By: Matt Villano
An E&P Special Report: Career Guide
The job market is better than it’s been in decades. Starting salaries are higher than ever. Entry-level journalists are writing more than they’ve ever dreamed. The outlook couldn’t be rosier, right? That depends on whom you ask. While recent journalism school graduates say everything is peachy, editors, recruiters, and j-school faculty members say there’s always room for improvement.
These experts don’t doubt the market, but they do question the preparedness of entry-level journalists. Many complain that while recent j-
school graduates are strong writers and computer whizzes, a majority of them lack the skills that make good reporters great. Sure, most entry-level candidates know how to do their jobs, but an increasing number of editors say they’re witnessing dwindling discipline, rampant overconfidence, and a general unwillingness to learn the ropes.
‘It’s not that kids coming out of j-school these days aren’t talented, because, for the most part, they are,’ says Tracy Warner, assistant managing editor at The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. ‘They’re extremely well-prepared technically, and have a strong foundation in the kinds of nuts-and-bolts skills they need to succeed. Still, there are some glaring deficiencies.’
Before young journalists can focus on winning that first Pulitzer, newspaper officials say they should try to improve their skills in basic areas first. According to David McCollum, publisher of the 24,000-circulation Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News, these areas include spelling, grammar, and math. Over the past two years, McCollum says he’s interviewed at least two dozen entry-level journalists, and fewer than half of the candidates were able to pass a simple spelling test.
‘I understand spell checks and good editing can compensate, but it’s disheartening to see how dependent people have become,’ he says. ‘A person can be a great storyteller and a great interviewer, but may never have picked up these other essential skills.’
Kathleen Hansen sees young journalists from a different perspective, and says she has identified similar problems. Hansen is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and teaches journalism students on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While all of her students love to read and write, Hansen indicates that, across the board, few of them enjoy working with numbers.
‘They don’t take many statistics or research methods classes,’ she says. ‘They know how to read, write, report, and put it all together, but mathematics is an area of significant deficit for a lot of these kids.’
At the Los Angeles Times, Steve Padilla, assistant political editor, has identified other nuts-and-bolts deficiencies. As recently as last spring, Padilla helped run METPRO, the paper’s two-year internship for minority candidates. During his tenure at the helm of that program, Padilla says he identified in many interns an inability to spot good stories. He opines that the journalists of today are missing a ‘nose for news,’ and that many of them haven’t figured out what it takes to conceptualize a story and make it happen.
To illustrate his point, Padilla tells the tale of a young stringer who interned at the Times a few years back. Assigned to one of the paper’s suburban bureaus, the intern filed separate stories about public outrage over cellular phone towers in three different communities. According to Padilla, even after putting together the third story, the reporter failed to realize the issue was a trend.
‘It’s an interesting phenomenon,’ he says. ‘If you give young journalists an assignment, they’ll do a great job. If you tell them where to go and what to find, they’ll find it. But if you let them loose in a city and say, ‘Bring me news,’ they’re totally clueless. Young journalists just don’t know how to develop stories on their own.’
Other editors and newspaper officials complain about issues that are more complex. Doug Toney, editor and publisher at the New Braunfels (Texas) Herald-Zeitung, says young journalists could stand to improve their communication skills, both with sources and their superiors. Over the past few years, Toney has hired about half a dozen people out of journalism programs at nearby schools. While some of these hires have worked out fine, two or three accepted their jobs and never even showed up for work.
‘In 25 years in this business, I’ve never run into that kind of behavior before,’ he says. ‘If you can’t look someone in the eye and tell them you’ve got a better job offer, how are you ever going go be able to talk to any of your superiors?’
Communication is also a big issue for Cedric Bryant, manager of college relations for Gannett Co. Inc. In any given year, Bryant will hire 50 or 60 journalists right out of school to fill entry-level positions at Gannett papers all over the country. One of the biggest complaints he hears from editors is that some of these younger reporters don’t know how to discuss problems on a professional level. Instead of bringing up issues themselves, for instance, Bryant says students will defer to their superiors because they’re in charge.
‘Students think that if there’s a problem, the editor will come to them,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t work that way. In the real world, professional relationships are a two-way street.’
Other newspaper officials allege that an alarming number of young journalists exhibit unrealistic expectations about the kinds of jobs they should have. They say that instead of accepting general-assignment or all-purpose beats, these recent graduates think they can become political columnists or investigative reporters right out of school.
Pam Luecke, editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, offers a perfect example of this phenomenon. Luecke remembers how an entry-level job applicant last year asked her if he could come in and take on the paper’s college basketball beat, the most popular and prized assignment in the whole city. When she told the young man the beat was full, he seemed disinterested in anything else.
‘There’s nothing wrong with shooting high, but some of these kids have to get real,’ says Luecke. ‘Over the long term, those kind of goals are great, but some of these younger journalists have to realize you don’t get there overnight.’
The Journal Gazette’s Warner agrees. He likens a journalism career to ‘a marathon, not a sprint,’ and says that young journalists need to understand they’re not going to achieve journalistic stardom overnight. Warner says he still meets entry-level job candidates who seem put off by the prospect of working 40 hours a week, or seem annoyed that they might not have a say in what beats they cover.
‘Knowing how a newspaper runs and how to survive at a newspaper are two very different things,’ he says. ‘Young people have to realize that sometimes everything isn’t always about them.’
So how do entry-level journalists make themselves more attractive candidates? For starters, recent j-school graduates should brush up on the basics. Padilla recommends leafing through the dictionary, and McCollum suggests purchasing a book or two on grammar. Young journalists should try hard to feel comfortable around their editors. Toney says young reporters should treat their superiors as they would treat their parents, and Bryant suggests that reporters propose lunch or drinks to break the ice. Lastly, entry-level journalists should learn humility. Luecke recommends showing enthusiasm for reporting at any level, while keeping long-term goals in mind.
Perhaps Carolyn Bower, a campus recruiter for the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, puts it best: ‘The bottom line is that short-term success doesn’t equal long-term excellence. More than anything, these [young journalists] need to recognize that humility and a realistic sense of self will get them farther than any clip ever could.’
Matt Villano is a New York-based free-lance writer and frequent contributor to E&P.
(c) Copyright 1999, Editor & Publisher