Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stay The Course: Journalism Students Shouldn't Fear For Media's Future

As our campus sprung back to life earlier this week, with many folks slowly re-entering our academic world, I prepared to meet my news writing and broadcast production students anew. But, I felt that in our first classes together I needed to address the 'elephant' in the newsroom. The future of mass media.

Many students are quite concerned about the job climate upon their graduation either this year or the next. Who wouldn't be? There are certainly reasons to be concerned. Lots of reasons. Journalists, scholars, media watchdogs and consumers are all collectively watching in horror as our nation's newspaper industry is being eviscerated.

Gannett employees have been required to take an unpaid week off. An unprecedented move.

The Star Tribune could be filing for the big 'B' in Minnesota.

Want to buy the 22nd largest paper in the country? The print version is up for bid.

And for 75K (a cool 100K on Sundays) you can advertise on the front page of the NY Times.

From small to monstrous, no newspaper is going unscathed. But, the broadcast media has felt the pinch as well. Major layoffs in Miami, Sacramento and Denver shocked the industry last year. No station/market is safe. Check out the list my friends at have compiled. Stations all over the country are swinging axes. In radio and in TV, hours are being reduced...shows cut and responsibilities broadened.

All of that could make a journalism/media student think about a life in sales, retail or cubicle country. But we all know what happens when people work in cubicles too long...they put a gangster beat-down on the copier/printer/fax machine Office Space-style. (Not for virgin ears)

If you're 'called' to be a journalist, don't run for another major/occupation just yet. This may be the storm before the calm. Many in the media are losing their jobs but there are positions to fill in their wake.

The one-man-band era has been on the verge of taking over the media world for several years. Now, it has officially arrived.

It started in journalism schools whose graduates then entered the media world at the small market level. Their responsibilities were then reduced as they went higher up the market ladder. They no longer had to shoot for themselves or cut their own tapes. The station had that covered. Dig up stories, hit the streets, report, write, front it and go home. Your friends in the back of the newsroom (the part not always on the tour) will do the rest.

Not anymore.

Those editors and videographer/photographer positions are slowly fading from newsrooms. Sure the more dominant companies and larger markets can afford to and will continue to carry some of those positions. But entry-level reporters are expected to be skilled in multiple platforms of story-telling. Video and audio editing, writing for the Web, basic videography skills, etc. Stations and papers hope to see college graduates 'prepackaged' with knowledge across all mass mediums.

And they've been getting it. Though the responsibilities are certainly greater for each cub reporter, they can handle it in a given workday and save the company thousands in additional salary monies. In rough economic times, why would any organization pay two or three people to do the job that one talented (though overworked) person could do alone? Though the transition happened quite slowly, those organizations are thinning out their newsrooms and streamlining their products. The result may not always be better news but it is nearly always better business.

This trend, while not favorable to those embedded in the media industries, works heavily in the favor of the untested but well-equipped college graduate.

My undergraduate journalism courses (way back in the '90s) focused on the inverted pyramid, the AP stylebook and an endless barrage of articles and interviews. My radio and broadcast production courses forced us to venture into an editing booth a grand total of three times. I wasn't ready at graduation. It took some time and thirty grand for graduate school to get the experience I needed. But that isn't the case anymore.

Now, the top academic programs in the country and those striving to match them immerse their students in all forms of media. Classes attack the Web with fervor. The average journalism graduate in this country is now familiar with print, broadcast and Web writing techniques while also being able to produce audio and video projects.

These students are tech-savvy and forward-thinking. They've grown up with Internet in their homes or even bedrooms. They haven't hand-written anything but class notes and most won't even do that anymore. Typewriters? Those are in museums and attics. Twitter, Gabcast and all of the social/professional tools on the Net have made instantaneous access to news an expectation, not a novelty.

And they are carrying that mindset into the workforce 'en masse' every December and May. And they will get jobs.

They are cheaper than the industry veteran who won't budge. They are more willing to adapt to newer technologies than the photog who sticks by their DVC-Pro or Beta tapes. The doors to the newsrooms will be reopened to veterans willing to take on more responsibility and/or a pay cut as well as to the next wave of so-called 'backpack' journalists.

Those currently in the business of telling the news are certainly already wary. Either you embrace it, or you lose your job. Joanne Ostrow's article in the Denver Post last month detailed KUSA and KMGH's efforts to morph their journalists. KUSA is one of the most respected television stations in the country and has been seen as an industry leader. If the leader of a top 20 market is going this way, expect many more to follow. This isn't to say KUSA is keeping all of its employees as they move forward. They let go of veteran news anchor Bob Kendrick just before Halloween. There will be attrition.

Reading Ostrow's article, one notes how KCNC's management feels a little differently about 'one-man-band' journalists. Of course they do; they cut over half a dozen staff members a few months earlier. One of which had just received a national press award for video editing. It will be interesting to see how they compete as KCNC and KUSA have been neck-in-neck in their market's ratings battle. Which approach will work?

It's likely that industry executives will be more willing to bet on the one-man-band reporters.

As Tim Robbins' character Andy Dufresne says in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," you either "get busy living or get busy dying." Newsrooms that want to live are going to continue to open their arms to younger (and initially cheaper) journalists who can do more with less.

Future journalists of the world: Don't panic. Jobs are awaiting you. Even in the print industry...just more will be required of you. Across the board, all news providers are going to turn to 'backpackers,' 'VJs' (Video Journalists) or one-man-banders. While you may have to enter an unwelcoming newsroom at first, your skills across the mass mediums will pay off. Just be sure that you and your company are keeping up with technology.

You'll be ready.

As long as I see you in class.

*Writer's Note: My sincerest apologies for not sticking to my guns about more frequent posts. I have only excuses but no proper reasons. I'll do better.

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