Journalism and the vow of poverty

When I chose not to go to law school and into politics (insert punchline here) but instead headed toward journalism, I knew I wasn’t doing it to get rich (though I was paid well, once I put on a suit).

Connie Schultz, a Plain Dealer columnist, acts as if journalists take a vow of poverty, which is an extension of another popular perspective inside the news nunnery: the belief that journalism isn’t or shouldn’t be a business (a canon brought out every time a newspaper lays off journalists or points out that classified, retail, and circulation revenue are frittering fast). Says Schultz:

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time with journalism students whose hand-wringing professors still believe something other than salary should be the divining rod for choosing a career.

They are professors who’ve dedicated their lives to training future journalists. They are increasingly alarmed by what they see and don’t want to become targets for saying so.

“We’re losing so many hard-news students to public relations, advertising and marketing,” one professor told me. “They just want to make money.”

His concern echoes through the hallways of other colleges I’ve visited.

“They want to keep the baby-boomer lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed,” said a professor at a school that boasts a boatload of Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni. “The thought of starting out at $25,000 or $30,000 to expose corruption and champion the underdog just doesn’t do it for them. They have no interest.”

One journalism professor told me that hordes of women are opting for the softer — and more lucrative — career in public relations.

“A lot of them want to be event planners,’ ” she said. She nodded at my raised eyebrows.

“Seriously,” she said. “They want to plan parties.”

These are professors at large and not-so-large schools who care deeply about the mission of journalism at a time when our critics far outnumber our champions. Too many of their students neither love newspapers nor even read them. They worry that the values we old poops hold dear in this profession hold little appeal for the many budding journalists who’d rather shill than grill.

“I don’t mean to overstate this, but I worry about the future of democracy,” one retired professor told me. “If our journalists don’t challenge the abuse of power, who will?”

Oh, come now. Don’t blame the students’ lack of enthusiasm for newspapers on their greed. Blame it instead, perhaps, on the growing irrelevance of newspapers to the students…. that and growing distrust for newspapers in the public… that and growing opportunities outside the shackles of old media.

Let’s also not continue to treat journalism as a high priesthood in the too-honored tradition of Murrow-worshipers. That haughty separation is just what has gotten the business in trouble… that and refusing to acknowledge it is a business, which damned well should be under the market pressures of serving its public or going out of business.

One of the courses I plan to teach at CUNY’s new Graduate School of Journalism will invite students to invent and reinvent the products of journalism — perhaps even helping them to start businesses when they graduate — and make more than they could as starting reporters.

Or they can help develop new products inside companies. At the recent Museum of Television & Radio Media Center confab with bloggers and mogulmen, everyone complained that there is no product development inside their companies. The work on the future is happening outside. Well, one way to make it happen within is to start thinking — and rewarding — entrepreneurially. That means investing in the future by stopping the inefficiencies of the past. So perhaps we shouldn’t have so many cheap reporters and editors and executives whose job it is to recreate the same news everyone else has. Perhaps we should have fewer such people who do unique work well. And perhaps we should be starting new products and new, yes, businesses to invest in the future. From the curriculum I wrote. The class has many goals:

• It demonstrates to students that, for the first time since William Randolph Hearst, young journalists can think and act like entrepreneurs. Thanks to the tools and distribution of online, they can start their own products and businesses today.
• It readies them to work in new-product development for any media company: a skill that is ever-more in demand.
• It encourages them to think out side the box – the newspaper box or TV box – to take a leadership role in reinventing and reinvigorating news for their generation.
• It helps them to recognize and work with the business realities of journalism today.

The students will be expected to develop an idea for a new property with one key requirement: It must be journalistic. The product may involve reporting by professionals or citizens; it may involve packaging and editing; it may involve interactivity; it may involve print or broadcast components.

All of which is better than going into PR, which I never understood anyway.

  • Ravo

    They worry that the values we old poops hold dear

    “journalism as a high priesthood in the too-honored tradition of Murrow-worshipers.”

    Maybe it’s just that they’ve seen those “values” and want no part of them. Good for them!

