporations. People become citizen journalists when they are eyewitnesses to a news event. The challenge for the news media is figuring out how to confirm the information provided by those who aren't trained as journalists. Another problem: competition among the new electronic journalists can bring a race to the bottom - increasing their page views by spreading rumors and invasions of privacy.

Lemann: At the beak of Web 2.0, say 2005-06, we thought people production (bloggers) would replace journalist production. Now, there is more compromise. Mainstream media focuses on fact-finding and news reporting; blogging is a medium of commentary and analysis. One plus: There is pretty good self-correction on the Web versus legacy media. Blogging is probably what the founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.

What's the most exciting and most frightening aspect of developing media?
What's frightening is the enormous job losses in traditional journalism and the struggles of talented people who can't support themselves. Conversely, it's never been a better time to be a news consumer. Today, you can go online and instantaneously get news from scores of news organizations sites, as well as commentary from bloggers. That's unprecedented in history. When the Framers were writing the Constitution, many delegates opposed the direct election of the president because they feared ordinary citizens could not get enough information to make an informed choice. That problem seems to have been remedied.

Lemann: The most exciting part is how media is developing. We could be entering a golden age in which the consumer has more access to more material that is easier to produce. It's easier to be entrepreneurial, to have a voice. The frightening aspect is monetary. The Web is great at distributing information, but the economics don't always support full-time journalism.

What will media look like in 10 years?
With the cost of entry into electronic publishing dropping close to zero and news organizations giving away their online content free, media will be much different. Many printed papers will still be around, but delivered to electronic tablets. People want more news, not less. Smart entrepreneurs will figure out how to construct new and profitable delivery mechanisms. The rewards are substantial.

Lemann: Our society will not live without newsgathering. It needs a fourth estate. The new, journalistic social order is a work-in-progress, though the train is moving fast. The free-content Web model is sinking and new business models are being tried out. The nonprofit sector will have an enhanced role, and we're still determining what the public and private sector will look like. New support systems will emerge in response to audiences. Journalism will be timelier, and more writers will master complicated subjects. Ultimately, it will result in better journalism.

2 comments about "J-School: The Next Generation".
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  1. Allen Maccannell from SenderOK, October 15, 2009 at 3:58 a.m.

    In the end we are all journalists, especially with Twitter. Those who can do that full-time will be tapping into niche markets. Otherwise we do it as a service to gain good will and readership who would then be more predisposed to do business with us etc.

  2. J Leary from DISH, October 23, 2009 at 9:58 a.m.

    My disappointment in the journalism field is that has taken on the shade of yellow. Take a look at all the coverage of Michael Jackson's death and the lives of Hollywood stars. It appears that "hardcore" journalism has taken a back seat. I urge young journalists to remember the basics. Tell me something I do not know. Teach me something. Be my watchdog.

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