As newspapers undergo sweeping changes, student journalists are forced to adapt

Max Stendahl

If recent history is any indication, the death of the American print newspaper might come sooner than expected.

Though not yet extinct, city dailies are in steep decline, struggling to adjust to the online age and plunged deeper in the red by the economic crisis. Major publications are slashing payroll and cutting whole sections to stay afloat, while some, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, have filed for bankruptcy. Even The Gray Lady is feeling the pinch: the New York Times is currently more than $1 billion in debt.

But it isn’t just professional journalists who are feeling the effects. Now more than ever before, students considering careers in newspaper and magazine journalism are grappling with uncertainty.

“There’s a lot of fear [among students],” said Juliette Mullin, executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper. “I see a lot of people who have been thinking of careers in journalism who are now turning away from it.”

As students wonder what the future holds, colleges and universities have been forced to modernize their journalism curriculum to prepare graduates for an industry in upheaval.

The Villanova Communication Department has modified its theory-based courses, eliminating “Theories of Rhetoric” in favor of the more current “Theories of Visual Communication and Culture.” Courses in media production now teach students how to use Photoshop and digital photography, and develop personal web-pages and blogs.

“This is a reflection of the fact that to be a journalist today, you really shouldn’t think about it as strictly print-based,” said Brian Crable, the Communication chair, about his department’s changes. “Even if you’re interested in going to work for a magazine or newspaper, to think of yourself as just being oriented toward print is not a good strategy. It’s not a good strategy for you personally, and it’s also not a viable long-term strategy for your career.”

Crable, echoing the advice of other industry experts interviewed for this article, said that students must now learn a variety of media platforms to keep their skills marketable.

Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covered the U.S. Supreme Court over three decades with the New York Times, said aspiring reporters should write for their school newspaper and obtain internships to gain added experience.

“What I always tell people is to just be flexible,” she said. “There is always going to be an appetite for news. That appetite is never going away.”

Gerry Marzorati, an Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times and Villanova alum, said that student anxiety about journalism is as old as journalism itself.

“Of course students should be fearful about pursuing a career in journalism, but that is nothing new,” he wrote in an email. “There has never been much security in being a writer or an editor, and anyone who feels she or he requires that – which is completely understandable – should be doing something else.”

Still, he said, journalism remains an attractive field for those willing to adapt to a new business model.

“If you are wildly curious, quickened by deadlines, and long to be caught up in the times in which you live, journalism is incredibly satisfying,” he said.

But with national newspapers looking moribund, satisfaction has turned to worry.

Daily print circulation has dropped from a peak of 62 million two decades ago to around 49 million today, while online readership – most of it free of charge – has risen to nearly 75 million Americans, according to Nielsen Online.

As a result, advertising revenues are down sharply and newspaper publishers are being forced to cut thousands of jobs as they sink deeper into debt.

These problems, Crable said, are the result of generational changes, as people begin to access and share information in entirely new ways.

“Changes in people’s relationship to technology and communications have an impact on industries – especially industries like journalism,” he said. “That means that things are going to change. They’re never going to go back to the way they were.”

Mullin insisted that journalism is merely going through a difficult but necessary transformation.

“I don’t think journalism is dying, and I don’t think that every student who is looking for a job in journalism right now is destined for poverty,” she said. “I think that student journalism is changing.”