So you have a “useless” major, journalism… (It’s up to you to make your major relevant.)

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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

Ugh! Journalism is turning into one of those “useless” majors. Tell your parents you want to go to college to study that subject nowadays, and you’ll see that same look they had at Aunt Martha’s funeral. Such a waste. Did she have to go so young?

The cold facts, according to a CBS Newswatch article: “Read it and weep: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a whopping 4,400 [journalism] jobs will disappear by 2018 (out of 69,400 total in 2008). That’s more than three times the number of newsroom employees at The New York Times. The bad news for print can be summed up in one word: Internet. ‘Some of the print people are finding jobs online,’ says Lauren Csorny, an economist at the BLS. ‘But there aren’t enough to make up for the losses.’ No wonder that newspaper reporters ranked No. 184 out of 200 jobs, one slot above stevedore, in CareerCast.com’s annual JobsRated survey.”

I see my teen daughter hold up her phone, snap a pic, write a caption, and bam – it’s online. In essence, except maybe with a few more typos, how is that much different than what established newspapers are now doing by going to the web? Would she really need four years of University training to perfect this craft?

But – as someone who majored in what many people consider a useless major (English-Creative Writing) and has made a whole career off the printed word in one way or the next – let me tell you that, while a competitive field, and often low paying, Journalism still has hope. It’s not yet as useless a major as Liberal Studies, Philosophy or Sociology. (Just kidding, Sociologists! That was my concentration!)

We have to value print more than the Internet. Even my tech-savvy daughter tells me she prefers real books to an e-reader. She likes the smell and feel of them. Yes, she is a pain in that she likes new – preferably hardcover – books, resulting in a bigger MasterCard bill for me, but it’s a good sign for that industry.

But I’m talking newspapers. You know – those places that employ Journalism (and English-Writing) majors more than anywhere else. We need to make them better than the Internet.

Though, having been a part-time journalism instructor and a full-time communicator for various colleges over 16 years, as well as having advised other student papers, I have seen a bit of a decline in the quality of students who choose to be Journalism majors in recent years (not to mention that fewer actual Journalism majors were taking my classes and more students were just taking them as an English elective – they are more curious about the subject than committed). As well, I have seen campus newspapers, at two-year schools especially, in deep decline.

A good campus newspaper is a must if your campus has a journalism program. The paper is the think tank and the testing ground for future professional journalists. Even I – once a lowly English student – knew to write for my campus newspaper and landed a job at a newspaper not long after graduation. Working for the campus newspaper gave me clips I could show future employers and proved I could work on deadline.

As well, having a strong campus newspaper – one that even non-Journalism students want to read – provides a service not only to the campus (“How are your tuition dollars being spent?”), but also a service to yourself.

Your fellow students will learn to enjoy the newspaper. And, when they graduate, have 2.3 kids and live in a house with a white picket fence, maybe they’ll subscribe to their local paper. And that paper will survive and thus more Journalism grads will remain employed. The love affair with newsprint could start at your college.

By saving your campus newspaper, Journalism student, you are saving yourself.

Here is practical advice on how you can do just that:

Read Newspapers!
No, don’t read online papers or little stories on your smart phone. Get a variety of real newspapers each week and delve into them. More and more so, even in my journalism classes, new students tell me they never pick up a paper newspaper. Even waiting in the doctor’s office or the barber shop, they’d rather stare at the walls than pick up The Daily Whatever sitting right there. They increasingly report their parents also don’t read the paper. Don’t be incurious. Read every newspaper you can get your hands on. In my journalism classes, in lieu of requiring a textbook, I require students to buy different newspapers each week. We compare and contrast the Post to the Times to the Daily News to the Wall Street Journal. There’s at least one newspaper tailored for you, if you take the time to find it.

College officials — pay your advisers well and make sure they are qualified.
Newspaper advisers should get at least as much money as the basketball coach. More. The paper actually brings in money. Sports are a money loser for practically every college (I have nothing against college sports, BTW. I played NCAA Division III lacrosse back when). How many people go to your school’s basketball games? 50? 100? Do the players’ parents even go anymore? But thousands of people read the campus newspaper. Pay your advisers fairly. One big newspaper I had advised paid $7000 — a YEAR! Try to feed a family on that (yeah, I had other jobs, but that affected the time I could devote to advising). But if the adviser has no modern newsroom experience — doesn’t know Quark or In-Design, doesn’t know copyediting, doesn’t know about working with printers and ad agencies — how can he teach novice journalists these key factors in creating a successful paper? Adviser is an important position. Pay well and have a search committee to vet candidates.

