Sunday, April 28, 2013

If you're a college student considering a career in print journalism, reconsider.

Student loans, few openings, and a harsh work environment may keep you from pursuing your dream as a print journalist. But changing career paths doesn't mean you'll have to do PR for the Evil Empire.
Before Thursday's "Alternatives to Journalism" alumni panel, hosted by Taylor Goldenstein and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign SPJ Chapter, my wife made some recommendations on alternative titles for the Q&A:
"Go Back in Time and Be Born to Rich Parents Who Will Humor Your Quaint Little 'Career'"; and "Seriously, Though, Have You Considered Automotive Repair?"
I love that woman's snark.

We didn't get into time travel, automotive repair, or the benefits of a trust fund as it relates to pursing journalism, but I we covered a lot of ground about how to turn a journalism degree into something other than journalism.

On the panel, I was joined by Emily Cleary, junior brand associate at Monika Dixon Public Relations; Danielle Reading, assistant strategist at the boutique media and communications agency PHD; and Jenn Kloc, marketing coordinator at Jellyvision (a former fellow master's student and all around awesome person who shot my engagement photos).

As with any panel, there's always things you wish you mentioned. I'm going to elaborate on some of the big takeaways that we touched on:

1) The numbers aren't in your favor.

To get a full-time job as a print journalist out of college, you're going to have to compete with newly-degreed folks from all over the country. But how many people are you up against?

There's no statistic for the number of people who graduate with four-year degrees in journalism each year. So I had to estimate this number by extrapolation.

For starters, there's 45 seniors studying "news/editorial" at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Let's assume they'll all graduate on time, that they're all pursuing careers in print journalism, and none of the broadcast or advertising students are looking for print journalism jobs. There's 11,104 seniors on the UI campus, and if they all graduate, that means 0.4 percent of UI degree holders are graduating with news/editorial degrees.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.65 million bachelor's degrees were conferred in the 2009-2010 academic year. Assuming the rate of journalism graduates is equal, that means about 6,600 graduate each year with journalism degrees.

This isn't a perfect number. Not all colleges have journalism programs. More students may graduate with each year, and the ratio of journalism students could shift in any given year. And, of course, some pursue journalism without a journalism degree. But I think it's a good ballpark figure.

NCES did track the number of bachelor's degrees conferred by field, but the field is defined very, very broadly. Journalism is lumped in with "communications" and "related programs." As a result, their number is much bigger: 54,000 degrees conferred in the 2008-2009 school year.

Of course, the labor market isn't just about demand. There's also supply to consider. And the number isn't pretty.

There's just 330 jobs posted on at the time of this post. It's not the sum total of all available journalism jobs. Jobs can be made and/or filled without any published listing. Even so, that's not a promising number.

The newspaper industry is continuing to shed jobs, so likely these listings are either created by people preemptively abandoning ship, or by movement within the field that leaves temporary gaps.

Over the last 5 years, the newspaper industry cut 2,400 jobs a year on average. The loss has "stabilized" in recent years, according to the American Society of News Editors, but there were still 1,000 fewer print jobs in 2012 than there were in 2011. Total, there were 40,600 print journalists in 2012.

It's not likely to get any better, and the industry is not likely to ever recover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics believes that the field will shrink 8 percent from 2010 to 2020.

Despite these dismal job prospects, universities continue to pump out journalism degrees. What's more, these students will have to compete with experienced journalists who are out of a job and unwilling to change course.

They'll also have to compete against journalism students who have yet to land jobs. And they'll also be competing against next year's crop of journalism students. And the next. And the next. And so on.

2) You may not be able to afford it.

The average starting salary for a print reporter is somewhere between $25,000 and $28,000, and varies by geographic area.

If you're graduating with student loans, you'll need to make sure to keep those student loan payments under 8 percent of your salary.

Assuming you do just that, as a cub reporter, you should pay no more than $166 a month in student loans. If you've got a 10-year term with an interest rate of 6.8%, like most federal student loans, that works out to $14,424 in student loans.

To put it another way, if you have more than $14,424 in student loans, you should seek a more lucrative career.

Your starting salary is not your peak salary, and there's always income based repayment (IBR). But it could force you to put off some important things, like buying a house, starting a family, or saving for your retirement. And it's much more expensive to draw payments out until you're 46 (under a 25-year IBR term).

Given these guidelines, a good chunk of college students would be priced out of a career in journalism. Not all students have loans, but the average student loan debt was $27,253 in 2012.

Average isn't median, of course. It's a statistic that can be weighed down by a small group of people who hold a lot of student loans. The last time the National Center for Education Statistics found the median was in 2008. has projected the 2011-2012 median as $19,016.

If you're paying no more than 8 percent of your income as recommended, the average student-loan holder will have to seek a job that pays at least $32,826 a year. And if you hold the average student loan debt, you'll need a job that pays at least $47,044 annually.

For reference, the median salary for reporters was $34,530, according to the BLS.

More than the lack of good journalism jobs in the United States, I think that the price of an education and career in journalism is actually a much bigger problem. It doesn't matter how many journalists you have, if the newsroom lacks diversity in race or in social class, the public isn't getting the necessary perspective.

This is an under-reported problem, but it has been gaining attention.

