Stop the Presses! Revamped Journalism Courses Attract Hordes of Students

Even as job prospects dim, a focus on new media and entrepreneurship produces record enrollments

Yunghi Kim for The Chronicle

Graduate students at Columbia U.'s school of journalism get a lesson in photography as part of a new emphasis on multiple forms of media.
September 21, 2009

At a time when the newspaper industry is in free fall and thousands of jobs are being cut each year, one would think that the halls of the nation's journalism schools would be awfully quiet. Think again.

Many universities report that journalism enrollments are up this year. Over the past few weeks, a lot of these budding journalists have been blogging, broadcasting, and tweeting their way through introductory courses that have been revamped to embrace the digital age.

Applications to Columbia University's master-of-science program in journalism rose 44 percent, to 1,181, for the class entering this fall, and an investigative-journalism specialty drew more than twice as many applications this year than last year, up from 54 in 2008 to 121 this year.

Elsewhere, applications to master's programs were up 30 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 25 percent at the University of Maryland at College Park, and 24 percent at Stanford University.

Enrollment in undergraduate journalism programs nationwide has grown 35 percent over the past 10 years, to 201,477, and was up slightly in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.

"There are still plenty of people who love to write and think that their journalism degree will serve as an entree to just about any field they could go into," says Barbara B. Hines, president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Dismal Job Outlook

Being flexible is important during tough times. A report released last month found that in 2008, graduates of journalism and mass-communication programs had far fewer job interviews and offers than in 2007, and that full-time employment was at its lowest point since at least 1986.

The report is based on an annual survey conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Some 2,542 graduates of bachelor's and master's-degree programs at 86 institutions responded.

The report blamed the declines on "the sharp downturn in the national economy and the collapse of the economic model for media industries." Paper Cuts, a blog that tracks layoffs in the U.S. newspaper industry, has recorded more than 29,000 layoffs and buyouts since 2008.

Only six in 10 graduates had full-time employment six to eight months after earning their degrees, the Georgia report noted. Graduates of newspaper and telecommunications programs fared worse than those pursuing careers in advertising and public relations, whose programs are often housed in the same colleges.

Hunter Walker, a student in the master's program in journalism at Columbia, shared his concerns on, a New York-based media-and-gossip blog, after his orientation session last month. "I owe this school a lot of money," he wrote, "and I'm still not entirely sure how I'm going to come up with it."

Columbia's 10-month program costs about $49,000; with living expenses factored in, the cost is $70,000.

It was a "scary time" to be a journalism student, Mr. Walker wrote, but he remained optimistic that his training in research, writing and investigative skills would land him a job … somewhere.

Push Toward Multimedia

Part of the draw for students still flocking to journalism schools is a new generation of courses retooled for new media. The same rapidly changing technology that is creating headaches for many media executives appeals to a generation of students who grew up playing computer games and texting and now tweeting their friends on the microblog Twitter.

"These students are also very comfortable multitasking, and they like the allure of doing different things every day," says Ms. Hines, who is director of Howard University's graduate program in mass communication and media studies.

Bill Grueskin, who left his job as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Online last year to become dean of academic affairs at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, believes some students see opportunity in the industry turmoil. "Ambitious and creative young people see this as an opportunity to be part of the effort to recast and remake journalism," he says.

At Columbia incoming graduate students attend a multimedia boot camp, and the introductory "Reporting and Writing" course has been overhauled to include more multimedia content. Students are also required to take a course in the business of journalism so they will better understand the seismic changes shaking up the profession.

"We want all students, even those with fairly traditional aspirations, to understand the nexus of journalism and technology in a broader way," says Mr. Grueskin. "Any technological skill you teach them in 2009 will be obsolete by 2012, but we want them to understand that this is the beginning of a lifelong process they need to be open to."

The University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism also requires incoming graduate students to participate in a multimedia boot camp, which runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for five days. Lessons in multimedia storytelling are reinforced in a required class in Web publishing skills that runs parallel to one in basic reporting. Students learn how to use digital video, audio, and photo equipment.

