And what of the Web? After all, online content may be the bane of old media, but it’s also the future of news. Here, too, there’s reason for optimism. Web-based training is standard issue in journalism and mass-communications departments these days, and the job figures reflect this. In 2004, the Annual Survey found that 22.6 percent of new bachelor’s recipients were writing and editing online. The 2007 Annual Survey put that number at a whopping 55.6 percent.
All this is good news for anyone who plans to use their journalism degree in a professional capacity. But as several journalism educators who spoke with the Phoenix pointed out, plenty of other students who major in journalism choose it for the same reasons that others major in philosophy or art history or economics. They find the subject reasonably intriguing; they need to pick something; and they think it could pave the way for future plans, whether they’re indirectly (law school?) or directly related.
“Journalism seems to be an increasingly popular [undergraduate] major, and I think that’s for reasons that have to do with it being interesting, not with people expecting to get a job out of it,” says Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “They think it’ll be interesting; they think it’ll be fun; they think they’ll get out of school knowing how to gather facts and write. They’re not expecting a full-time job at the New York Times.”
That same dynamic is even operative at Columbia, which graduates roughly 250 master’s-level students each year and enjoys the loftiest reputation of any American J-School. (Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism is one of only three institutions that trains exclusively graduate students, exclusively in journalism; the other two are the University of California, Berkeley and the City University of New York.) According to Lemann, employment rates for Columbia graduates have actually risen during his five years as dean, a trend he attributes to a few factors (greater emphasis on career services; the tendency of news organizations to replace older staffers with younger, cheaper ones; increased training in Web skills and subject areas).
Having said that, Lemann adds: “We get folks who, at least coming in, want to be documentary filmmakers and nonfiction book writers, categories of journalism that are highly distinguished but will never have many jobs attached to them. These people don’t have the expectations that somebody going to business school would have; to some extent, they just want to be trained so they can go do their own thing. And some of those people turn down jobs so they can go wait tables and write the Great American Nonfiction Novel. That happens too.”
Of course, it’s one thing for Lemann to acknowledge that. It’s quite another for a 19 year old who’s soliciting parental support for his or her choice of major to do so. So if, by chance, you belong to the latter category, here’s some free advice. First try citing the aforementioned numbers from the 2007 Annual Survey. Then paraphrase the argument that Stephen Burgard, the director of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, recently made to the Phoenix on behalf of journalism education.