Monday, March 24, 2008

College Tour: The very young are the future

I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of universities and to attend two conventions for college journalists. This is the second in a four-part series on my experiences. You can see part one here.

My annual college tour is over, and unlike years past, I'm feeling pretty confident about the next generation of journalists.
Certainly the current crop of journalism students isn't perfect. But nor is it as bad as it was just last year.
Something has changed. And I think I know what it is.
College journalists seem to be split into two distinct camps. There are those who understand online media and look forward to a career in digital media. Then there are the delusional others who have their hearts set on a print-based job. (There's also a smaller group of students who have their hearts set on a "television" career rather than a "video" career.")
And as remarkable as it seems to an old guy like me who finds it increasingly difficult to tell at a glance if someone is 16-years old or 26-years old, it is the age of the student that makes all the difference.

As a general rule, I met very few seniors who are ready for the working world. The juniors weren't much better. On the other hand, I found the sophomores and freshmen in today's journalism programs to be a truly remarkable bunch.

It's the very young students -- just 18- to 19-years old in most cases -- who have familiarity with online culture and have mastered new-media storytelling techniques. It's the freshmen and sophomores that understand, accept and celebrate the idea of working and living on the Web.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that there's no one worth hiring in the class of 2008. I met three seniors that any publisher would be lucky to have on board. But it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that two of them already have job offers and the third expects an offer from the publication where she works now on a part-time basis.
But those students were the exception.
On the other hand, I met a bunch of seniors who hope to become print designers. They know Quark. They know InDesign. They have printouts of pages that they want you to see. What they don't have are job offers. And what they don't seem to know is that print design jobs grow rarer by the minute.
I also met a bunch of seniors who want to be newspaper reporters. They have clips. They have some basic reporting skills. What they don't have are job offers. And what they don't seem to know is that newspapers are in very tough shape.
The seniors seemed to be stuck in a fantasy about working in a 1970s-style newsroom. While nearly every time I met a kid who was a new-media "superstar," they turned out to be several years away from graduation.
But that's OK.
I'm willing to accept that our profession might have to write off a few years worth of journalism graduates. Because for the first time I feel confident that there is a next generation of journalists coming that will make us all proud.

My friend Rex also had a positive experience earlier this month when he met with a group of college journalists. You can read his thoughts here.
I shouldn't be surprised by the skills of the very young. Just a few months ago I noted that high school kids were doing some interesting work, while established journalists continued to resist change. Now it turns out that the high school publication I mentioned in that post is winning national attention.

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education

4 comments:

Tim Gruber said...

Paul,

Great post and thankfully not all recent grads are hopeless as was proved by my grad class this year in the Visual Communications program at Ohio University. For our capstone class 9 of us did online pieces with only 4 doing print. It was the first time more people elected to do multimedia pieces than print.

Here's my piece:
http://www.timgruber.com/moment

and here's by far the most dynamite piece from the class:

http://www.indepth.jennackerman.com/

It'll blow you away. I promise.

Paul Conley said...

Hi Tim,
Thanks for the comment and thanks for pointing me toward those two packages.
I really enjoyed your piece.
As for Jenn Ackerman's piece -- you weren't kidding. I was blown away. That was the most amazing piece of multimedia work I've seen in ages. It was so powerful and so disturbing that I couldn't finish it in one sitting. I have to take a break. I'll get back to it later today.
Paul

Jonathan Sweet said...

What's funny about all this is how different it is from my experience. I came out of college in 1998 ready to go with online media. I was excited about it, I wanted to do it. Then I got out to my first job (this held true for my second as well) and found people who didn't even use e-mail and was told by all my bosses (and colleagues) that stuff wasn't important in the "real world." (Maybe these people became the college professors you're seeing?)

This experience was not unique to me. Most of my classmates reported similar experiences regardless of the field they were in. I remember having discussions with friends and profs who were still back at school and telling them about my frustrations.

So when we're looking who to blame here, I think we need to realize there is a reason this is happening and it's at least partially the fault of the companies now complaining about it.

Anyway, thanks for the insights on where today's students are. It's good to hear there's a future out there!

Paul Conley said...

Hi Jonathan,
There's no doubt -- absolutely no doubt whatsoever -- that mainstream media companies helped create this problem in the first place.
At about the same time you were in college, I was launching my first Internet business. And I only decided to go out on my own because I got so frustrated trying to convince my bosses that there was an opportunity happening online.
And even well after Web-based journalism became mainstream, most of the traditional publishers I know behaved like idiots for a good long time. I still know companies like that. And I still run into reporters and editors every single week who haven't caught on to the importance of the Web in their careers.
That's part of why I've paid so much attention to college students. The industry really, really needs people to replace the folks who can't/won't adjust. And it's been a very frustrating experience to see journalism schools producing young people who are just like the middle-aged people that are being laid off by the thousands.