The Newspaper Sky Is Falling – Find Another Sky?

I spoke at the J-School (that’s “journalism school” for the uninitiated) at Columbia, which I’m told is the #1 J-School in the world.  Wow, how cool it was to speak at the #1 school… !

As cool as it was, I couldn’t shake this feeling of “what are these people going to do for a living?”  Perhaps some of those very sharp journalists were going to school just to learn, and not for their career advancement (here’s a contraversial post with hot comments about this idea). But I’m guessing that most of them are there for there for their careers.

I asked myself then, as I do now, “what careers? What’s going to be left of that ‘industry’ in the next few months, or two years??”

I feel like it’s a big fat pink elephant, and wonder how much discussion journalists have about this very topic, especially in school.

Here’s an article from two days ago on, titled Newspapers fold as readers defect and economy sours.  It talks about the RIP-status of the Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the LA Times and Chicago Tribune parent company bankruptcy, news about the Ann Arbor (Michigan) newspaper cutting back… this is not the beginning (we’ve seen this a lot over the last year) and it won’t be the end.

I almost felt guilty because I haven’t had a newspaper subscription for years.  But I knew this wasn’t something for me to feel guilty about.  I didn’t cause this ending.

Back to the individuals and careers affected.  What’s a journalist, or aspiring journalist, to do?  They aren’t going to pitch to newspapers, I bet…

What would you do?  Or if it was your kid who was finishing up school (that you were paying for), what would you advise them to do?

10 thoughts on “The Newspaper Sky Is Falling – Find Another Sky?”

  1. Nice, timely post Jason! Yes, the downward spiral of the newspaper industry is disturbing, especially to this J-school grad, and especially for a society such as ours that has historically depended upon journalists to act as the “public watchdog” on our institutions. The good news is that, no matter what business model or models emerge from the current state of the industry, there will always be a need for journalists.

    The big question is: How deeply can journalists of today and tomorrow probe and write their news before the public fails to care? In other words, you can write or tell all you want about something like corruption, but would that spur the general public to react with outrage? I’m not so sure. Even The Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate in the 1970s needed the convening of a special U.S. Senate committee before the public outrage was loud enough to force Nixon to resign.

    As for tomorrow’s journalists, here are the options as I see them:

    * Go Web! Most newspapers have very viable web sites that are becoming more important today with the ubiquity of technology.
    * TV and radio broadcasting, though that industry is facing its own challenges (See
    for one perspective.)
    * Learn some elementary business skills while in school and freelance. Again, technology makes this easier.
    * If you know how to investigate to find stories, you can use that skill in other ways. Law? Law enforcement? Government agencies?

  2. Interesting!

    In the same feed reaading blitz, I saw your post and then one from Inside HigherEd. Here’s an excerpt:

    Now, some officials at the school hope to substantively change this “bread-and-butter” program by better integrating new media and business skills within its traditional reporting curriculum. Though Columbia administrators insist the Journalism School is “not playing catch-up” with the new media revolution — the school has had a new media concentration since 1995 — some faculty members expressed concern that they might not be embracing it throughout the curriculum fast enough.

    Hmmm . . . better integrating new media . . . that reminds me of a question I have posted on LinkedIn . . .

  3. It has long been said that writing is the key to all wealth, so I would continue to encourage them down this path whle considering the larger media picture.

  4. It’s a career fallacy to think that top education in one field doesn’t transfer to other fields. The program at Columbia is in a superb school that teaches its students to think, to identify factual info, develop important and accurate inferences and draw useful conclusions for written commentary. These are skills highly useful in many vocations–e.g. marketing, marketing research, pharmaceutical, software writing, all kinds of scientific writing. (My youngest daughter holds a Columbia degree in German, and has a superb position in the textile business. What sets her apart? Superb artistic and thinking skills…and the ability to develop money-saving short-cuts—heuristics are immensely valuable to most companies. She would never have learned that in a business or textile program.)

    This won’t bring me kudos, but I never recommend an undergrad business school. FYI, the top schools have no such departments, Harvard College, Swarthmore, Williams, UCHicago undergrad, etc. The Dean of Columbia U Business School puts it this way to high school students…want to go into business? Go to the best liberal arts college you can get into, and learn how to think. You can do the narrow vocational degree later.

    Plenty of lawyers never plan to go into law, but go into fields like venture capital and management where their thinking skills will be valued differently. Plenty of physicians start out to be doctors, do part of their residence, and go into clinical software (a booming opportunity), pharmaceuticals or health care management.

    The new career rule is this: develop a functional competency such as marketing, finance, etc., and go to as good a school as possible where you can gain competency in expert thinking and complex communication.

    Unless she’s ignorantly focused, I can’t imagine a Columbia Journalism degree as limiting to a grad.

    One of my best friends who’s also a long term client has never had a computer course, or business course. . . but holds a doctorate in sociology. Past ten years, he’s been the CIO at two well-known inernational companies. He is superb at developing and managing teams, setting up and training project leaders, corporate politics, etc. (Years ago when I asked about his software education–he responded something to the effect of two nite school courses….Software and technology are about strategy. . .you won’t get that in a computer science major, he reponded.)

    I have four friends with DMA degrees–doctor of musical arts–all of whom weren’t good enough in music, but have had six figure jobs in software development. There is a long history of relationships between music theory and software development. Cool, eh?

    Other kinds of media will be an option for a journalist, but there’s plenty outside media.

