Is Journalism Education The Problem?

I am a both a journalism educator and the product of journalism schools.  And I wonder if the current problems facing newspapers in particular and journalism in general are a product of that education?

I’m not out to slam any j-profs or j-teachers.  I am one and know a great many.  They are all great at what they do – teach the theory and practice of news gathering and news product creation in all its many forms.  What they are not good at is teaching business.

When I was in college and when I worked in the professional media world (newspaper, TV and radio) there was almost always a wall (both figuratively and often literally) between content and advertising.  Most newsroom types didn’t want to get their hands dirty dealing with the business side.  The newsroom’s conception of things was that it is the ad department’s job to pay the bills and it is my job to report the news.

I even remember several ethics classes and discussions where we talked about how important it was to keep a distance from our advertisers, so that we would not be tainted when they were involved in a story we were covering.

When I worked in broadcast, lenslingers usually detested “sales” as the ad department was known.  They were usually creating havoc for us by creating promotional campaigns that required the production department to create promo spots and other materials.  Or they were complaining because we didn’t shoot a local commercial correctly.

The only place I ever worked where there was a certain level of connection to paying the bills by the content creation department was at PBS.  I worked for a medium sized PBS affiliate in Texas and when you work at PBS, you learn about pledge drives, actions and other types of fund-raising.  Everyone understands that their own job is partially supported by that fund-raising.

But even after working at a PBS affiliate for more than two years, it was a shock when I was now in charge of a yearbook and a newspaper when I started teaching.

As the journalism teacher, you are held accountable for the bottom line of every publication you sponsor.  I was terrified.  I did not have an accounting background.  As a college student I had overdrawn my checkbook – twice.

I will say that I was a quick study.  In 15 years, we have only gone into the red twice on the yearbook.  Our newspaper has never done well financially, but we’ve kept it out of danger.  This has always been a struggle for me, both as a journalist and as an educator.  I was not given any professional training in either my journalism classes or my education courses for purchasing equipment, dealing with vendors, approaching advertisers or fund-raising.  And even if I wanted to learn such things in college, there were no courses designed to teach this information.

We need to do a better job of integrating the business department into the journalism curriculum and the education curriculum.  Both journalists and teachers need more business skills than they are given (which is zero).   We should invite the business departments at major universities to teach a course in media funding and revenue creation.  They should also create one for educational purchasing, fund-raising and budgeting.

I think this would go far to change journalists and educators expectations and ability to create funding streams and manage resources based on cost analysis and not pie in the sky, wishful thinking.

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12 Comments

  1. As a current journalism student this is a bit of a concern to me. I think maybe there’s too much of an idea of journalism being all about great writing and as a social service. The business side of it seems to get swept under the rug as it’s not as attractive to students.

    • I totally understand. I know that a part of my own reason for becoming a journalist and then a teacher was to avoid having to sell things or “shudder” actually make money. I wanted a career that was part something I liked (writing, shooting video) and part community service (informing, teaching). Yet, in both careers I’ve come back again and again to sales and funding. I wish I had taken more business courses.

  2. Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s not “publish or perish,” but “sell or perish.” Blegh.

  3. thanks for the boost to business education; unfortunately we are dying on the vine in the high schools. No one wants to pay for the teacher. It’s easier to buy English and math teachers.

    • Yeah, I think that if you are not a core subject teacher soon there won’t be a place for any of us. Good thing I’m certified to teach social studies too! NCLB is going to be the death of all creativity in schools. We will all have to teach a tested subject.

  4. I’m desperately trying to find new ways to fund the yearbook right now, so your post is timely. I’m honestly thinking of alternative ways to publish the book – right now we are so far in debt I can’t see a way out. We do not splurge on our books. We don’t buy fancy covers, and we don’t do anything that costs extra anywhere in the book. Yet we can’t even come close to the black… this year we have tried harder than ever to sell more books, yet we are hundreds short of our goal. I just wish I knew more about the business side.

  5. I hear you. I actually started different job positions for my yearbook staff: business and tech. I think I’ll need to add a few more positions in business this upcoming year, to manage fundraisers and more of them. They are my “treasurers.” But it’s still tough; like most journalism advisers, I don’t know much in the way of business.

    Zegelis, we can talk. The first thing I’d do is communicate with the school bank (seek his or her advice), and with your publishing representative. The publisher wants to keep your business, and if your rep is as good, they will fight and figure out a way to get you through the year. They’re sales folk! They speak business, so learn from them and have your students learn from them as well. They will also aide in establishing a viable budget for the next year. Gather data from this year, to establish how many books you can sell. As much as it may hurt, you may need to bring down the number of books you print to how many you sell this year. But supply affects demand; next year, you can make the “GET YOUR BOOK WHILE IT’S STILL THERE!” a selling point!

