Friday, February 19, 2010

How will future journalists evolve?

What's the career path for would-be reporters in the era of fading legacy media?

The question, which came up last week at a conference in New York City on the Future of Journalism Education, seemed to agitate John Thornton, a panelist in the session titled "Education of the Entrepreneurial Journalist" (see him here at about 27 minutes).

Thornton, a venture capitalist in Austin, is chairman of, a nonprofit online news operation that launched last fall to cover state government. (He's shown far left on the dais in this picture posted by the Paley Center, the conference host.)

Had he been told when he first entered the VC world that the old system was dying and he'd just have to figure things out for himself, "I would have lost a shitload of money for people -- right?" Thornton said. "If there was no sort of apprenticeship, no notion of a career path, that would have been a bad thing.

"And I just wonder how journalists, while they're off in their spare time being entrepreneurs, how they ... evolve in their craft," he said.

It was a question that wasn't answered at the conference. But it piqued my curiosity.

Traditionally, novice journalists got their foot in the door at a small newspaper or TV station or radio station, then progressed every few years to ever-bigger organizations until they might land on the national stage at the likes of the New York Times or CNN. Along the way, they did general-assignment grunt work until they could get a plum beat like City Hall or health care, learning on the job from experts in the community and from editors and reporters in the newsroom.

If that mold is crumbling as legacy media stumble, how will tomorrow's journalists develop? Where do journalism students see future jobs: print or online? Does the economic storm lashing the industry scare them, or are they secure in their entrepreneurial chops?

For some insight, I contacted Barbara Selvin, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, who blogs at Internet Revolution, J-School Evolution on her course, Journalism 24/7, which explores the industry's "terrifying, exhilarating chaos."

Stony Brook, located on Long Island, has had a full-fledged j-school only since 2006. Selvin was its first full-time faculty hire, and she introduced the 24/7 core course to examine "the impact of the digital revolution on journalism."

In an email interview, Selvin assured me that many students "yearn to work in print, at the Times or elsewhere." But, she added, "most expect to work on the Web."

The young j-school has graduated fewer than three dozen students so far, and many are finding the job market tough. But some are working at entry-level print and broadcast positions they landed through the industry contacts of professors.

Do these students have the innate entrepreneurial bent we assume they have, eager to make a name for themselves by developing their own brand? "No, it's not a given for all," she said, "and many find the idea daunting. Others embrace it."

Selvin said the 24/7 course -- which is different each time she teaches it because the media are rapidly changing -- is a revelation to students. "Those of us in the business (now or formerly) take the current chaos for granted, but many of our students have only a vague awareness of what the headlines really mean for their careers," she said.

Yet they aren't put off by the chaos. "They see themselves as reporters covering the kinds of things reporters have always covered," she said. "Students are still idealistic, still detest injustice, still want to make the world a better place."

And, yes, they still "are as vague as ever about a career path."

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