BOSTON-Last week, journalism was named the number one “Most Useless College Major,” according to an article featured in The Daily Beast that ranked degrees according to salaries and job growth.
The starting salary for young journalists is $35,000 with a decrease in job availability of -6.32 percent as listed in the feature. Comments on the article’s webpage displayed impassioned responses. Most of the remarks were critical of The Daily Beast, citing that the article marginalized the worth of the majors described.
Considering these results, what is the true value of a journalism degree?
From the perspective of Belle Adler, associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, the discussion starts with an exploration of why journalists are paid so little. “One of the reasons [journalism] is devalued is because writers aren’t really making a product…The newspaper company is making money from somebody else and journalists don’t see the profits, as opposed to scientists who get paid directly for their research from a university or foundation,” Adler said in an interview over the phone Monday afternoon.
Boston University pre-law student Josh Niland offered another view. He said journalism isn’t a lucrative field because news is now “very fast, very entertaining and meant to excite people.” Niland added, “When people grow up in that and they come to expect that, the demand for real journalism – well written and concise articles – isn’t there.”
Still, Bob Conrad expanded the view that the education of journalism students is partly to blame. Conrad - a P.R. specialist, media blogger, and author of The Good, The Bad, The Spin - said in an interview over the phone, “The problem with journalism schools is that they’re slow to adapt to the changing journalistic climate, and more broadly, universities are slow to challenge their journalism schools to adjust to the marketplace.”
Conrad cited tenured professors, low funding, and long waiting periods for course changes as causes of the resistance. Many colleges have had to restructure or even close their journalism programs due to the factors Conrad mentioned.
On April 14, the board of regents at the University of Colorado at Boulder voted to shut down its School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The university is implementing a “Journalism Plus” program in which students can take journalism as a minor or additional major.
At the other end, Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication offers classes in digital media and online journalism using up-to-date technology, but the change took years to execute, according to university officials. Even with the modifications that are taking place on campuses across the country, a gap still exists between what colleges are able to teach and what students need to know.
This raises the question: What, specifically, are students not learning?
For David Weintraub, an education in journalism should be focused on aesthetics. The visual communications instructor at the University of South Carolina said in an email interview, “Journalism now is all about visual communication. The image is doing the heavy lifting in conveying ideas and emotions, whether on the Internet, in TV, or in film.”
He added that “we spend so much time teaching students to understand written texts – novels, plays, poems – and very little time teaching students how to analyze images, yet, we encounter them far more on an average day than we do written texts.”
In an opinion piece by Alexander Kaufman in Emerson College’s The Berkeley Beacon on Monday, the political communications junior expanded upon Weintraub’s ideas about communication using images. Kaufman listed the databases of WikiLeaks and The New York Times as visual models for what journalism students should be learning.
“The speedy visualization of information databases not only makes it easier for people to explore information and discover their own paths to personal relevance,” he said, “it can help journalists create change.”
According to Kaufman, social media is a big player in the movement toward image-based journalism. “Many of my classmates’ future work may lose relevance to a wider audience that is in need of something more than carefully worded blurbs that say in 500 words what could be put in 140 characters,” he wrote.
Douglas Struck disagreed. Struck, a seasoned writer with 35 years experience, does not think social media adds value to a journalism degree. In using Twitter as an example he said, “[It’s] a fad. I think 140 characters is going to be considered the Citizens’ Band Radio of our age…It’s too limited.”
Though Bob Conrad denounces social media several times in his blog, he admitted that it can be helpful to journalists when used in the right way. “The [new] technology is widely available and easy to use, so people think they’re good at it, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
He mentioned the P.R. campaign that handled the GE tax scandal this year as an example of how experts were unable to answer simple questions using Twitter. The author said that journalism students have to have knowledge of the new technology available, but they need to be taught how to use it effectively.
According to Conrad, “new technology” isn’t limited to social media; it includes “citizen journalism” tools as well. Weintraub expanded on Conrad’s argument by adding that “almost nothing important in the world will go unrecorded and will be up on the Internet in a matter of minutes. It’s fundamentally changed our notion of ‘news’,’” he said.
With citizen journalism becoming more popular, does a college student need to major in journalism to be a journalist?
Professor Adler doesn’t think so. “It doesn’t matter how you get there as long as you get there. If you came out of high school and you want to study journalism, why not?” she said. “On the other hand, you can be just as good a journalist as a history major, for example. It’s not one of those things where you have to have [a journalism degree], but for some people, it works.”
Struck took a more pragmatic approach to the question. He maintained that it’s hard enough for recent grads with journalism degrees to find a job. It would be “infinitely harder” for a person to work as a journalist without a journalism degree because the education comes with skills that “you can’t simply pick up [on the job].”
Conrad expanded by saying, “It’s a very valuable degree. You learn a little bit about law, you learn about ethics, you learn how to write, how to lay out a page, and all the things that encompass the profession.”
In the end, professionals and amateurs alike differ on the role of social media, the effect of citizen journalism, the details of what students should be learning, and the utility of a journalism degree in finding a job. Though some students may disagree, the value of the major does not depend on money, according to professors. It depends on the student’s own passion and dedication to the written word.
Struck offered this final piece of advice to students: “You shouldn’t go into [journalism] expecting to get rich…You should go into it because it’s a hell of a lot of fun and a great career.” Struck said, “Journalism gives us a license to step into somebody else’s life and absorb what they do…You can’t get that in any other profession.”