    The same message emanates from the new George Clooney movie, “Good Night and Good Luck,” which glorifies the so-called Golden Age when CBS’s Edward R. Murrow threw every media dirty trick into a “See It Now” attack against the left’s hate object, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

  • nobody

    Jeff, when you said, “…perhaps even ALLOWING them to start businesses when they graduate,” did you ever think that your approval (as a member of The Church of Journalism?) might not be required, or even sought?

    love your column!

  • Toni

    Such a brave, brave post by a man whose made nearly all of his living working for the big, bad MSM and continues to pull down healthy coin telling them what to do. When was the last time you lived on 25,000 a year? What are all these new entrepreneurs going to live on while they create all this entrepreneurial journalism? Maybe you can throw them some scraps from the consulting table.

  • The new entrepreneurs will come from Money and Connections the way the old ones do. They will go to NYU rather than CUNY.

    and as for
    Don’t blame the students’ lack of enthusiasm for newspapers on their greed. Blame it instead, perhaps, on the growing irrelevance of newspapers to the students…. that and growing distrust for newspapers in the public… that and growing opportunities outside the shackles of old media.

    I think it could be better blamed on infotainment and MTV-brand “journalism.” Everybody wants to be John Stewart because he’s cool, funny, and gets all the chicks. It’s not about distrust of this or that. It’s about being a face on TV, an instant pop pundit. It’s about an endless party. Think of Marcello in La Dolce Vita and why he went from literature, to journalism, to “public relations.” Your answer is right there.

    You certainly do need to start teaching, Jeff. You’ve been in the climate controlled hot house for far too long.

  • Jeff, as someone who now studies education and how it works, I offer a this:

    Is journalism school a professional school? Or just some other version of liberal arts?

    If you say professional school, then your course should be about teaching them to do something, or know something that is of value to the profession. So I would ask, what do you want the students to be able to do when they leave your class? How would you know if they can do this, which is another way of saying, how would you know if you and your teaching in this class have been effective in achieving your goals for students?

    Teaching should be about the students, not about you or your ideas.

    I think you’ll probably be great at this, but I urge you to keep in mind the goals for the students from this class. If you want them to see the world of journalism as something more than being a wage-slave to the MSM, then fine. Set up the course to show them alternatives and equip them with skills.

    I’d also urge you not to rely on guest speakers too much. Lots of speakers talk about themselves, but fail to offer practice information to professional students.

    The key here is for you to decide how to know if your teaching is working, and to check along the way as you go. I’m interested to hear how this begins.

    BTW, I’m building a syllabus to teach teachers, and I’m considering using videotapes of real teachers facing problems and solving them in real classrooms as ways to link theoretical readings and classroom work to professional practice.

  • Nobody: Absolutely right. Wrong choice of words (such a sin for an editor, eh?). I meant helping them to start, enabling them to start…. I’ll change it.

    Toni: I know out-of-school bloggers who are making more than out-of-school reporters and they’re building or helping to build value.

    Well, Tish, many would say that the academe is that hothouse, eh? And I think being Jon Stewart and calling bullshit bullshit is a fine goal. Journalists work on The Daily Show, too, and it shows.

    Jenny: Of course it is about the students. They know more about the media landscape today than I do; it’s our job to help them take over and improve it.

  • Jeff, they don’t know more than you do. That’s a mistake. They are novices. You are an expert. It’s true. The trick is to build them into junior experts. How would you do that?

    You say they know more about media. Sure. How to use it. Not how to build it. Don’t all constructivist on me and your students. Big disaster. Don’t eschew the role of the teacher. Grasp it and expand it.

  • Here’s another way to think about it: They will know more than you do when they finish your course. But not before. Lead them there.

  • Here’s some simple math:

    “All those sheepskins are expensive. In its 2001 survey, the Cox Center found that 27 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates carried more than $15,000 in education-related debt, and more than 50 percent owed at least $5,000. That’s a burden for a reporter earning $10 an hour, which nets out to about $260 in take-home pay per week.”