    I’ve run a highly successful consulting business working with top execs at top firms for more than 25 years. Never had a business course, undergrad was history, grad degree in theology, doctorate in rhetoric and communication…I do know how to think from strategy and marketing perspectives, pattern thinking, metacognition, expertise development, and I have trained people in communication skills. My learned function is org development–but it’s minor in the overall process. If you check out my client base, you’ll note that McKinsey is on the list.

    Obvously, I look at career development from a different perspective than many. Not to worry about talking internet to a columbia journalism grad student.

  5. These aspiring journalist students should have least to worry about, internet contents get better/faster so there’ll always be stories & news & commentaries to write about, they’re in good demands. Evidently it’s been for quite sometime now that old print newspapers are dying & considered a-thing-of-the-past & there are interesting parallels with the ecology & I.T. movement going on. I read more these days as I become more efficient in finding medians. Accept the evolution in this regard & we’ll be fine.

  6. Poignant article. My prediction is that newspapers and other print material will continue to exist and morph into something that will compte with on line services. The biggest issue is loss of advertising from retailers shifting to other media and so the newspaper as we know today will shrink in size and content , and perhaps cost more to buy.t

  7. Hi, Jason,

    I agree with much of what Dan Irwin and the other commentors say. I also found this interesting job board for professionals in the communications industry: It lists many different specialty jobs in communication nationally and abroad. While newspapers may be closing, I believe that because we humans are social beings by nature, the need for forms of communication will always exist. Just as the Gutenberg press changed into printed newspapers, and so forth, a new form will emerge. People are just too creative and innovative for something new not to evolve.

  8. Jason,

    Great post. It all boils down to what skills you have developed. There will always be journalists, although they may go by different names. Most of the good ones will either work on-line or will find positions in which they can apply their communication skills. I cannot think of a single industry that does not need good writers. One key, however, is cross-training. What skills do you have other than simply writing. Patent Attorneys are essentially well paid technical writers who understand both science/engineering and the law. In fact, while everyone loves Perry Mason, most lawyers spend their time writing. The same is true for many other professions. Any journalist who can find a field that they understand well in addition to writing well will be able to find a good position.

    I agree with Dan Irwin’s comments above. Most of the people I know who are hyper-successful are successful in industries outside of their education. Sometimes your competitive edge is not knowing that you are not supposed to do it that way. There are times when ignorance (at least as to conventions) is bliss.

  9. @Dan Erwin — you’re very right that it is a “career fallacy to think that top education in one field doesn’t transfer to other fields.” And it’s worth exploring where and how such thinking develops. I see 2 prominent sources: the schools and the employers.

    When you go to a university, you are forced to choose a major. You’re not introduced to the notionof transferrable skills, i.e., how to parlay what you’ve learned into a variety of industries.

    Next, look at typical job postings composed by employers. Do they welcome career changers? No, they embrace the specialist.

    Incidentally, music and software provided me a very enlightening mix. Landing gigs in music was a lot easier than for the allegedly non-starving field of computer engineering. It was precisely because of the flavor of the month obsession of many software outfits that I left it. A competent musician can read sheet music to perform a new piece, quickly. Similarly, a proficient programmer can read manuals and Web pages to write functioning software, quickly. However, tell that to today’s software managers who insist we have no time for learning curves. The typical conversation was, “I don’t care that you’ve shipped products to sell-out audiences over 15 years. We need somebody who knows Variation 6.22 of the 11th Suite of the Oracle database in C# today!” They didn’t want to hear how I could apply my knowledge of C++, Java and SQL to their shows. Worse, some would occasionally say, “We don’t want to take a chance training you so you’ll quit and join another band!”

    Offshore outsourcing made our conversations even more dissonant.

    When changing careers to marketing, I went to the open house at a Silicon Valley university offering continuing education. It was interesting to run into several former software managers, including one who said after his 15 years of irrational techie demands, he wanted a career that welcomed flexibility. As a number cruncher, he found financial planning exciting. Everybody needs to manage money, from the wealthy to those doing poorly (esp. in this economy.) He saw himself in and out of California.

    Where many schools fail is that they don’t teach people how to learn. They instead push the material that gets you a job. Yet what school when I graduated in the 80’s could tell me to seriously consider becoming a Web publicist? Decades later, what careers remain to be invented?

    Similar to musicians transposing pieces to different keys, candidates can demonstrate how what they’ve learned in one field readily works in another. However, are many employers welcoming of that? No, they insist their industry is totally unique, the idea of crossover artists like Lou Gerstner moving from RJR Nabisco to IBM is inconceivable. Repeatedly to get ahead in my new career, my typical conversation is “While I may not have specifically marketed in your industry before, here’s what I know about targeting communities like yours.”

    Here’s one other interesting reality about universities and employers. How many MBA programs show managers how to build a team? Look at the curriculum and see if amidst all the left brain business courses you find one on hiring. Yet don’t we always hear people are our most important asset? What school can I go to that shows me how to look for the strengths in people beyond their technical background? How could a “journalism” major do what I do now in the forms of “market research?”

    Worse, when you get promoted into management, you’re assumed to have all the people skills and know-how just because you were really good in the trenches. Why then do we frequently hear of the sin of hiring in one’s own image, thereby not welcoming people in other fields?

    Musically speaking, it’s imperative to stay “a sharp” person even when others deem you to “be flat.” (A-sharp and B-flat are the same note. Meanwhile, the other subject school needs to cover badly is “rejection,” from handling it to not prematurely giving it to people with potential.)

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