Fake news? No jobs? Prospective journalists soldier on
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — The Daily Orange isn’t daily anymore.
The student-run newspaper that has covered Syracuse University since 1903, and trained generations of journalists, now prints three issues per week. Editor-in-chief Haley Robertson wonders where she’ll find advertisers, worries about firing friends, and searches for alumni donors who will pay to send reporters on the road to cover the university’s sports teams.
These are problems not unlike those that bedevil executives two or three times her age — evidence of how the news industry’s woes have seeped onto campuses that try to harness youthful energy and idealism to turn out professionals who can inform the world.
Meanwhile, college journalism educators are changing the way they teach in a race against obsolescence. They’re emphasizing versatility and encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship.
After some brutal years, there are signs of life. Much as the journalistic pursuit of a crooked president in the 1970s inspired a generation, another leader who denounces reporters as enemies on a nearly daily basis has given birth to a new resolve: Enrollment in journalism programs is up.
“When I look at local news and see what’s happening, I’m pessimistic,” said Kathleen Culver, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “When I look at 18- and 20-year-olds and see what they want to do, I’m optimistic.”
Thousands of young journalists train for the future on a dual track, in classrooms and in student-run newsrooms that are models for the places they hope to work someday.
For Robertson, that means hours a day in a dingy office with yellowed headlines glued to the wall, metal file cabinets signed by editors dating back nearly 50 years and a ripped upholstered couch carried from the Daily Orange’s old office, now a parking lot.
College publications occasionally make national news while chronicling the rhythms of campus life, as happened this fall when Arizona State University’s student newspaper had a scoop on the resignation of Kurt Volker, U.S. envoy to the Ukraine. Volker runs Arizona State’s McCain Institute.
The Daily Orange in 2018 first posted video of racist and sexist comments made at a Syracuse fraternity, leading to embarrassing headlines for the university across the country. Robertson’s managing editor, Catherine Leffert, sat on the floor at a campus meeting as that story swirled, tapping out updates on her mobile phone, and slept on the office couch in two-hour intervals. The fraternity was suspended.
Journalists of all ages understand the adrenaline rush.
“Seeing the layoffs and seeing newsroom cutbacks is really disheartening,” Leffert said. “But what keeps me wanting to be a journalist and wanting to do it here is seeing the effect that the D.O. has. It’s really cool and exciting.”
Few college publications have shut down the way local newspapers in towns and cities across the country have, said Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association and adviser to the University of Vermont newspaper. Many are supported by student fees and pay their staff members little if anything.
Thirty-five percent of school papers say they have reduced the frequency of print issues to save money, according to a CMA survey taken earlier this year. Five percent have gone online-only, as the University of Maryland’s Diamondback said that it would do early next year. Half of the newspapers that haven’t abandoned paper, like the Daily Orange, say they’re not printing as many copies.
Robertson touts the transition as a way to follow the industry by going more digital, and the D.O. has an active web site and social media presence. Yet there’s only so much staff members can do. They are students, after all.
The University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel switched to three days a week in 2017 when its directors suddenly realized they were going broke, said Maddy Arrowood, the paper’s editor-in-chief. The newspaper cut the pay of staff members and moved into a new, smaller office above a restaurant.
The Daily Tar Heel is testing out newsletters targeted at people with special interests, and its reporters are trying to attract off-campus readers and advertisers by covering news in the surrounding community of Chapel Hill, N.C.
“I spend most of my time very aware of our financial situation,” Arrowood said. “We’re always trying to tell the newsroom that your goal is to produce the best content that you can and be an indispensable resource for our readers.”
One small victory: last year the Daily Tar Heel reported a tiny profit.
Struggling with a $280,000 debt, the Hilltop at Howard University printed its first edition this semester in mid-October. The Maneater at the University of Missouri used to print twice a week, then once. Now it’s down to once a month. It operates separately from a newspaper run by faculty and students that covers the town of Columbia.
Staff members are now charged annual dues — in other words, they must pay to work there, said Leah Glasser, the paper’s editor. They can avoid the dues if they find an alumni sponsor or sell enough advertising to cover it.
The paper has a web site, and Glasser and her staff are slowly getting used to the new monthly schedule.
“It’s so difficult to hear, ‘we don’t have enough money,’” she said. “We hear that a lot. As a generation, that doesn’t make us turn around and go home.”
Newspapers like the Daily Orange and Daily Tar Heel don’t take money from the university or fellow students, believing that to be a conflict of interest. Most publications do, however. Tammy Merrett, faculty adviser to the Alestle at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, doesn’t know how her paper would survive without it.
Fat with slick ads taken out by military recruiters, Planned Parenthood and local supermarkets, the Alestle’s ad revenue was around $150,000 a year in 2008. Now, the paper struggles to make $30,000 a year in ad sales.
