January 3, 2017

Since today’s college journalism students have been in school, the forecasts for their futures has been filled with words like “layoffs,” “cutbacks,” “buyouts” and “freelance.”

And yet, when I asked journalism professor friends of mine to recommend top graduating students I should interview, I found every newly minted journalist optimistic about the future, despite the uncertainties that await them.

I conducted nine interviews with graduating seniors from schools large and small. They plan on working in radio, TV, online and print. And they had some remarkable similarities:

— Every student I spoke with said their main motivation for being a journalist is “to make a difference.”

— All but one hail from families that watched the news together or at least talked about news events regularly. Most of the students said their parents were avid newspaper consumers.

— Every student said they are well-aware that they won’t make much money, at least for a while, and they are prepared to adjust their lives to that reality if they can be a journalist. Several said they grew up modestly, so not having much money would be no big adjustment.

— All of these top students read online newspapers and many watch local and national TV newscasts at least three times a week. All say their habits are very different from their classmates. They all say that journalists rely too much on news that is entertaining and not enough on truly important news that is interesting and important.

— Most of the students said their families and close friends warned them they might be making a “bad career choice.”

— Every student said their college experience equipped them to report on several platforms, and they were not overly concerned that they might have to file stories on several platforms.

— Every student I spoke with described at least one professor or teacher in college who was instrumental in their lives. In every case, the students said the qualities they valued most in their teacher/mentors was honesty and that the teacher would make time to listen to problems.

Now, let’s meet the graduates:

Melissa Behling: Graduates in May 2017 from University of Wisconsin-Madison. She hopes to do video documentary journalism.

Amber Hair: Graduated in December 2016 from University of Central Florida. She already has a job at The Villages Daily Sun newspaper in Florida.

Micaela Colonna: Graduated in December 2016 from Michigan State University. She wants to be a TV news producer.

Sage Speaks: Graduated in December 2016 from the University of Tennessee. She has a job at a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina TV station as a multimedia journalist.

Paxton DiBlasi: Graduated in December 2016 from The University of Missouri. He has a job in local TV producing job in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Emma Balkenbush: Graduated in December 2016 from the University of Missouri. She is looking for a TV reporting job.

Donovan Harrell: Graduated in December 2016 from Florida A&M. He has interned at The Daytona Beach News-Journal, CBS News in New York and Politico. His heart is in print and loves to write in the “broadcasting style.”

Benjamin Payne: Graduated in December 2016 from Augustana College with a multimedia journalism and mass communication degree. He has a love for radio and hopes to turn a recent radio internship into a career.

Wesley Early: Graduated in May 2016 from the University of Alaska. He is the web producer for the statewide NPR affiliate in Alaska.

Here are the interviews:

Why would a smart young person like you choose journalism when you could make a lot more and work a lot less doing something else?

“A couple of people in my church ask me the same thing — the work is meaningful. It matters to people, it matters to communities,” Hair told me.

She likes working in print in part because she has something to hold and share.

“Telling people’s stories is a huge thing, and it makes a difference to the people whose stories you tell and the people who read it. That is meaningful,” she said. “Honestly, I worked a job where my writing was not meaningful in marketing, I was utterly miserable in that job. I need to know my writing is meaningful. I have heard journalists described as the richest poor person.”

Here’s what the other students told me:

How much news do you consume? Where and how do you get your news?

“I listen to podcasts, that is how I get most of my audio,” Payne said. “I rarely listen to terrestrial radio. In terms of reading, I read stuff that other newsmakers I follow on Twitter share. Every few days I read a newspaper, but only because my mom wants me to and won’t shut up until I do.”

Here’s where the other grads get their news:

How did your parents’ news consumption habits influence what you watch, read, listen to?

“When I was little, I would get up every morning and the Detroit local news was on,” Colonna said. “I grew up knowing the names of our reporters at a very young age. Then at 7 o’clock the Today Show came on.”

As she got older, Colonna told her mom she wanted Katie Couric’s job someday.

“My family is not afraid to talk to me about the news,” she said. “I remember my dad sitting me down at 9/11 trying to explain to me when I was 7 years old.”

All of the graduates had their own stories about how their parents shaped their view of the news:

What do media companies need to change to attract more young news consumers?

“I think now first you have to address the generation of cord-cutters,” DiBlasi said. “They are not investing in cable if it does not come with their housing. To get them to watch news you have to offer them something.”

But journalists have to do more than cover the spectacles, he said. And everyone has to learn how to discern real news from fake news, Hair said. She got into a discussion with a smart friend after the election and realized he was relying on sources that weren’t legitimate.

“That is part of the real problem. The truth does still matter,” she said. “We will have to spend some actual time informing people how to identify what propaganda looks like. For the most part, it is kind of subtle now. It looks like news.”

For many of the grads, good storytelling was also essential:

Tell me about a teacher/professor who has been a significant influence in your life. Tell me one saying or phrase that teacher taught you that will stick with you through life.

“My teacher Pat Hastings,” Behling said. “She is engaged with the students, wants to know everybody. She puts a lot of heart into what she does.”

When Behling would go to Hastings office to talk about her fears about the industry, Hastings always knew what to say and where Behling should look.

Some other inspiring professors:

How worried are you about the future of journalism?

“It is so frustrating, so unbelievably frustrating,” Speaks said.

There have been many times when she’s wondered if she’ll be able to make a career out of journalism or if the industry was going to die out completely. She’s thought seriously about how she’ll make a living as a journalist.

“Pay is not a huge concern for me,” she said. “If it was, I would’ve dropped this major in my freshman year. It weeds people out quickly. It is not about the money for me, it is about the story and telling the truth and telling things that need to be uncovered.”

Here’s what the other grads said:

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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