The journalism degree has always had an aspect of sink or swim to it, but with the events of recent weeks it now may be a case of where do we swim to?

With the two biggest newspaper producers in this country cutting jobs, thousands of students taking journalism courses at university — including myself — have been faced with the realisation that if they had their hearts set on print journalism, their future looks grim. At university I’m taught not to use my own voice in writing, but I thought I could bring a coal-face perspective to the future for journalism students by writing this piece.

I have always wanted to be a print journalist, and I feel as if my skill set lies in print. Ever since high school I have been desperate to get in the front door of any print newsroom — I even did my year 10 work experience with Fairfax. However, after the events of the past two weeks, that dream may never be a reality.

Ever since starting university I have been told that print is dying, but now we have been given the time of death. Many journalism students are now taking stock of their prospects.

Last week Fairfax announced it was cutting about 1900 jobs in a restructuring of the entire organisation, only to be followed days later by News Ltd CEO Kim Williams announcing his own cuts (believed to be very significant but fewer than at Fairfax)

These bombshells are big news for journalism students. My university course has a Facebook page with 237 members; comments on the job cuts included “Ouch” and  “Haha we’re so screwed”.

According to the federal Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, there were 4750 students enrolled in journalism degrees around Australia in 2010. Just under 4000 were undergraduates, with 762 postgraduates.

Journalism has never been for those who don’t like a bit of competition — the point of journalism is to be competitive. But with almost 5000 students in 2010, competition for jobs will be extremely tough.

It is not just students who are saddened by the media cuts. Ian Richards, professor of journalism at the University of South Australia, believes journalism-lovers have been dealt a “major blow”.

“I think journalism is changing … all the dramatic changes that we are undergoing generally are not just with the mainstream media, there are a whole lot of new avenues opening up as well, so how it will go we don’t know yet,” Richards said.

“The journalism degree has become a much more generic degree in recent years, the skills you get from studying this degree are applicable in a wide range of careers, not just those that you can use to work in a newsroom, although that is part of it. It’s become a lot like law, there are lots of people who study law and don’t become lawyers.”

While some students are disheartened by the events of the past week, Richards explains that journalism has always been a degree with more graduates than actual positions available.

“For a long time there have been more journalism graduates than there have been positions in the mainstream media anyway, it’s a dramatic extension of a trend that set in quite some time ago,” Richards said.

Alan Knight, head of the Graduate School of Journalism at Sydney’s University of Technology, explains that students have always had to be productive in order to break into the industry.

“The thing is that, whatever career you choose, it is not a straight path, right? If you do a degree at a reputable university, you have globally usable skills but you’re going to have to be flexible, you’re going to have to be smart, and you’re going to have to move,” Knight said.

“If you want a good career whatever the circumstances, whatever the economic situation, it’s not going to fall in your lap, you need to actually get out there and do it.”

The future is not all grim though, Knight believes students should remain calm and understand that the future for journalism students has always been tricky.

“But the future is good, it is tricky but it has always been tricky. Basically, if you’re a journalism student, if you’re multiskilled, if you’re doing your degree at a good university and you basically are prepared to move and adapt, then you have a future in journalism,” Knight said.

Peter Fray

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