If being a journalist meant working in a traditional newsroom, the next generation would have reason to be concerned. But it doesn’t and they don’t, writes Margaret Simons.
Rachel Buchanan’s new book Stop Press is a valuable contribution to thinking about journalism today. However, I couldn’t disagree more with the section that was extracted in The Age last week in which she claimed that journalism educators are committing a kind of fraud because of the many redundancies in the industry.
There are a number of reasons why I disagree. The most powerful is simply that graduates of journalism degrees are finding jobs
It is true, as Buchanan catalogues, that few of these jobs are in the large newsrooms. In fact, most of the jobs my own students have taken up did not exist five years ago.
Several are working for online publications playing to specialist audiences. They are working for new media entrepreneurs, including those who have broken through to commercial success. Some are managing the social media presence of media outlets and other organisations operating in new media. Some are getting jobs in regional and suburban media. A couple are working as assistants to freelance journalists with international markets and book contracts.
The skills they need to hold these jobs are a mixture of old and new. Clear writing and thorough research are as important as ever, but the new generation of journalism workers also needs to understand online publication, and be social media savvy and multimedia skilled. Often, these journalists need to be able to operate as self-sufficient publishers, as well as part of an organisation.
There are a number of reasons why such students are finding jobs, even as older journalists are made redundant.
First, the barriers to entry to the media business have dropped away. There is a new start-up every week. Most do not survive for long, but a substantial number become small sustainable businesses, each employing a modest staff. Think Crikey, Business Spectator (now owned by News Corporation), Mumbrella, RenewEconomy and many, many others. The majority of journalistic jobs in Australia are now in small operations employing fewer than half a dozen people. These operations fly beneath the radar of “old school” journalists.
Another reason there are plenty of jobs is that in the modern world, most large organisations are in some sense media outlets, because they have websites. Some are self-consciously engaging in journalistic practice, and they need skilled recruits.
We can argue about the blurring line between PR and journalism. That is an important debate, now as ever. But the people working for outlets as various as the AFL, The Conversation, Human Rights Watch and a host of others are surely doing journalistic work, even if the motivation of their employers includes a species of brand management.
In this fast changing world we need to move beyond old divisions, and try to think clearly about what matters in journalism as it has been practiced, and how to preserve and evolve reporting of integrity. Part of this involves an acceptance that journalism is being done in many places that are not traditional media organisations.
In my experience, old style journalists tend to conflate two questions that are actually quite separate.
First, there is the question of how to preserve and evolve the kind of quality investigative journalism traditionally done in large newsrooms. There are no easy answers – though academic journalism departments should, through their research, be part of finding the way forward.
But the question of whether there are jobs in journalism is a quite separate issue with a much easier answer. There are plenty of jobs, but they are not where they used to be. It is a rare week in which I don’t take a call from an organisation or individual seeking to recruit our students.
But even leaving all this aside, there are other reasons why journalism educators can be proud of their work.
Many of those who sign up for undergraduate journalism degrees don’t necessarily plan to be journalists. Postgraduate journalism students, as befits their age and greater life experience, tend to be more vocationally focused – but the numbers are smaller in these classes.
And I’ll let you in to a secret. The majority of law graduates never practice law. The majority of graduates from Masters of Business Administration never administer a business. Many accountancy graduates do not become accountants. Many psychology graduates never become clinical psychologists. Yet nobody suggests that because of this, their teachers are frauds or the degrees worthless.
Some analyses by old school reporters suggest that universities, in this field but apparently no other, should ignore the burgeoning demand for these degrees and turn away the many students seeking these skills and qualifications. That universities should pretend that we know better than the smart young people seeking our services.
What a strange idea, particularly as universities are being encouraged to think in a more business-like fashion. Should universities also turn away applicants to enter degrees in the performing arts, because few will make it on to stage and screen? Or close down creative writing degrees, because few will become authors?
It is an odd kind of journalistic self obsession to believe that only one vocational outcome legitimizes the study of the practice.
A good degree in journalism or media and communications provides a useful set of skills and understandings. It has even been suggested that in our increasingly media-enabled world, it is the modern equivalent of an old fashioned classics degree – essential to a full understanding of modern culture.
There is some evidence that journalism graduates do better in the general job market than graduates from generic Bachelor of Arts degrees. We shouldn’t be surprised. A moment’s reflection tells us the value of skills in clear communication and fast research from primary sources.
At the same time, as mainstream media takes fewer trainees, tertiary journalism courses not only teach skills but also pass on and evolve the ethical and professional norms as the practice of journalism fragments and spreads.
For all these reasons and more, a quality journalism degree is fine thing to have, and a good thing to teach.