Amid media’s woes, boundless opportunity

December 22, 2008

The world has bigger problems than the media’s current miseries, so you may have missed these reports from two days last week: Macmillan Publishing eliminating 64 jobs, New York magazine announcing its first layoffs, top-level execs getting the ax at CBS, a 10 percent staff reduction at the New York financial newsweekly The Deal, Crain Communications dumping 6 percent of its workforce, a pay freeze at the New York Times,  eco-themed magazines succumbing to slumping advertising, National Public Radio laying off 64 staffers, Detroit’s two dailies cutting home delivery to three days a week .

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Say, if only I were a youngster just starting out. I’d sure be giving serious thought to a rewarding career in the media!

College students are renowned for that kind of shrewd logic. So it’s no surprise to learn that the latest survey of university journalism and mass communications programs indicates that after a modest leveling off in 2006, enrollments have resumed their hearty rise. (Earlier this decade enrollments at the country’s 400-some programs were increasing by 4 percent a year for undergraduates and 5 percent for post-graduates.)

“I don’t think students see the field as narrowly as we do,” explains Lee Becker, the University of Georgia professor who heads the annual enrollments survey, which will be released this month. “They’re not as focused on turmoil in the industry.”

Instead, they view the society as deeply involved with journalism and mass communications. “That’s just not going to go away,” he says. “There will still be journalism and public relations jobs and positions in advertising.”

Still, as Becker agrees, it’s also true that studying journalism doesn’t necessarily reflect a career choice, any more than majoring in English commits a student to becoming a poet.  Some students simply want to develop expressive skills and proficiency with advanced communications tools.

But many are heading into the media. In the program where I teach – embedded in a selective, Southern liberal arts college – some four out of five majors do go into media jobs, perhaps one in three joining the beleaguered world of journalism.

How crazy is that?

To be sure, journalism has never been an especially rational career choice. It’s like theater. Both have always been best left to people with unruly passions who couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

That said, and even though most of my post-Watergate newsroom generation has been shooed into premature retirement and virtually none of the media companies I worked for still exist, it’s just possible that there has never been a better time to jump into the media.

The richness, velocity and imaginative reach of the change today’s media are undergoing is breathtaking. Entire industries are emerging to populate such technologies as Facebook, iPhone and Blackberry with services, interactive opportunities, and smart informational feeds. Traditional media are ferreting out expansion options: BET, having opened up in the Caribbean and Britain, will be operating in 29 countries of Africa. Variety, the entertainment industry newspaper, last week described two new websites gearing up to deliver smart coverage of the TV, movie and music business; one will also enable subscribers to set up their evenings out.

The furious pace of innovation affects technology, revenue, content options, public service – a huge range of media opportunity.

True, journalism is a tougher nut, partly because news is perishable and doesn’t lend itself to multiple resale, which is how new media enable other content creators to cash in on the ricochet across exhibition windows.

But even for journalism, a heads-up new company like Politico, which started life as a stand-alone originator of top-tier political news, has moved into the syndication business, and is selling its feeds to established distribution outlets, like newspaper websites — which, by the way, dominate online news. A brand-new startup called GlobalPost has assembled a network of 70 correspondents in 52 countries to fill the vacuum in foreign news.

Huge, vexing problems remain in creating a durable business model to enable journalism to prosper without the lavish advertising support it has depended on for the past century and a half.

But the new media’s offerings of fresh information and topical commentary have energized vast new audiences of people who want to hear, to be heard, to be fiercely engaged – and that’s just the terrain on which journalism thrives.

So maybe these students know more than we think.

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