    That’s from a story I wrote a couple of years ago. Salaries haven’t budged since then.

    The unspoken irony contained in the Plain Dealer column is that as more and more would-be journalists ventured off to J-School, especially those big-tuition ones that tend to produce Pulitzer winners, they graduated with more and more debt, causing many to consider jobs than pay more than Starbucks.

    The attraction of non-journalistic media to today’s students involves more than money. As Jeff implied, an industry in trouble does not draw the best and brightest from the universities. No one wants the last seat on a the last train out of town, so you end up with feedback loop — a self-propagating cycle.

    Competitive salaries — and a chance to live a creative, fulfilling professional life (Shultz didn’t mention the grinding dissatisfaction felt by so many newspaper journalists who labor less for the public good than for a need to fill the white space.) — are necessary if news organizations are going to attract the talent needed for reinvention.

    This is more than I planned to write, but the argument that well-educated people should take a financial hit in an industry with 15-25% operating margins for the public good is ridiculous.


  • owl

    Bravo JJ. It is a business. Started to pick my fight, but no, I love that you admit it is a business without much clergy. Good luck on new job. I think you will be great.

  • Mike G

    Funny that so many people don’t want to do journalism for $30,000– but so many people are willing to do journalism for free as bloggers.

    Hmm, what could be the reason for that? That they don’t have somebody editing them word by word? That they can actually express opinions and a personality in their writing?

    Who the hell wants to be an editor, anyway? They must come from somewhere…

  • Mike g said:
    Funny that so many people don’t want to do journalism for $30,000– but so many people are willing to do journalism for free as bloggers.
    right on.

  • Toni

    If I could get away with sitting on my ass most of the day, surfing the web, posting links here and there and adding “heh” or “indeed,” then sure, blogging seems worth the money.

  • John Davidson

    The way that Schultz frames this is exactly what drove me from becoming a reporter and into advertising when I was in j-school in 1987:

    “The thought of starting out at $25,000 or $30,000 to expose corruption and champion the underdog just doesn’t do it for them.”

    Which is pretty much the way that most of my professors framed what they were teaching me: it was the altruistic, lowly writer who was the only one brave enough to TAKE DOWN THE BAD GUYS. And thus we have the culture of conflict that the MSM has so carefully manifested over the past few decades: if it bleeds, it leads. If you don’t follow that particular ideology, then apparently democracy is lost (“I don’t mean to overstate this, but I worry about the future of democracy,” one retired professor told me. “If our journalists don’t challenge the abuse of power, who will?”) GOOD RIDDANCE.

  • Sgt. Hulka

    Why would anyone care what The Plain Dealer has to say on anything except busting lazy Water Dept. meter readers for going AWOL at lunchtime? The paper is infested with the kind of fat, lunchy, bad-haricut/pissed-off-at-the-world types one usually finds at papers in such high tech neighborhoods as Youngstown and Toledo. Read what The PD has to say when a moderatley hig-tech company announces that it is looking at setting up shop in Cleveland – “They’re not going to come here and make money off the backs of OUR citizens”.

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  • Geneva Jeff

    “for the first time since William Randolph Hearst, young journalists can think and act like entrepreneurs. Thanks to the tools and distribution of online, they can start their own products and businesses today.”

    Former journalist here, driven to marketing (yes, event planning) by the need to feed my family and future. Thoughts of news products dance in my head but have faded due to the boom and bust of online news ventures.

    Where are the new ideas? Generations do need a new business model that doesn’t include pay for click advertising.

  • The notion that good jounalism and good business are inherently at odds is a canard propagated by those that suck at both.

    Furthermore, it is rooted in elitism and the premise that the masses are stupid.

    “Business” is the feedback mechanism that tells the media they stink. It is not so much the realities of business that chafe them – it is the fact that declining circulation numbers and dwindling viewship dare to impose standards on people who otherwise feel exempt.

  • Glyn

    I know some journos in their mid-20s on a local British weekly newspaper chain, earning 15 thousand pounds a year (about 25 thousand US dollars). I think they’re crazy not to quit and get a better paid job, especially as the newspaper has just declared increased profits for their multinational owners.

