Thank God for idealism

21 09 2009

The AP reports on the continuing high enrollment but uncertain job prospects for journalism students.

According to a survey released this summer by Lee Becker at the University of Georgia, only six in 10 graduates from journalism and mass communication schools during the 2007-08 academic year had full-time employment within six to eight months of leaving school, the lowest since the annual survey began 23 years ago. At the same time, those programs granted more degrees than ever, about 55,000. …

Starting salaries for reporters have never been impressive — the median pay among recent college graduates at daily newspapers was about $29,000 in 2008, or about $2,400 a month. But income in the blogosphere is even less reliable. …

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, 25, recalls hauling around his laptop to career fairs to show prospective employers what he could offer. On top of skills with Flash animation, video and HTML Web programming, he speaks Arabic and “enough German and French to get by.”

Since graduating from Columbia in 2007, Shihab-Eldin has had no trouble finding Web-related jobs. He’s held positions at PBS, The New York Times and Al-Jazeera’s English-language TV network.

Trouble is, no one has paid him for what he has been really trained to do — tell stories online. With news organizations still finding their footing on the Internet, Shihab-Eldin has mostly found himself repackaging traditional print or broadcast material. He recalls graveyard shifts writing headlines or editing basic news items to keep Web sites updated.

“It can often be a really, really stifling experience,” he said. “You want to report, tell stories, meet people.” He has found more gratifying assignments blogging for the Huffington Post, but the site doesn’t pay him for his work.

That may sound like a familiar experience to reporters who remember late nights in the newsroom hunched over a police scanner. But Shihab-Eldin says he is not discouraged.

Nor does he feel much nostalgia for the halcyon days of newspaper journalism.

“To be honest, I don’t think I would have stuck with journalism if these new opportunities and challenges hadn’t been there,” he said. “The thing that gets me going is, how can we tell the story in the most dynamic way.”

Until someone steps up to pay him for it, Shihab-Eldin said he is willing to stick it out.

God bless ’em. Journalism has always needed regular transfusions of youthful idealism to replace the rapid burnout and cynicism that afflicts many practitioners. A lot depends on their being able to make a viable career of it. Wish them luck!

J-schools sitting out debate over journalism’s future?

28 08 2009

During the accelerating decline of journalism as we knew it, I have always assumed that some of the best minds were working furiously in our leading journalism schools on the solution and that any day now, they would start leading us to the future.

Not so much, according to Ernest Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School.

He points out that at the Kerry hearings in May, not a single journalism professor testified.

Their absence points to a serious underlying problem with journalism schools and the profession more broadly — journalism schools are not adequately engaged with the great public debates over the future of their core sector.

Business school educators are regularly interviewed on NPR or in national business magazines about the state of business education, and its contribution to the crisis in confidence in business ethics and economic performance. Medical school professors are similarly engaged with their relevant publics. Not so with journalism teachers.

Yet arguably, the performance of journalism schools has something to do with the current sub-par performance of the profession. And the performance of journalists working in independent, high quality media has a lot to do with the fate of our American democracy. As journalism professors and deans set their priorities for 2009-2010, the invisibility of J-schools should be near the top of our agenda, otherwise we risk paying a terrible price for our inattention to the big picture beyond our classrooms.

To be fair, many J-schools and their auxiliaries are working hard on the issues. It’s more a lack of visibility that lack of effort, he notes. Certainly, great thinking is going on by the likes of Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky at NYU and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou. mu-home-logo

Still, as an institution, journalism education remains relatively silent. The New York Times reported in April on J-schools trailing the transformation of their industry. I opined then that it had much to do with populating the faculty with washed out journalists.

Maybe that was harsh, but Wilson also points out that J-schools largely have yet to grasp the urgency of the situation — a fault of living out the past rather than envisioning the future. Second, professors need to inform their teaching through more contact with the journalists in the trenches rather than falling back on the way they used to do it. Third, Wilson says, the schools need to move toward rigorous and relevant academic research  — again a call for future orientation. Finally, J-schools need to expand the conversation. They’ve been too inwardly focused. It’s no longer about journalism only; it’s now about democracy and societal transformation.