Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Are hyper-local programs fair to j-students?

Some people think journalism students are ill served by being encouraged to pay hefty tuition to take classes aimed at creating free content for the New York Times and certain other prominent commercial outlets.

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.


Anonymous Jennifer Deseo said...

I agree that internships offer invaluable experiences to students. However, I don't believe they'll learn the entrepreneurial skills needed to survive in this market.

Sure, they'll learn how to pull together a multimedia story, how to operate under deadline and all the other things that will make them journalists. But they won't be responsible for marketing themselves or the publication, selling advertisements, budgeting costs and all the other stuff that will make them entrepreneurial publishers. That's where the internship fails.

Also, I believe interns (regardless of their discipline) deserve compensation, even if it's only minimum wage.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael M. said...

Great post as always, but what bothers me is that a lot of time, interns become something of a revenue center. One small town paper had most of its bylined content from interns, and I really feel situations like that aren't doing anyone any good:
*The interns won't graduate to jobs, because those jobs are going to interns.
*They're getting experience, but if that experience is in working for a paper that can't figure out how to make employees profitable, there's better journalism experience to be got.
*The paper just slides into a slump of continued cost-cutting.

You wrote that "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." So why shouldn't they be pursuing more entrepreneurial ventures than something backed by the definition of Old Media, the Grey Lady?

8:02 AM  
Blogger Carrie Brown said...

I posted a few thoughts of my own on why journalism school is still valuable here: http://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/in-defense-of-journalism-school/

Carrie Brown-Smith
assistant professor
University of Memphis

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I wish tuition and living expenses were lots cheaper than they are"

Heh...where is all the journalistic curiosity about finding out what exactly is behind the absurd levels of tuition inflation?

The "afflicted" *know* that it is mainly government loans that are behind the runaway inflation of tuition and student debt - people can't (and won't) pay what they don't have (and can't borrow).

But the "comfortable" (professors who are often paid $100k for 6 hours per week of classroom instruction) never "educate" their students in *that* particular fact.

Because it undermines *their* (and now **your**) comfort.

So much for the moral posturing of the professoriat.

The professoriat *eagerly* sells its students into a lifetime of debt slavery in order to sustain its six-hour workweek (spare me the drivel on academic publishing requirements...80% of it is pointless/useless and opaque so as to hide that fact from itself and others...).

Feel bad about students consumed by debt...stop f***ing eating them.

Until then, stop the phony posturing.

That's so 80's MSM.


11:34 AM  
Anonymous alex said...

"multimedia storytelling" is well and good, but are j-students learning hard core coding? if not, the classes aren't worth their salt. coding is the "typesetting" of today...and it's the only thing that's gonna give anyone a leg up right now.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Interesting career path. You do real reporting as a student, but have no job prospects once you graduate because younger students standing in line will be doing the work, free.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

"If the future of most media will be interactive – and, by golly, it will..."

That may be an assumption that should be challenged, Alan, instead of swallowed hook, line and sinker.

You're essentially saying that "the media" (by which I'll assume you mean the function of journalism) will be one big person-to-person telephone system, the only other 'interactive' medium we have.

Can that really accommodate journalism? I don't think it can. Thus, I believe it's time to re-assess that implicit assumption. It simply may be wrong.

Certain industries, manufacturers and even bureaucrats may for self-evident reasons want us to think *everything* in the future will be interactive, but that doesn't mean it will prove to be true. Not by a long-shot, by golly....

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Joe Zekas said...

People need only read the posts that students are producing in these hyper-local efforts to realize how badly they're being screwed.

J-school students are, sad to say, a semi-literate, ill-educated, self-absorbed crew. They're thrown into areas of which they know nothing and write very badly about those areas.

Most of the posts I've seen are, to put it mildly, career-ending efforts - poor grammar, no spell-checking, etc. Who would hire anyone who writes and thinks as poorly as these students so obviously do? And what in the hell are the teachers thinking when they allow their students to appear unedited? Do they not realize how awful the product is?

9:09 PM  
Anonymous North West Sheffield News Online said...

Agree absolutely that the hyper-local is the route to the future - and indeed some of us are already heading down that highway.

Traditional journalism is certainly in trouble. That a national Sunday "independent" newspaper in the UK is written largely by interns suggests there's little point in being a student of an industry spiraling into anachronism.

2:42 AM  
Anonymous David said...

My internship experience was a little different -- but I was not compensated. It was a three-month internship with a state agency; I lived with a host family in my state capital during the internship.

It's been more than 25 years since then, and I continue to believe that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I am still friends with the people I worked with, and they have proven to be fantastic sources throughout the year.

The only difference compensation would have made is that fewer students would have been given the internship opportunity.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

Joe -

Is that a critique unique to the press? It seems quite appropos of the electronic media, too.

I'd suggest that our world has become far too complex and multi-layered for anyone to make much sense of it any longer. So it's not just the J-school product that's struggling - we all are.

How do we get back to basics? How and why did we stray in the first place (might the proliferation of bandwidth via cable and now the web) have anything to do with that?

What once passed for aberrant behavior or lifestyle-choices is now celebrated as 'normal'. I'd say that the media's need to fill their available bandwidth (e.g. 24/7 "news" cycle, etc.) had a lot to do with that.

Is 'American Idol' truly a musical competition - or a collective (and mind-numbing) experience? The answer should be clear...it is to me.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's definitely an unsustainable model.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this post.

