By paulgillin | February 9, 2010 - 8:46 am - Posted in Fake News, Hyper-local

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 Fake News, Hyper-local. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. February 9, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    Fantastic blog post. Journalism schools must wake up, look at what’s going on in the publishing world, and educate their students.

    I wonder if students who attend universities that have work programs, such as Northeastern University’s co-op program, see or even experience the challenges journalists face these days. I’m sure co-op pay has decreased and that there aren’t as many jobs available. And if students are fortunate to get a co-op job, they must see the challenges full-time staff deal with.

    Posted by Michelle Davidson
  2. February 9, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    […] to the local paper where you have your hard earned cash invested in advertising.  According to News Paper Death Watch, publications such as the Tucson Citizen, Rocky Mountain News, Kentucky Post, and the Albuquerque […]

  3. February 9, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    […] to the local paper where you have your hard earned cash invested in advertising.  According to News Paper Death Watch, publications such as the Tucson Citizen, Rocky Mountain News, Kentucky Post, and the Albuquerque […]

  4. February 9, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Rings so true. I never went to j-school, but when I was young and worked in a newsroom, we had no appreciation for what the sales people were doing. We even took perverse pleasure in making their work difficult (not that it was our job to make it easy, but the point remains). I only started to understand business when I went to work for a business newspaper. Boy, did I have to learn quickly!
    Other professional schools have the same problem. Medical schools, for example, do almost nothing in this area. You think young doctors would benefit from a class or two in this area? Yup.

    Posted by Frank Fortin
  5. February 10, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    Michelle: I actually think co-op programs have greater relevance than ever for J-schools because so many papers are looking for cheap talent these days. It’s not that newsroom experience isn’t valuable, but the path to success will increasingly be outside the shrinking confines of the newsroom. I know one student who was on the city desk at the Boston Globe before he was a senior in college, mainly because he was talented and worked for cheap. Such opportunities weren’t available a few years ago. As I noted in the post, cost cuts have actually created some low-end opportunities.

    Good point, Frank. Why don’t more professional education programs teach basic business skills, particularly when those professionals – like doctors – are likely to end up working for themselves?

    Posted by paulgillin
  6. February 10, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    This is so true. I’m a junior Journalism major in Massachusetts and the professors here are complete dinosaurs. They think that because newspapers are failing the end of journalism is coming. We had Robert McChesney over here last week talking about the future of media and he was completely against any sort of change.

    The leadership of the school newspaper isn’t much better. I suggested getting a CafePress store–they’re free, so we won’t lose anything, but maybe we might make a little from it–but it was dismissed because “no one would buy anything.”

    That kind of pessimistic attitude drives me crazy.

    If you don’t think big and you don’t work hard you might as well be an accountant or something. Perhaps that’s the real reason the media is suffering: no vision.

    Posted by cub_reporter
  7. February 10, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    Paul, you have hit the nail on the head. In the News Writing and PR Writing classes I teach I always get an initial round of puzzled looks when I explain that their writing is only as good the someone’s willingness to pay for it in some way. I even had one student ask why I was insisting on them starting a blog (to keep them writing regularly and to give them a shot at doing something that might ultimately lead to a paycheck) and why I kept talking about freelance and contract work in news and public relations. But the reality is that the “gun for hire” marketplace for young writers is likely their best bet to both practice what they learn and to get paid for doing it. Why not start while they’re still in school? Sadly many seem to beleive that merely graduating with a piece of paper will magicaly move them to the front of some imaginary line from which companies eagerly scoop up new fulltime employees. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Posted by Mike Johansson
  8. February 10, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    I graduated last year from a j-school in New York City, and the head of career services told me this summer that newspapers will weather this storm of online media like they did with cable news. Unbelievable! We students knew that journalism was rough, but we didn’t think newspapers were on a death spiral. There were no classes in the business of journalism, and only one outdated class on new media. All the professors — like cub_reporter’s — were dinosaurs, encouraging us to follow the old pattern of starting at community papers. None of the profs told us to blog or use Twitter.