Hire journalism professors who really understand deadline journalism.
This is aimed at academic chairs. The criteria for a journalism professor should be far different than other types of professors. Where an English or History professor may show scholarship by being published once every year or two in some obscure journal, journalism is as much about quantity as quality. An instructor who had one freelance story in The New York Times and not much else may not be as qualified as an instructor who wrote 1000 stories in a smalltown weekly paper. The latter instructor surely has more war stories to tell and is more proven and versatile. A true journalist has done all kinds of stories, from obits to lost pets to that fire at the orphanage. He or she has a natural curiosity about everything and can change gears on a moment’s notice. Also: Waive the master’s requirement for journalism instructors. Big papers are laying off great writers left and right. But, while they would make super teachers based just on their experience and proven energy levels, they mostly just have bachelor’s degrees. They had never needed anything more. And being in journalism doesn’t give one the time to pursue a master’s.

Pay student writers!
Whenever I would mention this idea at campus publication meetings, people would look at me as if I were an alien. But, hey, the paper’s making money. It can make more money if it has better stories (more readers=higher ad prices). Students – especially community college students – are time-strapped, working in their spare hours at places like CVS, Best Buy and Wal-Mart. A typical story may take three hours to cover and write. Why not pay them $30 for those three hours, or the equivalent of the minimum wage they’d be earning otherwise at McChain Store USA? Seems fair to me. And, funny thing is, students are more likely to make deadline when even just minimum wage is involved. Earning a paycheck for a story makes one a REAL writer. Don’t believe anything otherwise.

Stop using web photos in your newspaper!
Aside from the copyright issues, web photos print horribly on newsprint and make your paper look awful. As well, using web images shows a laziness in news gathering, which should include obtaining original photography. It also shows that you yourself consider the web a primary source of quality news. Is that a good example to set for your readers? Last, do you really want to be covering the types of stories popular on the web? Opining about Spider-Man, the New York Giants and One Direction? Unless you have a face-to-face interview with Stan Lee, Eli Manning or Harry Styles, your story about such national pop-culture topics is useless to you as a prospective journalist. Foremost, why would anyone want to read YOUR opinion on such pop culture icons when professional writers (who do secure face-to-face interviews) have better, more enlightening stories in other media? You are not writing something that matters, big picture, that hasn’t been done before – and done better. Second, such clips, without first-hand sources, have no value when you go looking for a real job upon graduation. You’re better off interviewing a local “celebrity” – the kid who sits in the back of your class who created a hit anime web site, the captain of the basketball team or the lead in the school play. You’ll not only get more useful clips, but learn live interviewing techniques – and you’ll learn about the diversity of the people around us.

Get a business sense.
Perhaps work with the business department on a plan to maximize ad sales. Local car dealers, comics shops and pizza places want to advertise in your campus newspaper. Just no one is courting them. If your paper is bringing in revenue, there’s your big stick to defend yourself against administrative complaints and cutbacks. Some associate dean trying to shut you down? If the paper is raking in cash — and thus funding other clubs on campus via kickbacks to student activity fees — your critics will more likely remain silent.

Write bigger stories.
This story is clocking in at about 2000 words and you’re still with me, huh? If the information is useful and flows relatively well, the old belief that readers don’t follow the jump (“go to page X”) in an article is untrue. Many journalism instructors and advisers are telling students that 500 words is the standard. But it really isn’t when it comes to modern print journalism. Think Vice.com. If the story’s good, really tell it. There are tons of 500-word stories on the web. That’s a great format for stories that people read on their iPhones. But if you want to build loyalty to your publication – and newsprint, like books, still is a better format for longer works – then take them on a longer journey. If the story is full of twists and turns, and is copyedited by a capable third party, why not run it at 2000 words or more? You don’t see 500-word stories winning the Pulitzer, huh?

Have ideas for making your journalism major or student newspaper experience better? Please comment below.

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