I have no idea what I will do when I graduate. I am majoring in journalism at New York University — a fantastic university in an incredible city — but my confidence in what career I will pursue after graduation remains unclear. Should I go after my passion for writing? Should I take a crack at my web video skills? Should I follow my current social media marketing path? Should I go to grad school?
Just last week Sarah Lacy, BusinessWeek columnist and avid Twitterista, asked why anyone would enroll in journalism school. She was baffled by the recent surge in J-school applications and said, “Journalism schools are like foot-binding. They force you into a style that a bunch of dinosaurs all agreed was acceptable a zillion years ago. So in an age of blogging, you have no voice.”
I understand Lacy’s skepticism and downright disapproval. Journalism as a career has always revolved more around hands-on experience than textbook memorization, and journalism schools have not been the quickest to adopt new media classes.
But what if it’s too late to change your major? What if you already spent the last three and a half years analyzing New York Times articles, reading about Woodward and Bernstein and studying journalism ethics?
J-school undergrads in 2009 are faced with more than one conundrum: They can go to grad school, but may not make enough money to pay off their loans afterward; they could work at a newspaper, but it might not exist in three to five years; they could drop everything and become entrepreneurs, but will likely fail. The economy is in shambles and the industry they were trained to enter is in its last breath. “Journalism” in itself will still exist, but how and in what form remains a mystery.
As death-of-print experts argue back and forth over where “it’s all going,” J-schoolers patiently watch the tennis match of conflicting ideas, waiting for an answer.
Scared, Worried, Nervous
NYU junior Iman Richardson says she will cry when she graduates and that she’s “scared as hell.” She wishes J-school focused more on educating students into becoming well-rounded journalists with backgrounds in production, editing, print, broadcast, blogging and more. And despite her social media skills, Richardson is not looking forward to landing a digital job. “It takes away the hold-it-in-your-hand charm that made me fall in love with journalism to begin with,” she says.
Taylor Riggs, senior, is also not sure what she will do and is nervous about the economy. “I am probably going to apply to more broadcast than print jobs — seeing that the print industry is dying,” she says. “I wish that our journalism school had incorporated more broadcast and print together — I feel that my teachers taught me how to write a 300-word newspaper article, but no one taught me how to write a news segment for TV.”
Other students have given up the idea of journalism as a career altogether. Audrey Tran, a senior, is pretty sure she’ll be working as a paralegal or administrative assistant at an immigration firm.
“I’m pretty happy about this, but I do feel scared because of the economy,” she says. “I’m entering the kind of position that would be first to go, if my firm had to lay off people.” Tran added that she was discomforted by the lack of any support-system community among J-students.
One grad school hopeful, Lauren Gregory, plans to stay at NYU to get her Masters of Social Work degree and go abroad to Africa to be a social worker.
“I am excited to be done with college, but because I am staying here and going to grad school it’s not a big enough transition to cause any stress,” she says. Gregory added that while abroad she will be doing almost everything online (blogging, photojournalism, research and PR). “Skills pertaining to promoting yourself and creating an online identity are vital to becoming successful nowadays,” she added.
“I am not a journalism major,” says NYU student and NYULocal.com founder Cody Brown. “You would have to be an idiot.”
Despite having taken journalism courses, such as Professor Jay Rosen‘s class on beat-blogging, “Studio 20,” Brown hates the idea of journalism as a major.
“Most J-school graduates will bluster around self-importantly for a year and half,” he says. “They will start a blog no one but their mother and a few sympathetic friends will read, they will use family and friend connections to get some job in the meantime to tie themselves over. Some may get reporting jobs at once-prestigious newspapers, but that will pay half of what they normally do. And instead of raises you will get memos about doing less with more and pay cuts — [all with] the job security of a politician in Baghdad.”
Instead of majoring in journalism, Brown proposes students study how things get popular online, work for a rising blog, or study and publish prolifically on a specific field.
“There is no choice. If you’re not an entrepreneur you will most likely fail,” he says. “Actually, you will fail. There’s very little question.” In any case, Brown remains excited about the incredible opportunities the Internet provides, adding that it’s the ability to invent and manage ideas that leads to success.
Contributing editor of The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn, wrote recently that the death of the newspaper “…will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind.”
Brown agreed: “That is what journalism school prepares you for. There will still be this semi-charmed life of the mind but you are going to need a day job. Some will try and start their own publications or companies but the success rate will be analogous to a group of seniors starting a ‘production company’ after they finish four years of film school.”
Advice From a Veteran Journo
If technology journalist and social media consultant, Paul Gillin, were a J-school student today, he would prepare for the job market by consolidating all of his work on a website that included links to his portfolio items in every possible medium.
“I would have a blog, links to published articles, videos, photos and audio recordings,” Gillin told me. “I would include photos of myself and a biography that makes me look inquisitive, versatile and ambitious. I’d also show that I know how to have fun.”
When Gillin graduated journalism school in 1979, he entered the real world with only a one-page resume on ivory paper and a black leather portfolio full of clips. The tools available to him were the phone and the U.S. mail. Employers couldn’t scope him out ahead of time; they had to wait until Gillin’s letter arrived with copies of clips or he showed up in person with portfolio in hand. “It was very inefficient,” he says.
Today, Gillin says graduates can promote themselves much more broadly and their loyalty will be to themselves rather than their employers.
“Media brands are becoming less meaningful. Personal brands are on the rise,” he explains. “The challenge for any graduating journalism student today is to begin the process of creating an online profile that is independent of institutional affiliation.”
Gillin’s advice to young J-schoolers is to create a resume on Facebook and alert all friends and business contacts to its existence. Then do the same on LinkedIn. He suggests starting a Twitter account to notify all friends of any new online outposts, then ask them to retweet that information to their followers. “Every time I posted new content, I would promote that via these channels. I’d syndicate my blog on Facebook and LinkedIn and tweet new entries to my followers,” he says.
Lastly, if paid writing assignments weren’t forthcoming, “I’d write anyway,” says Gillin. “The secret to visibility is to publish constantly, promote relentlessly and make sure the online presence is search-optimized like crazy.” Gillin added that he would also clean up any online detritus that reflected negatively on his image.
Stuck in Limbo
Unfortunately, there is no right answer for young twenty-somethings who love writing and reporting. Taking all the “right steps” may not be enough.
I look at myself as a perfect example: I have honed all my social media skills, promoted my name and my work, and networked with professionals.
Still, as a journalism major from a renowned university with over 4,000 Twitter followers, links to numerous professional connections on LinkedIn, social media expertise, and a well-established personal brand — I have no idea what I am going to do when I graduate.
Alana Taylor is a junior at New York University, double-majoring in journalism and history with a strong interest in film, entertainment, new media and technology. She currently manages her own blog, and works part-time as both a freelance social media consultant and a correspondent for Mashable, the world’s most popular social networking blog.