Journalism educators need to up their game to stay relevant in their own changing industry

For a decade now, I have been teaching journalism without officially having left the business.

I keep one foot in journalism because I cannot imagine life without it, which sounds admittedly old-fashioned and also is something I cannot teach. Nor is it necessarily practical. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts journalism jobs will decline by 4.8% by 2030. 

It’s not all bad news. Although newsroom employment in the United States has dropped by 26% since 2008, most of the losses have been at traditional newspapers. Digital news jobs are growing, according to Pew Research. As I remind my photojournalism students, there are plenty of jobs for them in broadcast TV. 

Photo by Esther Vargas via Flickr

Nonetheless, this creates a dilemma for many of us who love journalism and teach journalism, especially with fewer students going to college. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the undergraduate student body dropped by nearly 1.4 million students or 9.4% during the pandemic. (This incidentally is a good story for local news organizations in communities with colleges or universities. Now, more than ever, is the time to hire a higher ed reporter or at least give the beat to an aspiring student journalist, something I’ve recommended before in this space.) 

In journalism education, we’ve had to rebrand what we do to some extent so that our students have marketable skills. We teach “storytelling” because non-profits and ad agencies and corporations need storytellers. We remind our students that being able to write concisely on deadline is a skill that many employers seek and not just newsrooms. Their web design and social media skills are also transferable. 

We’ve had to make certain anyone who teaches journalism has crack digital skills. Maybe a decade ago, you could get away with being the digitally illiterate professor in the cardigan if you had mad writing skills and stellar publication credentials or multiple Emmys. (I have nothing against cardigans. I keep a sweater in my office and laugh at myself everytime I wear it. ) But no more. Students, and rightfully so, simply do not want to learn from someone who cannot carry on a conversation about artificial intelligence and TikTok (the fastest growing platform for news.) This summer, as someone who oversees a photojournalism degree, I made certain to learn about photogrammetry and capturing in 3D.

Our academic institutions are slow to respond to changes in the industry. Academia itself doesn’t encourage experimentation. It demands that we be methodical and researched. It says it wants collaboration but allows individual departments to retain ownership of words and equipment and knowledge, which is the exact opposite of what is happening in the industry itself. 

We worry about the future of the journalism industry when we really need to be worried about our own future as journalism educators. 

This is not a moment to study where we should be headed. This is a moment to start walking, taking in as we go, responding as we need to, listening to the future readers and consumers of news in our classrooms, pivoting when we need to. We need to remind the leaders of our institutions of the importance of journalism, the role we play in our democracy. All of that matters. In fact, it matters now more than ever as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol showed.

This is also not a call to abandon copy editing and ethics and the inverted pyramid. I still teach objectivity. This is a call not to cling so tightly to the way we did things that we don’t help our students navigate a business in which many journalism professors themselves would have a hard time finding or staying employed. 

That is the truth.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Share our journalism