Journalism Education and the No-jobs Myth

I wish I had a new smart phone app for every time somebody asked me what my students are going to do about having trained for careers in a business with few jobs and rapidly dimming career prospects.

Yes, times are tough and “legacy media” continue to hurt big time, as the media, both old and new, keep reminding us. But from this journalism teacher’s perspective, and with apologies to Mark Twain, the reports of job death are greatly exaggerated.

The bottom line is pretty much as former Minneapolis Star Tribune editor-turned-J-school professor Tim McGuire recently opined: “If a student looks at our current news ecosystem and sees promise, excitement and energizing challenge then the media world is for them. If they… see only doom approaching, that person needs to exit the media world quickly.”

Luckily, UT has blessed me with an abundance of students who fall into that first category – call them the plugged-in, the persistent and the brave. So let me offer a snapshot of today’s job trajectories based on when my students last phoned home, e-mailed, or posted their whereabouts.

The paying Web: Students increasingly go to work for Web-based news outlets. No surprise there. Yet contrary to popular belief, they can and do get paid and in some cases paid well for reporting specialized beats such as technology, personal finance or the oil and petroleum industry.

One recent master’s student, for example, works for, where he reports on consumer finance issues, and keeps an eye on search-engine-optimization and freelance contributors.

No, it’s not Woodward and Bernstein but it’s the kind of stuff that’s of the moment and the market and, as likely as not, such jobs come with competitive salaries and benefits. In other words, it’s a place to start.

Being the boss: Today’s young people are more entrepreneurially inclined than yesterday’s cohorts. A talented band of recent photojournalism master’s students, for example, has started its own photo cooperative east of I-35 as a basis for building freelance careers.

At last count, a current master’s student had raised $4,063 on Kickstarter, a website that lets people ask other people to help fund entrepreneurial endeavors, to underwrite an ambitious reporting project on climate change that will take him around the Southwest this summer.

Alert the media: Another hardy half-truth notwithstanding, folks still get themselves hired in mainstream newsrooms too. Other faculty will have their lists of achievers but mine includes people who work, either print, multimedia or both, for prestige outfits such as the Austin American-Statesman, the Texas Observer, the San Antonio Express-News, the Washington Post, the PBS News Hour and the New York Daily News. A 2011 undergrad, the serious envy of her friends and classmates, scored an editorial job at Food & Wine magazine in the Big Apple.

The truly intrepid: A few former undergrads have based themselves in China where they are currently honing their Mandarin skills in hopes of grabbing a job like the ones business-oriented news operations (the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, for example) have to offer if both the journalism and language chops are there.

Last winter break, a far-flung J-schooler visited with news that he’s now based in Hanoi editing an English-language startup magazine for the city’s expat community. Another former master’s student picked up and left for Cairo in April where he is doing a fine and gusty job chronicling the ongoing action of the Arab Spring as a photojournalist.

Outside the box: Journalism grads also think creatively about how to apply their analytical and communication skills to journalistically modified pursuits. At last report, a brilliant 2009 grad was keeping alive his dream of wedding a medical practice with journalism, as the writer Atul Gawande does for the New Yorker. Another talented hybrid, a graduate of our dual-degree master’s program with the LBJ School, analyzes West Africa for the U.S. State Department.

Do J-school grads face the same hard job market as their contemporaries in other fields in this miserable economy? You bet. But my experience suggests a couple of points about using a journalism education to stage a productive career the skeptics may sometimes overlook.

For one thing, landing that first job in journalism has never been a cakewalk. For all the effort teachers, administrators and staff pour into preparing students for real-world careers,journalism remains a highly self-selective trade. Good teachers and great technical tools help students hone interests and skills and spot what’s new – yet when it comes to career building, it’s still the individual that steers her or his fate.

For today’s achieverati that can mean adopting a strategy that, as a recent former master’s student explained, goes like this: “Try to get the awesome entry level job/fellowship.” Failing that, “shoot for the small market” – a hyper-local newspaper, for example. Striking out there, “Get a job doing something, anything – preferably writing-related but slinging snow cones is OK too – and freelance on the side.” The point, he said, is to “keep on trying to move up the ladder.”

Finally, yes, we all know there are proportionately many fewer traditional newsroom jobs out there nowadays. But consider the flip side: There are starter jobs in the media that hardy, enterprising individuals can use to help inscribe their career trajectories – and define the future of journalism and new media into the bargain.

About the Author

Tracy Dahlby teaches journalism at UT and serves on the Headliners Foundation Board of Governors.

Tracy Dahlby