As a j-school student, I don't see enough people doing things outside of the classroom to enhance both their cvs and their own skills.

Regardless of how the work may be tough and unpaid, if I could put on my cv that I'd worked with the New York Times, this most certainly outweighs the burden.


8:45 AM  
Anonymous Jessica Pacheco, University of Nevada, Reno. said...

Maybe I'm just a naive and young journalism student but-

if hyper-local programs cheat journalists then what benefits them??

I don't understand how being a part of a newspaper or newsite isn't going to flourish our ever-evolving skills as a journalist. Period. Just because dollars don't come back as dollar, doesn't mean they don't come back as experience.

The students and NY Times are -doing- something. Are you?

In fact, assuming that just because the model is different and therefore it won't serve us the skills we need, is the same archaic mindset sending us down the drain.

And also, I have read that having 'the kids' work for free is conditioning them to accept free work.

Let me just be blunt: No, it's not.


11:33 AM  
Blogger Radio Ann said...

My biggest issues with unpaid internships is that it disproportionately excludes minorities from the opportunity to learn these skills. I saw this all the time at KFAI in Minneapolis when I was the News Director there - we talked a lot about diversity, and overall the station does a great job by providing a venue on the program schedule for Somalis, Ethiopians, Hmong, and many other immigrant groups. It was recently highlighted on CNN's Inside Africa program.

But when it came to an internship in the News Department, asking for these communities to encourage their youth to participate in an unpaid internship -which I guarantee you at KFAI is worth a masters degree in journalism - was next to near impossible. As a result, Minneapolis suffers from not having as good reporting as we might on these communities, which is all the more important given how Somalia is becoming increasingly problematic for the United States. And because of the emphasis on local, hyperlocal, super duper local, the media empires here end up doing really shallow reporting on immigrant communities without any knowledge about how these groups function....because they expect them to do unpaid internships if their "serious" about doing journalism.

You get what you pay for. And what's being subsidized is more white, middle class reporting.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's just about time for a full-scale change in the way higher education works in this country.

We need more online courses, more work/job training type courses, and cheaper ways to be educated.

The old model is running out of steam. It was gold-plated. It took your gold. Now it's less and less true that you get what you pay for.

This goes for a whole bunch of industries.

So let's watch as change comes. It can't help but come.

I'm just glad I'm not currently sending a child to school or trying to get a 4-year degree myself right now.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Higher education is in trouble -- students are paying for a LOT of research. There should be some, but the balance is out of wack and the quality has gotten worse as quantity has increased because there isn't enough money to go around.

I taught 20 years full-time at Columbia University, after being an adjunct for many years (I retired as an Associate Professor of Professional Practice). As far as I know, I'm the only person in the history of the university to have been an adjunct in law, journalism, engineering and business. I was one of the very first to teach spreadsheeting and database work to journalists -- starting in the 1970s. I've done significant research and brought in plenty of research dollars. I've authored or edited 19 books and worked in 85 countries. And I still find time to lecture and teach occasional courses -- at Harvard and abroad. I've run companies, founded NGOs and still serve on corporate boards.

But search committees from state universities -- people who seek me out, because I'm doing fine, thank you, and have not been job-hunting -- lose interest when I tell them I do not have a doctorate!

One such professor had won the $1000 Lori Eason Award, the largest in all of journalism education (I had secured the endowment when I chaired the science educators' interest group at AEJMC). I had handed her the check at the awards ceremony a few years earlier. She was embarrassed that she hadn't known about my checked academic past.

Bottom line: Don't look to the academic community to save journalism, especially newspapers. There are some brilliant individuals who are exceptions, but many are nearing retirement, and they are not being replaced. The internships they are proposing help their programs, but do not necessarily help the journalism profession, or what's left of it.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

Steve Ross' post on how search committees lose interest when applicants don't have doctorates illustrates typical 'empire-building' behavior, which can fester in non-competitive realms such as academia.

Such empire-building is in response to the worry "What would the dean think of me if my department wasn't all PhD's? What would that mean to my future appointment prospects? So I must hire only PhD's."

That's a sign not only of a non-competitive industry, but also of a dying one, because the hiring decision isn't a function of what of value (to consumers/students/ investors) a candidate can produce, but what credential they've attained. Further, due to the nature of institutional funding, the cost of such new hires can be easily passed along to consumers who are left with no choice.

Come to think of it, this may explain how academia has become so divorced from reality. Their metrics are disconnected and unaligned with those of their 'customers'.

P.S. I still hold Minneapolis in high suspicion and the same goes for radicalized public radio, Alan. Although my earlier unpublished comment wasn't precisely on topic, I thought it nonetheless was accurate and thus worth saying. My views are not unlike the concerns voiced re: j-schools in this thread. The function of journalism is too important to allow it to be captured by over-educated, under-experienced and non-sensical radicals.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My biggest issues with unpaid internships is that it disproportionately excludes minorities from the opportunity to learn these skills. I saw this all the time at KFAI in Minneapolis when I was the News Director there - we talked a lot about diversity, and overall the station does a great job by providing a venue on the program schedule for Somalis, Ethiopians, Hmong, and many other immigrant groups..."

This sort of thinking is one of the problems with journalism. I'm all for everyone having a chance, and I don't understand why any ethnic group would be left out of an internship program. But as an editor, I want people who are capable of doing to job. I don't care of they are white Anglo-Saxon or Somali. And I certainly don't think any ethnic group benefits in the long run from just being hired to fill a quota.

11:53 AM  

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