Who, What, When, Where And Why Is J-School So Big?

Despite Less-Than-Lucrative Job Prospects for Graduates, Journalism is an Increasingly Popular Major at Colleges

Originally published December 15, 2008 at www.timesunion.com

By MARC PARRY

COLONIE — Bri Arias wants to be a broadcaster. If she follows a typical path after graduation, the bubbly Siena College sophomore might earn $25,000 reporting on weekend parades for a TV station in, say, Utica.

Glamorous? No. But it’s journalism. And journalism, despite grim headlines about the news business, is an increasingly popular major.

“It’s cool that you can get paid to want to know what’s going on,” said Arias, 19, of the Bronx.

Her enthusiasm is reflected in the growth of new programs in New York and the record number of students pursuing degrees in journalism and mass communication nationally: nearly 200,000 undergraduates as of 2007, up from 130,000 in 1995.

On the surface, it sounds like one of those man-bites-dog oddities that reporters like so much. Students are cramming the pipeline of a seemingly cratering industry in which companies are shedding jobs and even filing for bankruptcy. Just look around the state:

Siena hired a TV veteran this year to help create a major in electronic media and journalism that could launch as early as 2009-10.

The University at Albany has nearly 200 declared majors for a journalism degree that began in 2006. Officials are considering restricting access to the major because its growth is outrunning resources.

Rochester Institute of Technology announced a new journalism degree last month, and CUNY established a graduate school of journalism in 2006.

“I go to meetings and all I hear is, ‘Oh my God, they just keep coming and coming,’ ” Judy VanSlyke Turk, president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, said of the students. She added, “I’m really not sure they understand how competitive the job market is.”

Dig into the numbers, though, and you’ll find “journalism” can be a misleading label. Most people studying journalism and mass communication aren’t interested in careers as old-school newshounds sniffing out scandals for newspapers, magazines and TV stations.

Some study the news as a liberal arts subject like English, and then head off to law school. Other J-school grads become public relations people who shape the news or advertising people who create the commercials that pay for it.

“They recognize that there are lots of opportunities to do things on the Web,” said Lee Becker, a University of Georgia professor who tracks their job prospects. Data show “students are optimistic that their communication skills are going to serve them well in the future. And I think they’re correct.”

Optimism probably isn’t what a job-seeking college senior would feel reading Becker’s most recent survey of graduates.

It found a flat job market hovering well below the 2000 high point, with the 2007 crop of grads getting an average of 1.6 job offers on graduation. The median starting salary: $30,000. That compares with $50,507 for economics grads.

Today’s market can be especially daunting for those who dream of bylines in newspapers, a sector that is hemorrhaging jobs as circulation falls and advertisers flee. When Bob Woodward gave a talk at the Times Union last week, an editor who teaches journalism asked two questions of the reporter who helped bring down Nixon: What does a student have to do to get a job at The Washington Post? And will the paper be around in 20 years if it takes her that long?

It will, he said. And the student will have to “prove herself.”

“It’s about energy,” Woodward said. “And surrounding a story in a logical way. And keeping at it. Never giving up. If she displays those qualities, she’ll wind up at The Washington Post.”

Some speculate that the changing media landscape is partly what’s driving kids to study journalism. It’s an exciting chance for students who grew up online to help transform the increasingly Internet-focused, multimedia field.

“I’d like to think that maybe the uptick in journalism students is in some ways the pendulum swinging back from the decline in media quality over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Catherine Caperello, 29, who graduated from UAlbany this month with perhaps $30,000 in student loans and is looking for work in newspapers or magazines.

Another possibility is less noble. Journalism programs are sometimes described as “cash cows” for universities, Turk said. They attract lots of students and you can start them for relatively little money.

One difficulty of digital journalism is that some faculty have been out of the newsroom long enough that they have to “almost go back to school and learn this themselves,” Turk said.

At Siena, the professor building the new major is a jowly, talkative 68-year-old whose decades in TV news took him to Detroit and Miami and Washington.

Dow Smith isn’t convinced Twitter is that important. He does blog and edit video. His challenge is figuring out the technical skills students will need while grounding them in ethics and news values.

Some lessons they’ll pick up in newsrooms, he said, not classrooms: “You don’t learn this job until you’ve been lied to by a cop.”

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