Journalism hits uncertain terrain

BY CHRIS CLARK | MARCH 23, 2009 7:30 AM

Newspapers are closing, newsrooms are consolidating, and the job market is the worst it has been in years.

UI journalism Professor Judy Polumbaum said for graduating seniors, “the hiring picture does not look good.”

Journalism is changing: More people are turning to the Internet for their news, forcing professionals to work faster on numerous platforms while providing more content at a lower price. At the same time, the industry’s job market is shrinking, making it difficult for journalism students to jump right into the work world.

And though the dwindling economy isn’t the only culprit, it’s a major threat to local, state and national news organizations.

National newspapers are scrambling to adjust to the new demands of the industry. Most recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer canceled its print production and announced it will publish exclusively online.

Last December, the Iowa City Press-Citizen laid off 11 employees, and last month, the Gazette Co. cut 100 of its 600 employees, including more than a dozen from the Gazette newsroom. Gazette Co. officials cited the flood and economy as reasons for the reduction.

“We are reorganizing the structure of the company to make it more flexible going forward,” said Gazette columnist and UI adjunct instructor Jennifer Hemmingsen. “There are a lot of people reading newspapers, just not the paper edition.”

As the job market becomes increasingly competitive, news organizations are looking for employees who can excel in multiple forms of media, Polumbaum said, adding that the trend for entry level journalists is to be in new media, especially Internet-based jobs.

“It’s important to be comfortable picking up new tools, and it’s important to spend time to teach yourself how to use them,” she said.

Wayne Drash, CNN.com’s senior producer for TV/web integration and a UI graduate, said it is imperative for reporters to have a wide variety of multi-media skills.

“The people who are surviving are the reporters and the producers who know how to do some TV work and also write for print mediums,” said Drash, who earned his graduate degree at the UI in 1995 and finished an internship with CNN just as the organization launched CNN.com.

“These days, in the professional world, you can’t see yourself as solely a TV person or solely a web person — you need both skill sets to distinguish yourself as someone who can compete,” he said.

Although new technology is a determining factor for companies looking to hire young journalists, Polumbaum said, practicing the fundamentals — investigating, storytelling, following major news media — is equally important.

“A lot of people say you have to be aggressive, but I don’t think so. You need to be brave, to have a sense of adventure, which is why this is a career for young people,” she said.

UI senior Katie Manning said she’s not sure what she wants to do with her journalism degree when she graduates in May, but she’s not “throwing in the towel.”

“I’m enthusiastic and motivated,” Manning said, “and the fact of the matter is that there are still jobs out there.”

For some, graduate school is an attractive alternative to the formidable job market.

Amy A’Hearn, a UI career adviser for journalism students, said she has no general advice for students deciding whether to go the graduate or the professional route. Instead, she said, she thinks getting an internship before graduation can give students valuable experience working in a professional environment.

“[An internship] is a good way to get a taste of what the job might be like on a full-time basis. Experience like that will make their résumés make it to the top of the pile,” she said.

Applications to the UI’s Journalism and Mass Communications graduate program are down slightly from last year, said Betty Wood, the head of graduate and professional-school admission in the UI Admissions Office.

“Everywhere we look, we hear that journalism is dying,” UI Professor Julie Andsager said. “So, why would you want to get an advanced degree in a discipline where doom is being forecast?”

Andsager, who is also the director of graduate studies for the journalism program, said it’s obvious getting a master’s degree gives students a long-term advantage, but with developing technology and the current state of the economy, news organizations are more likely to hire tech-savvy young journalists who will work for less pay than veterans.

“In my opinion, it’s just better to go out and get a job right away,” she said.

But for Polumbaum, succeeding as a young journalist amounts to one thing: the desire to serve the public.

“You have to want to do it. You have to be passionate. You need an inner drive, and no one can teach you that,” she said.

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