The future of journalism

Here’s a question: what’s the job future for journalism students?

I get it every time I address an information session for students-to-be and, every time, it flummoxes me. The most honest answer I have –– that I have some ideas about what’s coming, but nothing with any certainty to it — doesn’t carry the type of weight that any of the students (or the accompanying parents) are looking for.

And the generic approach — that while the craft is awash in uncertainty, there will always be the demand for journalists — clangs with the hollow sound of an advertising slogan. What is that need? Indeed.

If I deal in stats, I have the likes of this: an 18 per cent drop in the number of journalists employed at major American dailies between 1992 and 2002. If I look at what’s happening on local ground, in the community newspaper field in the suburbs of Vancouver, there has been a slow and steady retrenching as newspapers have shed photographers and reporters to get down to staff levels that are sufficient to make sure none of the pages go the printers without type on them.

The grad trail helps a little more, but not much. No matter how assiduously we try to track grads, about a third of them drop off the radar almost as soon as they graduate. Another third wind up working in newspapers within six months and the rest seem to wander in and out of media over the years.

So the question hangs in front of me (what’s the job future for journalism students?) while I stumble to wrap it all together — the trends, the history, the uncertainty — into a palatable answer.
It may be the hardest work I do. No one can say with any certainty what the future of newspaper journalism is. (Philip Meyers’s oft-quoted observation from The Vanishing Newspaper, that extending the dropping line on the graph of newspaper readers out into the future means the last newspaper will roll of the presses in April 2040, was a deliberate overstatement.) The blue-skyers see a future of citizens and journalists partying together to create a revitalized and locally-grounded media; the cynics, a continual decline of a public interested in anything as serious as news; the critics, a welcome end to mass media of any kind.

On any given day I wander freely from camp to camp, now invigorated, now despairing, now resigned to more of the same and a steady decline in the value and quality of the thing. Keeping up with all this is hard work, and can be hard on the emotions.

So far, my best guess is that 10 years from now there will be a need for many more journalists than we currently have, because of a basic hunger for information being fed by a ubiquitous, always-on Internet. We are working toward immersion in a mediascape (the way we are now moving through a landscape) and many somebodies are going to have to feed that beast.

But while I see more, I also see fewer working in what we now define the newsroom as. It seems likely the centralized, physical gathering space is an industrial-age concept that’s bound to pass for any number of reasons. A few of them: telecommuting (a term that already seems quaint), the collapse of the editorial pyramid in favour of direct one-to-many and many-to-one communication and interactivity, the rise of citizen-as-journalist and journalist-as-citizen, “official media’s” use of such aggregating, anyone-can-be-published sites as Flickr and YouTube. There are more reasons, of course.

None of what I see coming is the result of off-the-top-of-my-head thinking. For the past three and a bit years, it’s been a rare day that I haven’t spent time thinking about what journalism is and is becoming, or tracking the too-rapid changes, or pondering the implications of the latest buyout or newest application of technology.

It’s still difficult, though, to roll that, and the current reality of the trade, into a sound bite suitable to answer the eager young student (or tuition-paying parent) who poses the question: After graduation, what are the job prospects in journalism?

I suspect I’ll keep stumbling through that for a while yet.

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