Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What will a future career in journalism look like?

Good luck coming up with a sure fire answer to that one.

Below is an essay I was asked to write for on an online publication that discusses journalism education and careers with high school students.

I have had the chance this fall to visit multiple high schools throughout Pennsylvania, and on those visits there is one question I hear quite often: “When I graduate from college in five or six years, what is the journalism industry going to look like?”

It is at this point that I take deep breath and offer an answer that begins: “A few years ago, I heard Jeff Zucker, who at the time was the head of NBC Universal, deliver a speech about the television industry. He told us that one question he was asked all the time was what television would look like in five years. And his answer – ‘I have no clue.’”

I remind the students that Mr. Zucker, who has since left the network, surprised many of us with his response. Certainly someone such as he – a chief executive at a major network – should have understood where the industry was moving. But his comment points up an important point: The entire communication industry is undergoing rapid change, and it is therefore hard to predict with any confidence what will take place in the next five months, let alone the next five years.

I then tell these high school students not to be discouraged. In fact, I want them to be excited about the industry and its potential in the years to come. And those students can, in my opinion, prepare themselves for those possibilities by keeping a few things in mind.

First, their careers are likely to look like scaffolding instead of ladders. Instead of a career path that constantly moves upward, there will be times that it will need to be restructured. That means the journalist of tomorrow is likely to be building upon skill sets already learned and acquiring new ones at the same time. Yes, we can anticipate those skills will be related to technology, but it would be foolhardy to assume that technology will be the only area in which change will take place.

Next, writing well will remain a requirement for future journalists. Regardless of the platform upon which a story is delivered, the fundamental elements of a good story will include proper grammar; a story that is richly sourced; a report that is complete and accurate; and information that is relevant to the audience. The sooner the student develops his or her writing abilities, the better the chances to obtain a position in the journalism industry.

Third, while in college, young men and women ought to double major (or, at minimum, minor) in another discipline. Students who complete a journalism program will be a “generalist” – they will be able to cover any story. However, they become a “specialist,” and therefore open more potential doors for employment, by having a foundation in another area. The choices are numerous: business, political science, history, education or a foreign language are just a few of the possibilities.

Yes, when I tout the benefits of a double major, students look at me with a facial expression that says, “Oh, you expect to me stay in school for five or more years before I graduate?” I quickly remind them that a majority of such programs can be completed in the same four academic years it will take to finish just one degree. Yes, they are likely to work a bit harder than their single-major friends, but the payoff might be worth it. Some of those facial expressions change; many do not.

Fourth, if the student can afford it, then a study abroad opportunity ought to be pursued. It is during this approximate four-month stretch in another country that the student examines a culture, (perhaps) another language and the communications industry as it exists elsewhere in the world. The students who take advantage of the analytical skills they develop during their time away will be able to see information differently upon returning home.

Many of us in higher education read the doom-and-gloom reports associated with journalism’s future. Industries are dying, jobs are being cut and morale is hard to find. Some of those statements might be true. However, there is another true statement that needs to be added to the conversation: Journalism is being reinvented in this early part of the 21st century, and the men and women entering college today will be the ones who assist in the reinvention and who will benefit from it.

They should accept that challenge with an optimistic attitude.  

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