Are hyper-local programs fair to j-students?
Some people think those classes give students invaluable professional experience and valuable clips that will equip them to launch their careers in the increasingly treacherous profession of journalism.
Now, here’s where I come out:
While these arrangements distinctly benefit media companies (which rightfully ought to compensate student contributors with something more tangible than “exposure”), the programs on balance represent a fair bargain for journalism students, who will need every advantage in launching their careers at a time most traditional news organizations are chopping staffs instead of expanding them.
Like all college students (I was one in an earlier life), parents of college students (I write $40,000 in checks annually) and most fellow journalism educators (see discolsure below), I wish tuition and living expenses were lots cheaper than they are. I particularly hate the idea of young people (or their families) going heavily into hock to pursue their dreams.
But the reality is that there’s a cost in cash and apprenticeship time to nearly every type of professional education, with the possible exception of the oldest one in the world.
While a powerful case can me made that it is better to train for a career as a veterinarian, firefighter or long-distance truck driver than a journalist, it is hard to dissuade those of us who are hopelessly compelled to pursue a creative career filled with constant learning and the ever-present opportunity to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
I would not try to talk anyone into a career in journalism at this perilous time for the profession. But I also know that the calling in many cases cannot be denied. Those determined to pursue a career in journalism will need all the help they can get in doing so. And that is where journalism schools come in.
If j-schools uphold their end of the bargain by equipping students with the skills, savvy and sophistication to make their way in the profession after graduation, then they will have done right by their students.
One of the most significant things j-schools can do is to provide students with hands-on experience under the guidance of qualified instructors. Well before any of us could spell WWW, the best journalism schools taught writing, editing, photography, broadcast production and, in my case, how to set type one letter at a time.
The hyper-local sites like the one operated by City University of New York in conjunction with the New York Times not only provide traditional instruction in reporting and storytelling but also offer dynamic, in-the-moment experience in the way audiences ebb and flow in response to coverage on the web.
If the future of most media will be interactive – and, by golly, it will – then students need to understand how to build audiences by propagating their work through search-engine optimization, social networks and whatever the next big thing turns out to be.
Because all trends suggest that jobs are unlikely to be in abundance when students exit journalism school, they will have to be sufficiently entrepreneurial to leverage the openness of interactive publishing to ensure that they can build remunerative and satisfying careers.
This means they will have to establish themselves as experts in one or more specialties so as to build identifiable personal brands. To a large degree, they will be on their own to monetize those brands by selling ads, selling subscriptions, giving lectures, writing books, staging live events and doing anything else they can think of.
You can read and talk about this stuff all you want, but there is no substitute for real-time, big-time multimedia exposure. It doesn’t get real-er or bigger than the New York Times.
If my daughter were interested in a journalism career, I would urge her to take one of those classes. And I would cheerfully write the check. OK, not cheerfully. But I would write it, anyway.
Full Disclosure: I teach one course per term at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley but the classes involve media economics or entrepreneurship and do not involve any present or future apprenticeships or internships that may be offered by the school.