    I cannot stress enough how book sales are based on the culture of the school. I walked into a culture of apathy, and it has taken years to just begin to tip the scales of public opinion, toward having pride and prestige in the book (and wanting to buy a copy of it!). At this point, though, I’d push for publishing a book that your students would be proud of.

  6. I come from a similar background (j-school, professional journalist, high school journalism teacher), but have to say that we teach business principles as part of the high school curriculum not only because we have to pay the bills, but also because it’s good to get the kids exposure to every side of the business. That being said, I also teach journalism ethics, and the kids learn early to separate news-gathering from money-grubbing. I have no problem having the pros try to make ends meet from the business side, but wouldn’t the temptation be even greater as a professional journalist to cater to business interests in order to a) make the payroll and b) get a story? Makes me uncomfortable. PS: Don’t forget mañana’s Sx3!

    • I fully understand and even agree with what you are saying. But I do think that too many journalists don’t really understand how their own business works. I don’t think that journalism in the future will allow that.

      Of course high school publications have to meet the bottom line. But so many students don’t always understand just how advertising works or how it can be used to meet business needs.

      Journalists need to know how to work with businesses to help them get their information out and advertise their products in a smarter way, but in an ethical manner and with an understanding that the business has not “bought” the copy desk.

      I think that journalists that focus more on local will be a bigger part of their communities and these kinds of relationships will foster the kind of partnerships we need. But only if we have hard charging journalists out there who want their publication to succeed both editorially and financially. But the first step is educating journalists on the financial end better.

  7. I love this post and all of the comments. Where to start? I remember the discussions in j-school never to sully oneself with the taint of advertising (the horror!). As I was reading, I started wondering if Kent State’s Scholastic Journalism program offers business classes for future advisers. I think you’re right in that we do need to be trained in business. I’ve learned on the fly and we manage to stay out of debt.

    I do not have the kind view toward publisher’s reps that you have though. When I first became involved with our yearbook, it was $20K in debt (yes, that’s right…20K). That was, in part, the result of a rep preying on an inexperienced adviser who didn’t want the job anyway. That rep was rather disappointed when we said goodbye at the end of that academic year. We had slashed our costs and the size of the book to close the gap. Another teacher had a group of kids that did NOTHING BUT fund-raising. We made it. To this day, We order less than 10% over our total sales (less this year). We almost always sell out.

    I am much happier with our current publisher. My questions are responded to immediately and ALL of my billing questions are explained thoroughly.

    I am worried about taking over our newspaper next year. I still have to spend time with the current adviser (who is retiring) on budget issues. He has run a pretty tight ship for many years, so I know he’s leaving me in good shape. I’m just seeing budgeting as a completely different animal with a paper.

    I am very lucky that we are partly funded by the Regional Occupational Program (ROP) in our county. They pay my salary and major equipment purchases. However, because their funding is tied to the state budget, I know that this might not last forever, so we can’t be loose with our cash.

    I’m not sure what the future holds, but it seems that business and sales training would be good for advisers. It would help use keep our programs going and going and going.

    • This post has been a great thread and I appreciate everyone who has commented.

      Our yearbook was also in the hole when I took it over 14 years ago, but not as bad as yours. We were $2,000 in the red plus we were stuck with another $2,400 in computer debt for an underpowered machine my predecessor bought.

      We managed to climb out of that debt in two years and stayed out of debt until 9/11 crushed our 2002 book sales. We slowly climbed out of that debt by 2005. We have only had two years of losses in 14 years. But one bad year can cause 3-4 years of pain. Here we are facing who knows how many bad years? I am worried for our yearbook’s future. It has been the historical record of the school since 1945.

      Our newspaper has fared less well. We have started, stopped and started and stopped printing twice in 14 years. We are now an online publication. I hope to print issues in the future, but who knows.

      Our funding is entirely campus based and at the whim of the principal. We’ve been blessed in the past with principals who were very supportive of the program. But we’ve suffered budget cuts recently that put everything we’ve built for nearly 15 years in jeopardy. My own contract was renewed for three more years, which is good, but it will be next to meaningless if we can’t afford equipment, computers and software. It would be a journalism/media program in name only.

      I understand that everyone is facing budget cuts, but in my lab the margins were already so close that we cut all training and workshops this year. I’m sure that we will see a drop in our ability to create with the same quality as before.

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