“At some universities, they have to approach student government directly and ask for funds, and there have been some instances where student government doesn’t like the coverage, so they deny it,” Merrett said. “Luckily, that doesn’t happen here.”
Despite the worries, North Carolina’s Arrowood says her experience makes her more interested in a journalism career, not less. Her optimism “comes from knowing that people still need news, they still need information, and I’ve gotten to see that in a lot of ways,” she said. “I’m willing to meet people where they are.
“What I want to do is still something that people need,” she said.
With that, she has to cut the conversation short.
Arrowood has a class to attend.
If they’re being honest, most journalism educators have at some point wondered to themselves: Am I preparing young people for a dying industry? Even if I try to retool for a modern age, who will be interested in my school?
At the turn of the century, Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication routinely welcomed 48 new students each year into its master’s program in journalism. A few years ago, that number slipped into the teens, said Joel Kaplan, who runs the program. Nationally, the number of undergraduates in college journalism programs dropped 9 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication.
Newspaper newsroom jobs across the country sank from 52,000 in 2008 to 24,000 now, according to the University of North Carolina. There’s more to journalism than newspapers, of course, but the number of jobs in digital, nonprofit and broadcast newsrooms can’t make up for that kind of contraction.
Try selling a specialized education at an expensive private school to prospective students and parents with those grim statistics as a backdrop.
“It’s one thing to go into debt if you’re an engineer or a graphic artist, because you know the jobs are going to be there,” Kaplan said.
As a school with a broader communications program, Newhouse started emphasizing its advertising and public relations majors. Syracuse used to have a separate newspaper journalism major; now it’s the magazine, news and digital journalism program.
If anyone can adapt, it’s young people.
“My students don’t even remember a day when the paper was delivered to their house,” said John Affleck, a professor of sports journalism at Penn State.
Universities are focusing more on specialized programs like Affleck’s; the University of Florida halted its own decline by starting a sports media program. Several schools invest in data journalism. They’re feeding a greater interest in watchdog reporting.
Penn State just hired its first innovator-in-residence, part of a national trend to emphasize entrepreneurial skills to students who may have to create their own career paths.
The school’s Donald Bellisario College of Communications is itself a testament to keeping an open mind professionally, as it’s named for an alumnus who studied journalism and made a fortune creating and producing television dramas like “NCIS.”
Schools are also breaking down internal barriers that once kept writers, broadcasters and photographers separate. University of Maryland journalism school dean Lucy Dalglish just authorized the purchase of 50 new cameras, since all students there must now take at least two classes in video or still photography. Wisconsin’s Culver recalls a student who grumbled about being forced to take a class in digital journalism; she’s now an executive at Facebook.
“How much should the medium dictate the way we educate a student?” she asked. “The answer is, ‘not much.’”
Maryland emphasizes creative, real-world experience. A journalism major worked with a computer science student to produce a map of the most dangerous traffic intersections in the state, Dalglish said. Students also collaborated with National Public Radio on a Baltimore project.
Many educators say their schools should be considered by students who don’t necessarily want media jobs. J-school students learn communication, critical thinking and writing while getting a solid liberal arts education, said Marie Hardin, dean of Penn State’s Bellisario College.
David Perlmutter, dean of Texas Tech’s College of Media & Communication bets that a majority of journalism school graduates over age 35 are no longer in the profession but use the skills they learned.
“Personally, I think that’s what’s going to keep the journalism major alive,” he said.
A “Trump bump” is an unexpected positive. Undergraduate enrollment in journalism programs went up nearly 6 percent between 2015 and 2018, the AEJMC said. Journalism is the most popular major for Bellisario’s incoming class at Penn State, after having been surpassed by advertising and PR four years ago.
Kaplan’s master’s program at Syracuse welcomed 35 new students this fall.
“When Trump starts calling journalists the enemy of the people and fake news, these kids get ticked off,” Dalglish said.
Years ago, graduates beat a familiar path into low-level reporter jobs at newspapers or television stations. That still happens, but when Kelly Barnett, head of the Newhouse school’s career counseling program, scrolls down the list of jobs taken by recent alumni, she sees titles like digital editorial assistant, social media producer, video streamer, social media specialist.
So there’s work, but students shouldn’t be blind to the challenges.
“What I’m not going to tell an incoming student or parent is that there are so many kinds of alternatives out there, that there are just as many jobs out there,” Hardin said, “because I don’t think that’s true.”
This story has been corrected to show that Tammy Merrett is adviser to the Alestle at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, not Southern Illinois University.
A Syracuse University graduate, David Bauder sat on the same couch while working at the Daily Orange from 1977 to 1981.