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Does the ROI on a degree in journalism affect choice of career?

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A recent edition of Forbes magazine explores the ROI — return on investment — of the cost of attending the nation’s more prestigious schools of business. Generally speaking, graduates of these top 75 schools need 4 to 4 1/2 years to recoup tuition, fees and foregone compensation.

Part of my job as a journalism professor is to recruit students. Because I was a journalist, I’m interested in finding bright, hard-working young men and women who’d like to follow the calling of the public service mission of journalism. (I remain optimistic, perhaps foolishly.)

Parents of prospective students, of course, routinely ask: “What’s your record on job placement?” That I can tell them, based on surveys of our grads six months after matriculation. (And it’s an excellent record, too.)

But here’s the question I dread:

My daughter says she wants to be a journalist. Even if her financial aid package is half your $35,000 per year cost — and rising at 5 percent a year — and despite what parents can pay, she may end up with more than $30,000 or $40,000 in student loans. How long will it take for her on an entry-level journalist’s salary to recover her investment?

Surveys of journalism school grads from recent years say salaries in the mid-20s are customary. Entry-level print journalists earn a little less (in some cases, a lot less, as my graduates tell me); PR, advertising and some broadcast jobs earn more. That parent envisions an ROI on the family’s investment in the daughter’s education at three to five years or more. That’s at a private school; presumably, a public school grad would fare better.

If that young woman is bright, she’ll do her homework. She’ll ask me before sending in her enrollent deposit for the names of recent grads who landed daily print jobs after graduation. After getting their permission, I’ll give them to her. They’ll tell her this:

They love being journalists. They love telling a good story. But they detest working 60 or 70 hours, nights and weekends, for 40 hours’ pay. They detest the unpaid furloughs imposed by corporate managers looking to cut costs. Their raises, if profferred, lag significantly behind inflation. Because of numerous rounds of buyouts and layoffs, fewer older, experienced reporters and editors are available (and willing) to serve as mentors. Young journos are tired of seeing assignments that serve more as fluff than substance. They thought, as journalists, that they could make a difference. They are discovering that the current structure of the industry prevents that, frustrating them. Their health-care plans suck. And they’re tired of providing their own reporter’s notebooks.

That prospective student may still attend my journalism program — but if she’s keenly aware of her ROI, she may apply her time, treasure and talent to mastering the skills of a journalist only to apply them to other avenues of communication that pay more. She’ll learn to observe, record, analyze, organize and present. But she’ll do that concocting advertising and PR campaigns instead of digging up the dirt at city hall that unpaid “volunteer” amateurs and bloggers don’t do well or at all. That’s because those stories — the mundane but necessary stuff of holding government accountable — don’t drive traffic to blogs.

Yes, I paint a bleak picture. Yes, it’s overdrawn. But scratch journalists in their mid-20s, either at print jobs or small-market broadcast stations, and you’ll hear all these threads. And yes, there are a number of emerging avenues for distribution of journalists’ work operated by laid-off journos, foundations, non-profits and for-profit, online-only startups. There are places she can work as a journalist. But then there’s that ROI calculation: Making a difference vs. paying the bills and student loans.

I wonder where the journalists will come from who will be around 10 to 20 years from now to cover the financial funeral of Social Security, the continuing debate over health-care reform, the attempt by President Hillary Clinton to amend the constitution to allow her a third term and the still unfolding drama of Brett Favre’s 15th “retirement” from the Toronto Argonauts.

Thousands of journalists at daily papers have lost their jobs in just the past few years. Generally, they’ve been the older, more experienced journalists. Bean counters figure they can hire two, maybe three cub reporters for the dough they pay an experienced journo making Guild scale and excellent benefits after 25 years. And that’s if they hire at all.

Studies show that the nation’s journalism schools are cranking out about 12,000 graduates every year. But is the trend line of those who wish a journalism career with a public-service aura ascending or descending?

Where will the next generation of skilled, committed journalists come from if the perceived ROI of a journalism education is so dismal?

xpost: Scholars and Rogues

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 1, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. A thought-provoking topic and question as usual, Denny.
    Your summation of the young journalist experience is accurate. As a former newspaper reporter, I don’t see any points that I would disagree with.
    As a Bonaventure graduate, I’ll let you know the empirical ROI when I get there (in 20 to 30 years). But, I can tell you I have no regrets about the career path that yourself and others in the Jandoli school did not attempt to sugarcoat.
    I feel like I had a pretty good idea what I was in for, but I did it anyway: so far, so good. I’m still a print journalist and perhaps enjoying my job now more than ever.
    Of course, that’s the personal take.
    In the wider scope, I too worry about how all the news — print and broadcast — is suffering from buyouts, attrition and straight-up layoffs that eliminate those with the most of the most valuable journalist skill: experience. The industry trends also chase away those with 5 to 10 years of experience like myself.
    My hope is that these J jobs in ‘new media’ become competitors to the forever shrinking traditional slots and make the public service mission viable again.
    Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what those new jobs are and when they will become viable. Hopefully in time to skim the cream from the annual pool of 12,000 we have right now.


    November 14, 2009 at 4:02 pm

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