Students were also blogging last month from American University's three-week multimedia boot camp and sharing videos of the speakers on YouTube.

Two years ago, Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism introduced a revamped curriculum emphasizing multimedia storytelling and lessons in "audience understanding" (The Chronicle, August 10, 2007).

Skeptical Professors

A number of faculty members, however, object that gadgets are being emphasized over reporting fundamentals.

Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia, says basic skills like accuracy and fairness are more important than ever at a time when inexperienced reporters are rushing to post news updates on the Web, often with little editorial oversight.

"I don't want us to lose focus on the standards of good journalism in our rush to embrace all the latest technology," says Mr. Goldman, who wrote for The New York Times for 20 years.

"I want to give students a consciousness that there's a need to be thorough and not just be first—to consider the importance of fact-checking, copy editing, spelling, and grammar, and to make sure they are armed with all those tools as they write and put things on the Web."

Ms. Hines, of Howard, says journalism professors are struggling to integrate constantly changing multimedia skills into already jammed curricula without sacrificing attention to the nuts and bolts of good journalism.

If technology is overemphasized, she says, "students will be whizzes at singing and dancing and making the equipment work, but they may not understand why zoning is important in a community, or how a city council functions."

Michael J. Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, at Iowa State University, agrees.

"Many journalism schools, to please industry, started creating courses that were merely about presentation, and they forgot about content," says Mr. Bugeja, who would rather see most technological training take place on the job.

"Too often, when the technology is overemphasized in the curriculum, it gives the impression that you can do journalism sitting down in your pajamas," he says. "You can't do that."

To become good journalists, he argues, students need to get out into the field and spend time with their sources.

Covering the Neighborhoods

That is what journalism students are doing in Temple University's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, although they are taking the technology with them.

The students tell stories about underserved and underreported local communities via print, broadcast, and Web media. When they head out on assignments, they use digital video cameras along with reporters' notebooks. They hand neighborhood residents other, pocket-sized video cameras to record their own stories. Students are trained to use video-editing software and can enhance their reports with audio slide shows.

But the program still pushes reporting skills, with or without gadgets and gizmos. "The mainstream media don't go into these communities unless there's yellow police tape and something bad has happened," says Christopher Harper, an associate professor of journalism who co-directs the lab. "Our students are there all the time, burning up shoe leather."

Other journalism schools, including those at Berkeley and the City University of New York, have been pursuing such "hyperlocal" reporting, sending students into diverse neighborhoods to report on the day-to-day news that shrinking mainstream newspapers don't cover. But while hyperlocal Web sites are springing up, and some community newspapers are growing, salaries remain low. "Our students are saddled with an average of $30,000 in debt," says Mr. Harper. "They can't pay that back on a $25,000 salary at a community newspaper."

Reinventing a Profession

Journalism schools are also trying to give students the tools they need to invent new models of the profession.

In addition to multimedia skills, Temple also teaches an elective undergraduate course on "entrepreneurial journalism," which, according to the syllabus, helps students "understand the changing media landscape and recognize underserved niches." Students study why the field is changing so fast, anticipate which direction it will go, design business models, and begin the process of creating new journalistic outlets.

"There's not a great future in working for mainstream media," says Mr. Harper. "The future is for smart, hard-working students to band together, create their own media, and make a business out of it—and that's what a lot of them are doing."

Christopher Wink hopes to be part of that reinvented future. He graduated from Temple last year and spent three months stringing for daily newspapers in Pennsylvania before heading on a European backpacking trip with a journalism-school friend.

"We returned to an economy in recession and the print industry in free fall and said, 'Hell, let's build something of our own,'" he says. In February the duo began publishing Technically Philly, a news site that covers local technology and innovation.

Although it has yet to make a profit, Mr. Wink remains optimistic. "I very much feel in this media environment you have to create your own job," he says.