By: Matt Villano

Yet Survey Finds Few ‘Lifers’ Among J-school Grads

There never has been a better time to enter the newspaper industry as a cub reporter, according to an annual survey recently released by the University of Georgia’s James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research in Athens, Ga.

The 13th annual survey documents continuing improvement in the labor market for graduates of journalism and mass communication programs around the country. Entry-level daily newspaper salaries are higher than they’ve ever been before, and more than 80% of the survey’s 3,134 respondents had at least one job offer upon graduation.

“We’re in a period of incredible growth,” said Lee Becker, the journalism professor who directs the survey every year. “The market hit record highs in 1998, and we didn’t think it could get any better. Well it has. It’s just a great time to be a new journalist.”

As Becker explains, entry-level salaries are perhaps the best indication of the industry’s recent success. In unadjusted dollars, the median salary for bachelor’s degree recipients increased by $1,000 over last year, to more than $25,000. This is the fourth consecutive year of growth in that area, while the median salary of $35,000 earned by master’s degree recipients in journalism and mass communication was $5,000 more than in 1998.

Despite the good news, some wonder whether the statistics reveal an accurate and complete picture of journalism today. Kathleen Hansen, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that a number of her students who graduated in 1999 are now working at newspapers where they earn far less than the median of $25,000. She insists this figure is an overestimation, noting that while superstar students might go straight for daily journalism after graduation, a majority of recent graduates opt for weeklies or small dailies, publications notorious for paying very little.

“That figure would be an astronomical amount for students going to work in alternative weeklies or at dailies in small cities and towns,” Hansen said. “Remember, that’s the median. I’m sure you’ve got kids earning big bucks in cities like Boston and New York, and kids working for peanuts in small towns, at small papers. Are things on the upswing? Perhaps. But like everything, it depends where you look.”

Laurie Wilson, chair of the communications department at Brigham Young University, stresses other concerns, expressing dismay over the number of bachelor’s degree recipients taking jobs in online publishing, which doubled from 1.1% in 1998 to 2% in 1999.

Wilson also draws attention to sagging minority employment, a trend that had begun to reverse in 1997 and 1998. Overall, the percentage of minorities with full-time employment dropped slightly, from 77.7% to 77.6% percent, while full-time employment of non-minorities moved up from 81.3% to 81.9%.

The rising salaries for entry-level journalists aren’t enough to make them commit to the Fourth Estate for life. For the second year in a row, only 20% of survey respondents indicated they plan to retire as journalists. Wilson notes this figure is understandable, considering how commonplace career changes have become in today’s society, but she adds that it’s alarming to think the shining stars of today could be working in other industries by 2003.

To prevent this, Wilson suggests that newspaper executives and journalism professors should focus on the excitement of the craft, cultivating a passion in young journalists that won’t burn out. She recommends mentoring programs, constructive editing sessions, and an overall commitment to making the mundane seem fun.

“The ones who stay are the ones who have the undying desire to succeed,” she said. “Exciting newsrooms breed that. If we can foster this passion, nurture it and develop a new crop of journalists committed to the profession, we’ll be all right. If we can’t, especially with the allure of the Internet, we could be in for some big trouble in the years ahead.”

Matt Villano is a free-lance writer based in New York City.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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