J-Students Adapt to a New Way of Reporting

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By: Anna Crane

Succeeding as a reporter in the newspaper industry has always required flexibility ? say, working on the copy desk first, or heading off to a small town to get your first newsroom job. Today’s journalism students, however, face an industry in decline.

Are they fleeing the field? Hardly, with many journalism schools filled to capacity. But they are adjusting their career paths or even career goals to take advantage of the new Web world that beckons.

At Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, many students are determined to stick to their journalistic training regardless of whether they’re working at a newspaper, says Ernest Sotomayor, director of career services: “They know they are stepping into an industry that is very much in flux, but they also know that because of that, they are likely to have opportunities just the same.”

Some of these opportunities may not have been around 10 years ago, he notes, and plenty are available in mediums still gaining momentum: blogs, newsletters, and 24-hour news operations. “A lot of new jobs are not necessarily reporting and writing jobs in the traditional sense,” says Sotomayor. Opportunities in online media “are more like producer jobs where they are repurposing content to use elsewhere. A lot of students see these jobs as not too important and not journalistic, but, in fact, they are. They go beyond just deciding what to put on the Web. When a story is done, you have to ask the question: Where are the holes in the story that need more reporting? How can they be enhanced with multimedia?”

Many students are looking down these different avenues as ways to reach their ultimate goal, says Judith Schoolman, director of career services at New York University’s School of Journalism. “Students don’t just think in terms of traditional journalism and are much more aware of what the world has to offer,” she says.

Professor Sig Gissler at Columbia University’s j-school echoes the idea that it makes sense for graduates who want to work for large newspapers to consider starting out in other forms of journalism. Some, he reports, “go for the gold, and hope to get the job they would most desire. And if it doesn’t come to pass, they will pragmatically go into an allied field and try to get into the mainstream media at some point.”

Schoolman says that some NYU newspaper students have gone into broadcast journalism, where more entry-level jobs tend to open up in larger companies. Here, she says, they can use their traditional reporting and editing skills as production and editorial assistants.

With the types of training that most j-schools provide, transitions like this are easier. Audio, video, and computer graphics are becoming more common lessons in newspaper education. “We tell our students here that on the first day on the job, you better be prepared to be a reporter for the online version of your newspaper. That’s where our business is going. We just want to be sure we’re giving them the right skills,” Sotomayor adds.

Gissler says that journalism grads need two skills to succeed in an online newspaper industry: Web awareness and technical skills. “Online awareness is when the reporter is sensitive to what is possible in the digital age, the possibility of enhancing your story with a slideshow, or interactive graphics, or a database,” he says. “It’s the imagination to think of the digital enhancement possibilities ? and the initiative to make it happen.”

As for the technical aspect, he says, the focus in journalism education is to arrive with as many tools under your belt as possible, but because the technology changes so frequently, the ability to learn on the job is going to be the most useful tool. At smaller papers, with older staffs, recent graduates might be best fitted for those jobs as they come out of college with a greater ability to work in cutting-edge capacities. “It’s always been true that newspapers have to look more for copy editors than reporters, and those jobs have just morphed into page designers and interactive graphic producers ? those ‘desk hand’ jobs,” says Gissler. Those entry-level jobs that graduates have always sought have just taken a new form.

Do students entering journalism school really know what they’re getting into in the long term? Steven Duke, the newspaper sector head at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, says not everyone is prepared for a multi-platform career. “Some of them are well aware of what is happening with new media, and have a good sense that their future will hold something different than what a graduate 10 years ago might have faced,” he says. “Others are learning this for the first time, and some are not quite happy about it.”

One student told Duke that she was upset that she was going to have to learn how to tell stories through video and audio, and learn how to write for the Web, because she only wants to write for print. Duke’s reply: “That’s not going to be an option.”

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