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The Sad State of Journalism

August 1, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Some time ago, I was invited to sit on a journalism panel and speak to Temple University grad students in journalism about the changes in the profession.

The discussion focused on 1) the demise of newspapers, 2) online vs. traditional journalism and the most important question of all: Is a career in journalism worth it?

Among the panelists was long time Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith. As panelists we were supposed to talk about our experience in the field and answer questions from the 15 or so grad students in attendance.

I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of students were broadcast journalism majors.

With the closing and bankruptcy of so many newspapers across the country, there seemed to be a consensus among the students that a career in print journalism was suspect, whereas a career in broadcast journalism — where there have been no reported of closings of television news departments — was “safer.”

Broadcast journalism, of course, has other pitfalls. There’s the visual “reliance” on the cosmetic (Are the talking heads pretty to look at?) as opposed to the “face anonymous” reporting of print journalism. Some call it style over substance.

All of the students, even the broadcast majors, were worried about finding a job after graduation. One student due to graduate with a Masters in Journalism said he had no illusions about landing a job with a newspaper like The New York Times after graduation. He was open to the suggestions from panelists that he prepare himself to begin his career as a freelancer or on the staff of a small newspaper doing (seemingly) insignificant stories. A Master’s degree in journalism might guarantee you a good teaching job, but in the world of journalism is does little if you don’t have any stories in your portfolio.

The panel told the students: it’s the story that counts: getting a good story, finding a new angle or a different twist to a story. More importantly, your passion for the material must carry through because “the” story is everything.

Many of the students wondered about the availability of job opportunities in the Philadelphia area.

While prospects look bleak at both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News, the situation is not much better at the smaller city weeklies.

I reminded the students that although I write for three city newspapers, two of those newspapers are currently undergoing tough times. One of these newspapers, in fact, hasn’t been able to pay its writers for months.

“As a journalist you have to be incredibly flexible,” I told the panel.

This means you may have to work a part-time job. It also means that if there are no journalism jobs in the city you have to be prepared to move out and find a city where there are jobs. Journalism jobs are out there but they tend not to be in glamorous cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but in places like Salt Lake City, Phoenix and New Mexico. Or even in Montana or South Dakota.

One need not be in a crowded, urban melting pot like Philadelphia to do good work. One can also go where there are mountains, fresh air and clean buses.

I reminded the students that once they are working in the world as journalists not to think of any job on a newspaper as necessarily permanent. I say this as a writer who has written for virtually every newspaper (and almost every magazine) in Philadelphia — from The Philadelphia Inquirer on down.

I reminded them that unforeseen events, like the replacement of a favorite editor or publisher, can radically change a newspaper’s editorial direction, and that after such a coup, long time writers and staffers may also go the way of all flesh, to be replaced — in some cases, literally overnight — not necessarily by “better” writers, just different writers who fit “the new mold.”

Each Editor has his or her own idea as to what constitutes a good writer. While one editor may view you as a writer with Pulitzer Prize winning potential, another might be much less impressed with your abilities.

Everything is fluid, and nothing final. That’s why Journalism is not a profession for the weak hearted, or for those unwilling to take chances. The Huffington Post.

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