    Posted by Recent Grad
  9. February 11, 2010 @ 6:03 pm


    And in addition to taking courses aimed at entrepreneurism and business, any remaining aspiring journalists need to realize that because of the nature of the digital media, the writer or reporter also is be default the publisher (and, unfortunately, usually the editor).

    Thus, I would maintain, every journalism student should take basic coursework in the set-up, securing and operation of the Apache web server, and should understand its relationship to client computers. Also: HTML, cascading style sheets, script languages such as PHP and javascript, and digital manipulation 101. (And throw in a little basic Microsoft vs Linux vs Mac, too, if you please). When every writer can afford his or her own printing press, it is incumbent upon them to learn how to obtain and run one.

    Posted by Bob Dunn
  10. February 11, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    Bob: You’re right on the money. Workers now own the means of production.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  11. February 12, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    Paul, you are so right.

    J-Schools better start teaching these unfortunate slobs to be lean, self contained media organizations with all of the necessary entrepreneurial skills to go it completely alone.

    There is going to be no-one standing between you and your readers five years from now. You WILL be the boss, and you will hold onto your territory for only as long as your business skills allow.

    Posted by Curtis Bloes
  12. February 12, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    Where are the irate or even scholarly denials from J-school deans or professors? Rhetorical questions aside, take a look at the curriculum of any journalism program and you’ll see how sad the situation is. Excerpts from course descriptions from Pace University’s M.S. in Publishing degree program:

    “The dissemination of information using various new technologies (Internet, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, etc.) Is discussed. Students are introduced to these technologies by demonstration and some hands-on exploration of the publishing aspects of the World Wide Web and the electronic book.”

    or this:

    “Emphasis will be on developing publishing projects for the new media, such as home page development on the World Wide Web, interactive CD-ROM and DVD-ROM publication creation, etc.”

    These would have been timely in 1994, but are simply embarrassing in 2010.

    Posted by Mitch Speers
  13. February 12, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    Great post, Paul. I’ve just blogged about it at I hope you’ll seriously consider my offer that you come talk to the students at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism. They’ll give you hope.

    I teach a course called Journalism 24/7 that does just what you so accurately call on all j-schools to do: It reviews how the news industry used to work, how it fell apart, what’s happening now and what might save it. And you’re right: The students coming in have a vague sense that all is not well in Newspaperland and TVland, but they know very few specifics. After taking my class, they’re a lot wiser and very excited about the opportunities open to them in the new media territory.

    Posted by Barbara Selvin
  14. February 12, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

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  16. February 21, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Paul very prophetic thoughts. I teach digital journalism and emphasize the importance of knowing the business of journalism. As a young TV reporter I remembered the wall between advertising and journalism. In the digital world the wall can easily disappear, therefore an understanding by students of the sales and business side is critical. They need to know it when they see it and they need to know how it can benefit their craft. More journalism schools should actually be partnering with business schools on projects and initiatives.

    Posted by benjamin davis
  17. February 22, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill we teach courses in digital media economics, leadership in a time of change, business and economic reporting AND we are establishing a joint business journalism degree with the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. But let me caution people as they recount history.

    In part, journalism schools have refused to focus on the business because the business created a wall between the business side and the editorial side. The impetus for one ignoring the other came from the old print media model–not initially from journalism schools.

    During the glory days, media wanted journalism schools to focus on training students who could hit the ground running–publishers and station managers only worried about whether we taught ethics when there was a major ethical breach uncovered at a major newspaper or network.

    As the Dean of a school that’s involved in the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism, I heartily endorse looking toward the future, understanding business models, creating research projects that result in new models and in going digital. But I object to journalism schools taking the entire rap for a publishing model they didn’t create.

    Posted by Jean Folkerts
  18. February 25, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    Omigod. CD-ROM? “Hands-on exploration of the publishing aspects of the World Wide Web?” This is really a 2009-2010 curriculum? That’s so embarrassing.

    Posted by paulgillin
  19. February 25, 2010 @ 7:07 am

    I think you’re running into the inherent skepticism of journalists. That attitude is actually an asset in the work they do but it can be a real impediment to meaningful change. Unfortunately, a lot of media organizations need to change right now and the people who work at them are innately suspicious of doing things differently.

    Posted by paulgillin
  20. March 31, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

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