    I hope that things are better in the USA, but doubt it.

    Sometimes journalists aren’t worried about getting a lot of money to raise their families, just a decent wage.

  • W.J. Jones

    Funny how that professor talked about journalists keeping a close eye on the “abuse of power” is their foremost job.

    I thought journalism was telling readers what is happening in their community as quickly and correctly as you can.

    At least that’s what I do everyday when I go to work.

    Maybe the students are fleeing journalism classes when they realize the professor is urging them to doggedly pursue, scrutinize, challenge and scorn anything the professor himself scrutinizes and scorns.

    That’s not journlalism. That’s call a vigilante with a pen and pad.

    The reason the big newspapers are failing is that the reporters and editors who buy into the professor’s lie are chasing a Pulizter and trying to impress — and walk over — the reporter at the desk next to them.

    In other words, they’ve lost sight of what journalism is — and isn’t — and believe a hit piece or expose will put them over the top. It won’t.

    People read the newspaper to know what’s going on — not to read who got caught “abusing power.”

  • It used to constantly be said around the little theatre group I worked with in the 60’s that without aspiring actors and writers there would be no one to wait on tables.

    Let’s get those artists started blogging! I just haven’t figured out how the apron will look with the jammies.

  • Entry-level jobs, even in the lucrative arena of banking, don’t pay that great. I started just above $30k last year, and in my town it’s enough to live on but I’m not gonna get rich. However, with time and experience (and that MA I’m going to start getting part-time) my salary will only increase. I know plenty of folks with varying degrees who started around $25-30k in places much more expensive than San Antonio (DC, for example) and moved their way up.

    I do think, however, that there’s not much way of going up the salary ladder in the hard-news world. If you start off at a small local for $25k a year, and then get enough experience to move to a big regional in a major metro area (which will take years), they might pay you $35k. Until you’re working for a major national paper, magazine, or TV network, the earning potential of a career in hard-news just isn’t that high. Point is that I don’t mind having this sort of compensation level now, but if it took five or six years to even get a moderate increase, no way. However, even with the relatively low compensation level the news world comes with a lot of stress. The news folks I know are pretty much working all the time: the time it takes to write, research outside of normal business hours, etc. More stress for about the same money now and likely less money down the road? No thanks. Higher earning potential and an 8-5 work day except during extremely busy periods? Yeah, I’ll stay with this job.

  • Ted

    Well, accuracy standards sure have diminished in the MSM.
    The New York Times, the supposed “Gold Standard”, is
    simply riddled with fabrications and falsehoods these days.

    So, who in their right mind would want to make $25,000/annum
    to associate with firms less well thought of than “Used Car

    These days, “speaking truth to power” is more accurately
    “speaking bull$h*t to the uninformed”.

    The reason J-School professors worry is because their
    budgets are directly proportional to their enrollments. When
    the number of students to indoctrinate fall, so too does their
    power in the academic hierarchy.

    “and so it goes …”

  • Ted, good point about the J-School profs worried about their budgets.

    Journalism is junk science anyway. Does anyone really think a “journalist” needs anything more than common sense and a grasp of basic english grammar?

  • I disagree that journalism is a junk science. It isn’t a science. It’s an art, and like all art, is treasured by few and reviled by many.

    And as a PR major who went into journalism, I think I know a thing or two about both, since recently graduating. It’s true, a lot of women are going into PR to plan parties. That’s no joke. And many — at least at the j-school at my university — were poor writers. I’m not fabulously good-looking or especially enjoy event-planning. My strength was always blowing out my other students with my badass news releases. So I went into journalism, which I enjoyed more, anyway. And I make $20K. I would give a limb to make $30K right now. Hell, I could actually go and — while making above $30K — get certified to be a teacher while, say, teaching history at the local high school. And that’s with no experience.

    Plus, let’s face it — when you come out of college with $40K in student loan debt and you just took out a loan on your car to afford to move to where your new job is, you might need a few more thousand to make ends meet.

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