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Minding Our Business



October 2013

Journalism still a viable career choice

Recently journalism school alumnus Jon Turner wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Gamecock, USC's student newspaper. Turner described his five years of newsroom experience and his reasons for leaving. His prerogative. But he also summons all journalism students to join him in abandoning ship:

As a Gamecock alumnus and editor with five years' experience, I'm telling you: Don't do it! The industry is hemorrhaging its best employees, and there's no indication that the downward trend in job quality, pay and benefits will turn around.

As journalists well know, there is usually more than one side to a story. Daily Gamecock managing editor Thad Moore invited me to respond to Turner's letter that appeared in the September 27 edition. I accepted. Here's my response from the September 30 issue.

Alumnus Jon Turner laments the state of journalism in his letter (from Sept. 27), suggesting journalism students would be better advised to "follow the money" rather than their passion for journalism. Following the money is itself a good journalistic practice. It's what Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein to do in unearthing the details of the Nixon Watergate scandal. It's the money trail that often brings politicians, shady corporate types, deluded athletic stars and the occasional despot to heel. While Turner appears to be suggesting that our school's 1,500 undergraduate students — in journalism, public relations, advertising, visual communications et al — may be wasting their time and money, there are valuable suggestions in his letter.

He tells students interested in journalism to "specialize or double major in fields such as history, economics, statistics and the sciences." Absolutely. Set yourself apart from the field. It's why we are introducing more business journalism, big data and other specialized courses in the school's newly revised curriculum.

He quotes a "cynical friend" who acknowledges that "a degree that requires and shows a person has writing skills can prove useful." Hard to argue with that. Those skills can be applied pretty much to all occupations. Ex-journalist Turner appears to have taken them with him when he left the newsroom.

He writes a good letter, provides illustrative quotes and appropriately cites his sources. None of that "some say" or "everyone knows." That would be poor journalism.

He credits senior journalism instructor Doug Fisher's admittedly daunting copy editing course for the skills he continues to use. How is that wasting money?

Turner is correct in noting that newsrooms are more thinly populated than they once were, that some organizations seem to have made a trade-off of experience for entry-level salaries: "devours its young and abandons its old." Hyperbole? Or the plot line for some new macabre entertainment hit?

Perhaps the latter half of the 20th century was the heyday of journalism, particularly with the advent of television. Earnestly competitive, an illusion of glamour and statistically skewed high salaries at its peak.

The transformative effect of digital media, the Internet and global communication has had a bifurcating impact. Some of what we encounter is journalism; most is not. Turner writes that "(t)he media is not ‘in transition.'" I disagree. The media are in transition; media are always in transition. We're not dealing with hot type, cold type, Gutenberg's type or Moses' stone tablets. There is undoubtedly more journalism being done today in more venues than ever.

The impact of the new media paradigm is that we all can do it — whatever "it" is — but we cannot all do it well.

Want to write? Want to tell stories? At its essence, that's what journalists do. Want to convey what is vitally important, of momentary significance or just plain fascinating?

I'd still study journalism. (I also studied Russian and it led to a career that had East-West, Cold War dynamics as its core for more than 30 years.) I'd combine skills and subject knowledge into a desirable package that would enable me to deliver content to whatever platform reaches attentive audiences. I'd also be sure I had the entrepreneurial gumption to sell those stories myself if needed.

In the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, we can't guarantee our students a career that leads to a Pulitzer or Emmy. But the university's science programs can't promise a Nobel. The arts disciplines can't assure an Oscar.

To our current and future students, I would say there are graduates of our program who have intriguing jobs in journalism, in the broader communications industry and in disparate fields where their skills are still valued, even if the product is something entirely different.

Meanwhile, our colleagues at the University of Georgia have released their annual national survey of journalism graduates that shows "signs of continued improvement in 2012 and 2013" in the job market with higher salaries than a year ago. Details are here>

It's not yet a reason to be euphoric, but it is an encouraging sign for those of us who think journalism is still a worthy career

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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