3) Journalism may not satisfy you as a full-time job.

How did you like your journalism classes? How about working at the student newspaper? How about your internships? Working full-time could be much different.

Excellent connections or stellar internships notwithstanding, most journalists start out at a small-town newspaper. That means you might have to move from your native city or suburb to a rural environment. You'll not have a lot of money when you get there.

Since journalists are considered transient folks, it can be hard to win the trust of the locals. And if you do gain their trust, it's still difficult to write a critical piece, because you'll burn your only sources. That's not getting into the politics inside the newsroom, which can at times clash with your journalism values and personal ethics.

Then there's the constant worry of layoffs (more on that later). Is it any wonder why newspaper journalist beat out lumberjack, garbage collector, bus driver, and people who are shot at for a living for the worst career in 2013, according to (methodology here)

4) Not being a full-time journalist does not make you a failure. 

We get into journalism because we are idealists. It's not a job so much as a passion for many journalists. It's why journalists put up with the dismal pay and long hours, compared to their peers.

Therefore, even when faced with impossible economic odds, it can feel like failure not to slug it out. But once you realize that it's possible to find a more satisfying career elsewhere, it gets better.

5) Good news! Your journalism skills are applicable to other fields.

The vocational training you get in j-school is highly specialized, there's no doubt about that. But it's a mistake to think those skills aren't in some way transferable to other fields.

What do you do as a journalist? You meet and interview all kinds of people (engage). You convince them to give you something (information). You check the validity of that information (research). You package that information for people (communication).

To understand how your degree is applicable to non-journalism fields, you need to take a step back and consider how others can use your skills to make money. This is something that liberal arts PhDs have been doing for a while, even before the tenure-track freeze (see: the adjunct crisis), so you're in good company. Hunt them down, ask them questions, follow their examples, and read So what are you going to do with that? by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius.

6) You don't have to do PR for the Death Star.

As a journalist, you probably have a healthy dose of skepticism (or even disdain) for people whose job it is to spin the truth. The thing is, if you do go into PR (and that's not the only option for ex-journalists), you don't necessarily have to sacrifice your morals for a paycheck.

Do you think nonprofits are evil? Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs)? Oreo Cookies? These are all clients you can represent in public relations. If you believe in the mission of your chosen organization, it becomes much easier to represent your organization in front of journalists.

Another option is to consider your favorite beat as a journalism student, and seek employment in that sector. Did you enjoy covering government? Education? Crime? Housing? Business? You can pivot from being a reporter on the outside, to being a player on the inside.

I, for one, love working for a National Science Foundation grant to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. I never wake up wondering if I'm on the wrong team. And I love writing about our work, analyzing teaching networks, and teaching kids how to build and program unmanned aircraft.

7) Journalism graduate school? Eeehhhh...

You don't need a journalism degree to practice journalism. I've worked full-time with folks who had history degrees. One of them owned a newspaper I worked for. But a journalism degree provides concentrated study in the subject, so it's much easier to hone your chops and make yourself competitive. It's a fast-track to experience.

If a bachelor's in journalism gets you a step-up, then a master's must be even better, right? Not exactly.

A master's will help set you apart from competition, but it's not a full replacement for newsroom experience. If you just earned your bachelor's, and you can't find a full-time gig as a newspaper journalist, I advise against running back to the university to earn that experience in a master's class.

Spend at least two years working professionally as a journalist before you consider doubling-down on more journalism education. That way you'll know if the career path is for you, instead of having an advanced degree for a profession you'll never intend to follow.

Having said all that, I don't regret earning my master's.

During my interview at the NSF grant, I was able to turn a part-time communications job into a full-time job consisting of communications and data analysis. Later, I convinced my boss that I should launch an initiative to teach students how to design, program and fly unmanned aircraft. We're now looking at writing a new grant proposal with robotics and "drones" as a central component.

I couldn't have done that without the data analysis skills I learned in journalism graduate school. But I also couldn't have done it without the science, engineering, and programming experience I learned in my first years as a mechanical engineering undergrad.

So, yes, get a master's as long as a) you have at least a little experience in the field b) know specifically what marketable skills you want to improve and c) know the exact classes in the master's program that will teach you those skills. Don't do it just because you want to be a journalist, but are having trouble finding a job as a journalist, and have nowhere else to go.

So there you have it. If you're a university student who is considering print journalism, I would advise you to reconsider that career choice. Note this is different advice than run for your life.

I leave the option open, because some people might not be satisfied with anything else. For some in their early-to-mid twenties, it will satisfy a curiosity. And that is fine.

But do yourself a favor and diversify your skillset. Go through your journalism education with the idea that you may not be doing journalism forever. Take a few non-gen ed classes outside of the JOURN section of the course catalog. Formulate a backup plan.

I highly recommend programming and statistics. These are things that not only will make you valuable outside of the journalism field, but are only growing in relevance inside of journalism.

One final thing: giving up journalism full-time doesn't mean you have to totally give up journalism. That's why I still develop sensor nodes and unmanned aircraft for journalism, run, and also occasionally contribute to

Consider freelancing or publishing your own website. It will keep your journalism roots close, keep your chops up, and potentially bring in some more money. And if you ever feel nostalgic for the newsroom again...