“Every generation creates its own journalism,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism.”
I often think how journalism, and communications in general, have changed dramatically since my teachers and mentors made their marks on the profession. They were mostly World War II, Korean War or Vietnam War veterans who distinguished themselves as reporters or editors on newspapers or magazines, back in the days when newspapers and magazines were highly profitable. A man (yes, nearly all my undergraduate and graduate school teachers were men) could support his family on one solid salary as a senior reporter or editor.
But as we all know, the business model for newspapers and magazines has collapsed, and the opportunities for the older generation now mostly retired have not been as available for younger generations. Two-career partners are mostly essential nowadays to support a family in a modest middle-class lifestyle. The idea of spending your entire career with one employer, and eventually collecting a comfortable pension has largely disappeared, at least in America.
The very thought of settling on one career, or one profession, in your early twenties and sticking with it until retirement may be exceedingly rare, and may not even be desirable for upcoming generations who aren’t likely to retire until age 70 or later.
In the evolving field of 21st century communication, a college graduate could spend his first decade after college as a reporter and editor, his second decade in broadcast media, his third decade in interactive advertising, his fourth decade in public relations, advocacy or as a government spokesman, and a fifth decade in international media.
While opportunities may be shrinking in print journalism, new opportunities for people who like to write, tell stories, shoot photos and videos, combine images, sound and words into evocative presentations may be greater than my mentors in the pre-digital age ever dreamed.
I think about the courses I took in undergraduate journalism and graduate school and compare them to the far wider variety of courses in Communications offered today by my alma maters, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and American University in Washington, DC.
Is it even advisable to major in journalism, when newspapers and magazines are shrinking, there are currently so few well-paying outlets and everyone is capable of becoming a publisher online? I would say, yes, if you abandon some of the rigid lines of demarcation, tensions and hostilities between print, broadcast, public relations, advertising, old and new media that I and my colleagues embraced. In other words, don’t pass up opportunities to learn it all.
When I was in school, as a “journalism major,” you chose whether you were in print journalism, broadcast journalism, or public relations and advertising. Print journalists looked suspiciously on the others — especially the seemingly more glamorous but less substantive field of broadcast journalism. “Bubble-headed bleached blondes” was a favorite pejorative we print journalists had for what we thought were the more beautiful people on local TV news. Nowadays I admire journalists who have developed good skills with audio, film and video, either in front of or behind the camera, as “digital storytellers.” I see it as a powerful tool.
“Respectable” broadcast news outlets like National Public Radio were in their infancy when I was in j-school. I had one friend who pursued a career in public radio news, but when he was laid off from a low-budget local public radio station, I thanked my lucky stars I did not go down the same path. But when he quickly landed on his feet, started working for another non-profit news radio network, and within a few years landed a position as a reporter for National Public Radio, I took notice. Maybe he did have a viable career path after all. For many years now he has been a bureau chief for NPR. Irony of ironies, he is well-compensated and his career has been quite stable compared to those of us who specialized in print journalism. Kudos to him for latching onto public radio in its early stages of development and riding it into a sustainable future.
Back in j-school, we print journalists also looked askance at PR and advertising. We were taught that there should be a high ethical wall between “non-profit” journalists and “for profit” public relations and advertising. “Flacks” pitched one side of the story; we journalists reported the whole story, or the real truth, or so we thought. The more I studied and experienced media, the more I realized how wrong my assumption had been.
When I was in j-school, real journalists weren’t supposed to learn much about the business side of the profession, because it might somehow taint their expressed motive to report “without fear or favor,” regardless of the business interests of their employers. Journalists who ventured into PR or took an interest in advertising we considered “sell outs.”
Nowadays, many “ink-stained wretches,” as old newspapermen still call themselves, expect to go the way of the dinosaur. It’s hard to sustain a career with long hours and low pay in a digital sweatshop where profit margins are low or non-existent.
Under financial pressure, journalists nowadays need to understand the business side of their profession, to become more entrepreneurial, and to experiment with new revenue streams and ways to sustain and strengthen the loyalty of readers.
I’ve also changed my perspective on so-called “sell outs.” After spending their early career chasing the news at all hours of the day or night, who can blame a well-trained communicator to look for a better financial deal, and less demanding hours, not in newspaper journalism but in one of those fields he once denigrated, like advocacy, public relations, interactive advertising and social media? That’s what I did. And I discovered it wasn’t all that different from traditional journalism. It’s all storytelling.
An early career in journalism can provide great training for a later career in public relations. The opposite, however, is not true: you can’t easily transition from public relations into journalism because of the suspicion if not the reality that you haven’t learned to tell all sides of the story and are more accustomed to promoting people or points of view than in presenting information in a fair, balanced and detached way. You might be able to move from journalism into advertising, but you can’t generally move from advertising into journalism for the same reasons. There are still professional red lines that can’t or shouldn’t be crossed because they stab at the heart of your credibility as a professional communicator.
There are exceptions to these rules. The final judge will always be the quality of the products you create, and whether you have disclosed to the public what they need to know to judge the accuracy of your work.