As soon as the announcements about Fairfax and News hit the screens last week, they also hit my phone. And my inbox.
Yes, I confess. I am now — and have been for the past few years — a journalism educator at a university.
Which means that all last week — and now this week too — I am constantly asked four questions: how dare you take money from innocent students to educate them for jobs that won’t exist; isn’t your degree outdated; the one that breaks my heart; will I ever get a job? And the fourth? May I have a job please?
I’ll start with the easy one first. Taking money from innocent students?
Journalism education is, with law, the best kind of humanities education. It encourages you to research, think, research and then synthesise. It also forces you to talk to people. Even if students never want to be journalists (and there are plenty of students who do the degree who want the attributes but not the job), journalism education prepares them for work of all kinds. It prepares them to communicate — which appears to be a minimum requirement for every job I see advertised.
And I hear you say that you think a general arts degree does that too? Yeah, sure. Particularly if you think you will be spending most of your employed life writing essays. Essays are really useful in moderation — a way to get students to engage with complex material and then vomit it right back up, making sure they insert key words all along the way. Think I’m harsh? I have three adult children who did arts subjects at sandstone universities. What do I think they learnt from that process in those settings? How to attend to criteria and to please their lecturers, a habit they all start to develop in their final years at school.
Which brings me to question two. Are journalism degrees outdated? I am sure there are some degrees and majors that haven’t been updated since Sydney had an afternoon paper. I just don’t know which they are. You would expect variation — in just the same way you know you get a different experience of music at differing institutions.
All I know is that in 2009, the UTS undergraduate journalism degree had a complete revamp. These days, students break news, find case studies through social media, are soon to draft business models for their niche publications; and do not leave without being able to shoot and edit, record and edit. They can also search deeply through what some have called the hidden web. They are also exposed through the arts side of their degrees to philosophers and historians, to geographers and economists. And I can assure you they do more than write essays from that material.
But what breaks my heart is the way in which young students, about to graduate, ask me if they will ever get work as journalists. My always truthful answer is — it depends.
Are you doing the best kind of journalism you can do? Can you break the odd story? Can you deliver it across all media? Can you curate Twitter feeds? Can you do a decent photo gallery? Do you know how to use Twitter and Facebook for research and promotion of your own work? Do you know how to bill? Alan and Arianna will not be the only ones to make their money from online.
What these young people’s future employment does not depend on is the health of the print giants.
I am desperately sad for former colleagues at Fairfax. I worked briefly with Peter Fray and loved his style. I cheered when Paul Ramadge’s The Age won newspaper of the year.
But the truth is, newspapers have not hired graduates in significant numbers for years. They just haven’t. I’d say a dozen between the two mastheads in the past year. So the fact that they are losing staff will not impact on student job prospects in any way.
I’m looking at our figures from the students who finished their final subject in 2011. Of those 37 students, 70% work in journalism or a journalism-related field. It’s a small group — because it was the first group of students in the new degree and the majority of those who’ve graduated are now working online.
And those jobs just keep coming. They mightn’t be what these young people imagined — but I can assure you that when I started as a cadet at The Sydney Morning Herald in 1982, my dream job was not doing the shipping column. Nor was it sizing photographs. But I did it anyway because it was a staging post for something else.
Journalists exist. They shoot, edit, record, edit, occasionally write and sometimes remember to edit. I know this because, in my role as the internship co-ordinator at UTS, employers ring to ask if I will also advertise their jobs for them. Of the students in their final year now, already they are peeling off for jobs (remember to finish your degrees, guys), about a third are already working in the industry in some capacity. Junior jobs — but these are junior people.
As I write this, I’m also retweeting the good fortune of Brittney Kleyn, who has just been hired by Prime in Wagga. One of our students, shortlisted for the student Walkleys being announced on Wednesday, scored himself a cadetship with NewsLocal. Another is an editorial co-ordinator at a magazine. Still another is a copygirl. Another produces part-time at a commercial radio station.
So what about the fourth question?
My phone is ringing quite a lot. The people not yet formerly employed by Fairfax and News think academic life is a parachute and that I might be able to help. But if there is one industry where the full-time jobs really are in short supply, it’s higher education. And believe me, if you want to teach journalism at a university, you need to be able to do more than write.