Shoptalk: Where's the Appreciation for Journalists?
Posted: 8/19/2013  |  By: Joe Mathewson
It’s no wonder that English majors have long faces now at graduation time. Employers, it seems, don’t need recruits whose strong suit is Shakespeare. Not to mention those who’ve focused on the wisdom of Confucius and Aristotle and Locke and Mumford, or those captivated by Bernini and Picasso and Debussy and Frank Lloyd Wright.            

As always at this time of year, it’s the engineers and computer scientists and business majors who are celebrated — and sought after. Not that English majors put money first, but who among us doesn’t take notice when newly-minted petroleum engineers command starting salaries of $93,500! That’s the astounding figure reported by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in its 2013 salary survey. Software engineers start this year at $71,666 and industrial engineers at $62,245, according to a survey by the Employers Resource Association.            

The ugly ducklings of the job hunt, as usual, are the liberal arts and humanities majors. According to still another survey, by CareerBuilder and CareerRookie, those bookworms are the 10th-most-sought-after category of college graduates — out of 10. A mere 6 percent of employers want them, compared to 31 percent hiring business grads and 24 percent seeking computer and information sciences majors.            

If the liberal arts don’t provide the technical training that’s so valuable in today’s marketplace, what does such study instill? Critical thinking and expression. Appreciation for the enduring human virtues of truth, fairness, perseverance, individual dignity, courage, beauty, compassion and decency. And, ideally, a commitment to living them and celebrating them in lifelong learning.            

But marketable? Hardly.              

However, please turn the page.            

What’s happening simultaneously over here, in the tumultuous world of journalism?            

The media business and the journalism profession are distracted, indeed disrupted, by the dismal economics oppressing them. Newspaper advertising revenue halved in five years. Newsrooms hollowed out by forced cutbacks, empty desks outnumbering those occupied by the lucky survivors. Seven days cut to three. Faux news organizations peddling ideology and cant.              

Yet the Googles of the world still hunger for news. Not that they’ll produce it, of course. But their desire to search, classify, aggregate and distribute somebody else’s news product reflects an implicit truth that the whole world knows: mankind is more receptive to news and more constantly consuming it than ever before in human history.              

But if Google isn’t a “content generator,” who is? Journalism professionals know the answer well: they are still the principal seekers of the truth that people thirst for.            

And what are the enduring human virtues embodied in the finest journalism, the qualities that humans yearn for in their own daily lives?            

Truth. Fairness. Perseverance. Individual dignity. Courage. Beauty. Compassion. Decency.            

So, in the face of what should be perfect congruity between the study of the liberal arts and the needs of this noble profession, instead there’s a perfect storm. Journalism schools are seeing more of their smart, talented graduates head off to law school or corporate communications or marketing. Their admissions officers fret about the outlook for future enrollment.            

A Northwestern University colleague and I recently visited another major university to talk to undergraduate English majors about journalism graduate school and the profession of journalism. The meeting was months in the making and well publicized. But when the moment finally arrived, our audience consisted of three teachers and just three students, one of whom arrived late and left early.           

Moreover, one who did stay challenged our assertions that journalism is a profession of great vitality. She told us, “my mother says, whatever you do, don’t be a reporter. That profession is dying.”           

Why this disconnect where there’s such an identity of values?           

Of course, it’s partly because young people, even our journalism students, don’t read newspapers, at least not in printed form, and so have only a limited sense of the work of the journalists whose product they are consuming online. News is a commodity rather than a work of art. Witness the low public regard for journalists.         

But it’s also because the profession and the J-schools haven’t yet recognized that today’s young people, so enthralled by the wonders of technology, need to be told what journalists do, told how exciting and gratifying the work is, told how essential their intellects and values are to our democracy. (And, not so parenthetically, told that they can be taught the video and Web skills valued in today’s journalism.)         

It’s a marketing challenge, one that should upstage all other marketing priorities of news organizations and J-schools today. For without journalists, future journalism won’t be much.         

It’s time we recognized it.

Joe Mathewson teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. He’s a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of “The Supreme Court and the Press: The Indispensable Conflict.”