When students come to see me just before they graduate, they are often a bit afraid of what their job prospects look like. Each year, I tell them I can relate to their fears, especially about the journalism job market. Never has that been more true than this year. In May, I completed my master’s degree in digital journalism and design, and I know intimately what the market looks like, both for journalists and journalism professors. Right now, it’s bleak for students who don’t have advanced digital skills to go along with their solid journalism acumen. Jobs in traditional news outlets are tough to come by. But the news is mixed: while those legacy jobs may be shrinking, digital journalism and journalism-related jobs exist like never before. A 2014 Pew Research study found that 500 digital news outlets employ almost 5,000 full time employees. That tally suggests that opportunities abound for those who combine their news savvy with their computer skills.
So what are journalism-related jobs? And what can journalism programs do to prepare students for them?
Having taught college journalism for almost four years and having worked as a reporter for almost 15 years, I have thought about those questions a great deal. I spend time pondering how journalism programs prepare journalism students. I teach undergraduates, but I also just finished a nearly brand new graduate program. In one role, at the University of New Mexico, I help students write cover letters and resumes for the entry level jobs they are seeking, among other things. In some cases, I look at job ads to see if my students are a match for open positions. In my other role as a graduate student at the University of South Florida, I took classes that taught me skills that the directors of the program considered pertinent to students wanting to work (or teach) in digital journalism, including web publishing, data journalism and entrepreneurial know-how. The two universities are pretty different, but the experiences have helped me come up with this list of skills I think are most important for future reporters to know.
First, think about the web editor, or the person building/designing/maintaining and promoting the website of your local newspaper. In many cases, that person is not a journalist in the way we traditionally describe the person who does original reporting and produces content. But, you bet that he or she is using journalism skills to make phone calls, investigate tips and write copy as part of his or her work. And journalism programs by and large do a great job of teaching those kinds of basics. But it’s the other part of the web designer/editor’s work that many programs are missing. Students interested in journalism but perhaps not being the city hall reporter need coding, design and multimedia skills to work in jobs such as web producer or manager.
Or, think about those cool interactive graphics you see on websites like the New York Times or the Guardian or a favorite of mine, La Nacion of Argentina. The folks on the teams at each paper that produce infographics, interactive graphics and more have solid journalism credentials. But they also have related skills that took them to where they are. Those skills include (again) coding and design, but they also involve critical thinking and analysis and firm understanding of data, something that isn’t commonly taught as part of journalism curricula. That is changing, as more schools realize the value of data journalism (and facility with data in general), a recent special series of articles on the PBS EducationShift blog showed.
At the same time, there’s been a lot made of the importance of teaching journalism students journalism-related entrepreneurial skills. I’m mostly on board with that, although I think the number of journalists starting their own companies (vs. freelancing or working for a company) tends to be overestimated. Nonetheless, I believe it’s key for students to know what the economics are behind the news business. They should know what a new tablet or a nice DSLR camera costs, if only so they can be cognizant of how lucky they are when someone hands them new equipment — or of how many lattes they will have to skip to buy their own. Students also should understand the digital marketplace that can be key in determining who sees and buys their content.
Another theme I’ve seen at recent journalism education conferences is that students need to learn how to keep learning. That means many different things, but to me it means students must become comfortable enrolling and participating in online classes, whether the smaller for credit classes nearly all universities now offer, or the much larger Massive Open Online Courses offered by larger universities, often for a certificate instead of credit. Why? The technical savvy needed to operate (and troubleshoot) a learning management system is important, but so is the ability to communicate remotely, through live web cam video, virtual presentations and discussion boards. Doing that with ease is key for students who might work for a company that’s based in another city — or time zone. Along with the conversation of how students should learn what they need to learn (in person, online or a bit of both) comes the discussion of how we should teach. That’s an important part of what I’m outlining here, but I don’t think it’s the only discussion. If a student can learn basic coding for a news app at a school that doesn’t subscribe to the teaching hospital model for example, I think that’s great, even though I support the newer models of innovative teaching.
A separate set of skills that comes to mind as key for about-to-be graduates are those of the mobile journalist. I don’t consider those journalism related, however, I consider them the manifestation of journalism in its modern form. The dated definition of print journalists — those who simply wrote a story for the printed edition and went home — has been updated to mean reporters who write a story for the web, do some tweeting and then write a story for print. In the past five years, however, reporters’ workloads have increased again, with the expectation by top news outlets (print and broadcast) that students will report, produce, edit and publish from the field, and not with the help of a satellite truck or a even a laptop. Instead, many professionals use nothing bigger than an iPad (and often times smaller) to post complete video packages or live text updates to the web. That means students need to work independently to use, maintain and troubleshoot mobile equipment, apps, file storage and publication. And journalism students should learn about those in the setting of a journalism class, where context, privacy and accuracy are discussed in detail. This helps set trained reporters apart from everyone else in the world who can upload a photo, video or tweet to the web with a mobile phone or tablet. Along with mobile reporting, mobile design is a huge consideration for the world’s next journalists and those who work with them.
P.S. Many of you have asked about my own plans now that I am done with grad school. Along with teaching news writing at UNM, I’ve got one big project lined up for this fall and next spring that I can’t wait to reveal. Check out my next blog post for details as soon as I can announce it.