When someone asks me what I’m up to these days, and I tell them I teach journalism at Colorado State University, their responses range from “Are students still majoring in journalism?” to “Why bother?”
I certainly understand where they’re coming from. Some newspapers are shrinking, and some have died outright. The newspaper where I spent 26 years as an editor – the Rocky Mountain News – was shut down in February 2009, which is why I’m teaching journalism rather than practicing it. The old business model used print advertising and paid circulation to support a staff sufficient to cover all things newsworthy. That model is becoming antiquated due to changing mediums. As a Pew Research Center report noted a few years ago, print advertising dollars turned to “digital dimes,” which are now turning into “mobile pennies.”
I teach a required class in basic newswriting, and I tell my students that, although many of them may never work as a reporter, they will learn to become good consumers of news, a trait that will serve them well throughout their life. They’ll know how to decipher fake news from the real thing, how to tell good journalism from bad. Since a basic tenet of journalism is to give readers objective info they can use to make better decisions in their lives, learning how to do it is not a waste of anyone’s time.
And I tell my students this: people say that 50 percent of law school grads never practice law, but a law degree will provide a solid basis for any dream they might pursue. I believe the same is true of a journalism degree. The learned abilities to write clearly on a tight deadline, to research thoroughly before writing, to interview skillfully, to zero in on the heart of a matter quickly even if it’s behind a wall of obfuscation – these are life skills that serve our grads well.
Why am I so sure? When the Rocky closed in the midst of The Great Recession, 250 journalists were kicked to the curb. They scattered to the four winds and re-emerged in a wide variety of professions. Through the magic of social media, I’ve read testimonials from dozens and dozens of them about how they’re quickly climbing their various corporate ladders because of their abilities to communicate, ask the right questions, accomplish tasks in hours or days, while their colleagues take weeks and months.
But the best outcome I see with our journalism grads is that nearly everyone gets a job in the field if they want one. Whether it’s working on a website in Denver, editing a weekly in Bailey, working as a TV sports reporter in Fargo, or writing sponsored content for the marketing department of a newspaper in Fort Collins, these kids are getting jobs. Why? They fill the bill perfectly for what modern-day media outlets seek. They’re quite tech savvy – they’ve been on the Internet since they were 5 years old. They can shoot and edit video, report and write for a wide variety of platforms. They’re willing to work 12-14 hours a day, six days a week for beginners’ wages. I’m more worried about what their second job will be. After they’ve been somewhere a couple years and start earning a better salary, their employers will be tempted to hire from a new crop of journalism grads.
I derive a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction these days from being in a classroom of 20-year-old journalism students. I know we’ll be in good hands when they take over – in media, government and society. A journalism degree continues to have priceless value for its grads. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and takes far less time than a law degree.
Rob Reuteman is an adjunct journalism professor at Colorado State University, teaching business and economic reporting, data journalism and newswriting. A former editor at Rocky Mountain News, Reuteman is also a freelance journalist for CNBC.com, FoxBusiness.com, Entrepreneur magazine and Leafly.com. He also serves on the Colorado Press Association's Legislative and Ethics and Media Literacy committees.