Yesterday I visited with a journalism class at a major university. This institution’s journalism program is considered one of the finest in the country and its faculty boasts notable veterans of the newspaper and broadcast field. I spoke to a small class for about 90 minutes, devoting the first hour of that time to a discourse on the state of the US media: Why it’s in a predicament, how the story is likely to play out and what it all means for aspiring journalists. The rest of the time was discussion.
My material wasn’t the type of stuff these students are used to hearing, judging by their reactions. About 2/3 of my talk was about economics and business. Among the topics I addressed were:
- How advertising efficiency is devastating the media economic models that are based on the inherent inefficiency of mass-market advertising;
- The irony that newspaper readership is at an all-time high even as the industry craters;
- How the efficiency of online publishing permits new media organizations to operate much more cheaply than their predecessors;
- Why the 57-year-old average daily newspaper reader is an undesirable target for advertisers;
- Why advertising costs will continue to go down and why this is a problem for traditional media;
- Why Craigslist has devastated newspapers’ most profitable revenue source;
- How the need to sustain high circulation levels has made newspaper editorial content bland, inoffensive and, ultimately, vulnerable to competition.
The students were aware that they’re stepping into an uncertain world but they didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of the media business. Looking at the journalism department’s website later, I could see why. The curriculum lists 29 courses in the journalism program, and not a single one is about the economics of publishing or how to sustain a career as a journalist.
This university is failing its students. I suspect that so are a lot of others.
Learning a Trade
Journalism schools are essentially trade schools. When I was going through a J-school program in the late 1970s, everything was focused on getting the students out into the working world with the skills and savvy needed to get to the top. Judging by my recent experiences with journalism schools, the same career path that was advised 30 years ago is still being recommended today. This begins with a low-paying job at a small daily and proceeds through a series of staff positions at increasingly larger publications. The Holy Grail is to land a job on the staff of The New York Times, which itself has laid off 200 journalists in the last year.
This career path isn’t going to work in the future. Newsroom staffing levels today are 55% of what they were eight years ago. While elimination of high-paying jobs has created some entry-level opportunities, the path for career journalists will increasingly be up and out into the freelance world where they will have to compete on speed, agility and business skills.
The business side of the equation is where the greatest disconnect occurs. Journalism schools mostly disdain the moneymaking side of the house. Students are taught that revenue is somebody else’s job; they are in the position of delivering information. In fact, the ad sales department is often portrayed as a den of evil, full of conniving capitalists who only want to bastardize the product journalists so lovingly nurture.
The failure of the economic model is the reason most news organizations are in such trouble today. Journalists are mostly unprepared to help. The church-state separation that is intrinsic to the culture of newsrooms prevents them from understanding why the business is in trouble. Most journalists I have met still show alarming ignorance of the business that pays their salaries.
I’ve written before about the need for young journalists to develop entrepreneurial skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean going door-to-door selling ads, but it does mean understanding how advertising works, how audiences can be monetized and how diversified revenue streams can build a sustainable income. These topics are distasteful to veteran journalists, who have never had to worry about such things. Unfortunately, they’re very relevant to the students they teach.
Journalism schools need to become small business foundries if they are to continue in their mission of preparing students for the real world. Unfortunately, most of them change slowly, and the rapid decline of media institutions has caught them flat-footed. They need to move quickly to adjust their curricula in order to avoid sending their students unprepared into the tumultuous job market that awaits them.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 8:46 am and is filed under BusinessModel, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers, Revenue20. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.