The Truth About Journalism’s Future

Right now, I have five former students studying some kind of media or journalism.  One is a senior at North Texas studying graphic design and film, one is a junior who just finished as the editor at her junior college newspaper and will be studying journalism at Texas State, and the other three will be freshmen: one at the University of Texas studying PR, one at Sam Houston State studying graphic design and one at the Art Institute studying visual design and photography.

The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a teacher is make sure that each one understood just how tough the job market is and how it is likely to get worse, not better in the near future.  Journalism and media careers are tough right now.  But there are a few things that can help or hurt them if they understand the playing field.

First, they need to understand that traditional news organizations are overstaffed for the internet age.  Here’s the problem in a nutshell.

Too many journalists, too few stories.

Too many journalists, too few stories.

This photo really tells the story.  Back in the day, this was a success story for media.  It let the powerful know they were somebody by the number of cameras and microphones stuck in their faces.  But, in the internet age, you do not have to watch your local TV station or read your local newspaper to get the news of the world.  Having 50 journalists covering the same story is wasteful of resources and is one factor dragging the news media down.  A small number of journalists could do the same job for less money.  That has to happen because ad money is less online than in print and print ad money is dwindling.  Media outlets need to decide what they want to focus on and then jettison the rest.  This is happening and will be painful.

I live in a major metro area.  The local newspaper could probably be run with 40 percent of the current staff, maybe even less.  Most local papers should focus on local news – city hall, schools, traffic, courts, local sports (not pro/college unless the team is in your town), local culture (theater, arts, food, performances) local industry/business and that’s about it.  They need to stop trying to cover state and national government – too expensive.  Stop covering international news – way too expensive. In today’s paper there are only 26 local stories in the 58 page print edition, and that was counting all five counties in our metro area as local.  That’s only one story for every two pages – too much of that news can be found online and done by reporters closer to the story in other publications.

Cut back on mid-level editors and designers.  Reporters must be designers and editors now.  Reporters also need to shoot/edit photos and video.  In the future I don’t see much room for photographers and camera operators.  Those used to be “extra” skills, now they are essential.  Every reporter must blog, twitter and use social media. Every photographer must write and design.  The newsroom will shrink and one trick ponies days are numbered.

Additionally, why even have a newsroom?  What an expense.  Have a small “office space” located near the majority of the local offices you must cover, usually downtown.  Everything else can be done via Skype and Google Docs collaboratively.  Don’t waste reporter’s time coming in to the office.  They only need a laptop, cell phone and a camera – plus an internet connection.

This is the second thing I tell my students, they must be prepared for the internet age.  I was an unusual journalism student for the 1980s.  I was a “print” major, but I took every design class and every video class I could.  I was well-rounded when I graduated and ended up in TV.  Today, students need to be able to write, design (print and web) and do visual journalism (photos/video).  Those are the MUST have skills.  It doesn’t matter if you want to work for a TV Station (soon to be more online, than over the air), print media (soon to be more online than on dead trees), in PR (must work with all forms of media and more often online), film (start-ups/indy all online), or some thing else – the same skill set is needed.

Finally, I tell them that they need to be the best at what they do and be a self-promoter.  The media organizations of tomorrow will require reporters who can sell themselves and their product.  It’s a loud world on the internet and to be heard, you better be good and creative.  I think there will be plenty of opportunity after the current “media crisis” dies down.  Right now there are too many bloated media organizations with legacy thinking, legacy costs and employees that can only do one thing.  The future of media is smaller, mobile, multimedia journalism with employees that CAN do it all.  How do I know it can be done?  Because I teach print, video, photo, design and web.  If an old dog like me can learn new tricks, these young pups can too.