With Few Job Prospects, Journalism Students Should Learn Web Skills

Pity the college journalism senior trying to get hired in today’s labor market.

Some of my students are asking me if they’ll find jobs or internships when they graduate in May. Others lament their choice of major. Who can blame them? Since the current crop of journalism students signed up for their major two to four years ago, the industry has become about as stable as quicksand.

The New York Times and Rolling Stone have shrunk, literally. U.S. News & World Report and The Christian Science Monitor have pulled back on print to focus on the Web. The New York Sun has disappeared altogether, and drastic cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs have permeated the media business — newspapers in particular.

Recruiters and career counselors agree that journalism students, particularly those who are seniors now, will face extraordinary challenges landing jobs in a field that was highly competitive even before the bottom fell out of the economy.

Consider the competition: there are 474 colleges in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that offer journalism and mass communications programs, and they pumped out 49,930 students with bachelor’s degrees and 3,780 with master’s degrees in the spring of 2007, according to Lee B. Becker, a University of Georgia journalism professor who directs an extensive survey of journalism graduates every year.

“I wouldn’t want to be looking for a job,” said Becker. “It’s an industry in turmoil and I think the messages for us as educators and students are not clear.”

However, recruiters and career counselors say there are clear trends in the industry that offer clues for young journalism job hunters seeking to stay competitive. Their advice in a nutshell: Go Web, young man (and woman).

Online work is becoming more prevalent for grads, according to Becker’s survey. In 2007, 55.6 percent of B.A. graduates with jobs in communications wrote and edited online, compared with 41.5 percent a year earlier and 30.3 percent in 2005. (Becker stressed that Web-only companies didn’t necessarily employ these graduates, but some part of their jobs involved working on a Web site.)

Recognizing this trend, journalism programs around the country have been trying to retool their curricula rapidly to offer courses that teach writing for the Web and familiarize students with the software used in the multimedia environment, such as Adobe’s Premiere Pro for editing video, Flash for presenting video online and creating interactive presentations, and Dreamweaver for building Web sites.

Ernest Sotomayor, assistant dean of career services at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, said everyone in the J-School’s Master of Science program now graduates with basic multimedia skills.

In the workplace, Sotomayor said, “multimedia can mean so many different things. In some cases it just means being able to record sound. In others it means being able to produce a full-fledged radio story. In some cases it means being able to go out and report the story, write for online, shoot video, edit from the field, and update for the print edition. And in some cases it means shooting the pictures, creating a slideshow, putting it in Flash, and doing all that in addition to reporting.”

Not all journalism programs have gotten their multimedia offerings up and running yet. But Joe Grimm, a Poynter columnist and former recruiter of 18 years for the Detroit Free Press, said students need not wait for their schools to offer tech courses — they can easily do it alone. His advice: Start a blog, build a Web site, work with friends to start a news service or join an existing one. There are online courses that make this possible, he said. Recruiters will be impressed by such entrepreneurial activities and weigh them the way they do clips and a resume, he said.

For Eldra Gillman, director of diversity recruiting and education for CBS Corp., any student with tech skills stands head and shoulders over someone who needs training.

“Every year the bar goes up,” said Gillman, who oversees internship recruitment for CBS TV and radio nationwide, as well as CBS Outdoor and Simon & Schuster. Entry-level jobs are harder to come by, and internships are becoming more important as a way in for young journalists. She said that the students who land internships at CBS typically are juniors and seniors who’ve done two previous internships elsewhere and can show experience on school publications.

Slackers need not apply. “Nowadays,” she said, “everybody has to be able to do everything.”

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