The other day I received an e-mail from a web writer wanting to interview me about trends in the news business. The message went something like this:
Are your j-school courses recognizing that most students won't be moving on to jobs at newspapers? What kinds of skills/competencies are professors focusing on now? Are classes teaching entrepreneurship so that students can freelance?
This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts. I'm sure the writer means well, but the question betrays a level of ignorance about this industry that's astonishing. It's the kind of ignorance propagated by the "newspapers are dead and all information should be free and online" crowd.
The problem is this: even in an era when newspapers are on the decline, there are still some 1,300 papers being published nationwide. More to the point, even with the devastating newsroom layoffs of the past few years, the vast majority of people who call themselves journalists still work for - you guessed it - newspapers.
And I'm not just talking about ancient history. Newspapers still hire more people then any other form of media. If you don't believe me, surf on over to journalism jobs.com and see how many job openings there are in the various media categories. I did, and here's what I found:
TV - 19 job openings; radio - 10 openings; magazines - 65; online media - 141; newspapers - 345.
Ironic, isn't it? Newspapers are hiring more than twice as many people as online media outlets. It's pretty counter-intuitive, especially if you've been drinking the death-of-newspapers Kool-aid.
So what's going on here? Unfortunately, many people who write about the media have bought into the notion, spread far and wide by the digital media nerds, that print is to the news business what eight tracks and cassettes are to the recording industry - relics of a bygone age.
This simply isn't the case. Yes, newspapers continue to see declines in circulation and ad revenue. Yes, many papers are having difficulty adapting to the digital media age.
But what's lost in the hoopla over digital this and online that is the fact that most papers still earn the bulk of their revenue from printed display advertising, not the digital ads you see on websites and smartphones. Indeed, talk to anyone in the advertising business and they'll tell you that digital ads just aren't very lucrative, mainly because people ignore them.
Paywalls are the other revenue source that's actually growing. (Of course, the media nerds said paywalls would never work.)
The second part of the writer's query - what skills are j-school profs teaching - is a legit question. But there's a perception that old-school skills like reporting and writing are on their way out, to be replaced by classes in things like digital video and blogging.
Well, yes, today's aspiring journalists should arm themselves with digital media skills, but such skills aren't much use if you don't know how to write a lede or conduct an interview. In other words, the fundamentals have to come first.
The writer's last sentence - are classes teaching entrepreneurship so that students can freelance? - also bothers me. Ever since the mass newsroom layoffs of a few years back a lot of media pundits have been pontificating about how unemployed journos should be creative and innovative, how they should start their own blogs and somehow live off the proceeds.
What a load of rubbish. Sure, a few especially entrepreneurial types have probably managed to do this, but as anyone who's started a blog can attest, it's tough enough attracting readers, much less making any money off them. Look at it this way: if the giant media corporations are having trouble monetizing online content, how much hope is there for the laid-off reporter sitting at his laptop? Not everyone can be an entrepreneur.
So here's my plea to scribes covering the news business: Don't buy into received wisdom, as trendy as it may be. Learn something about how this industry works, and where it's headed. Talk to people who actually work in this business, as opposed to the dilettantes who observe it from afar. Do some real reporting.
Who knows, if your piece is good enough it might land you a job at a newspaper.