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In My Words: Avoid a job in journalism? Not so fast

Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher and Kaitlin Ugolik '09 co-authored a column for regional newspapers in defense of journalists and the vital role they play in creating an informed democracy.

The following column appeared recently in the Winston-Salem Journal and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the authors and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher and Kaitlin Ugolik '09
Avoid a job in journalism? Not so fast
By Anthony Hatcher (ahatcher@elon.edu) and Kaitlin Ugolik '09 (kugolik@gmail.com)

Veteran journalist Felix Salmon wrote a missive this winter on the Fusion website, providing “words of wisdom” to aspiring young journalists who regularly ask for advice.

"Do something else,” was his response.

This sort of snarky comment about journalism is often leavened with a word of encouragement about the rapidly changing profession, except Salmon’s hopes that life might get better for journalists have “pretty much evaporated.”

Disillusioned by one tale too many of writers earning little to no pay for hours of work, Salmon has given up and suggests that all others with an interest in reporting do the same.

It’s true that advertising revenue is drying up for newspapers. It’s also true that there’s too much aggregation on websites of other news outlets’ work, and many young people are raised on the notion that everything on the Internet should be free. Additionally, corporate media owners often try to squeeze unrealistic profits from news divisions while simultaneously cutting staff.

Pay for journalists certainly could be better, too. Still, the end of the road has not yet been reached.

Journalists don't enter into the profession with notions of wealth. Journalism is a calling. It is demanding. And it is vital to society. Saving journalism is key to an informed populace that possesses more control over its fate and can make better decisions at the ballot box.

Internet pioneer Clay Shirky wrote an essay a few years ago in which he argued, in part, that, “society doesn’t need newspapers.”

“What we need is journalism,” he wrote. “When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’”

Young journalists are making it work at places like Al Jazeera America, Univision, ThinkProgress, Fusion (the platform for Salmon's piece) and the Marshall Project, which produces impressive investigative reporting about the criminal justice system. Marshall’s top editor is Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times.

ProPublica and NPR, as well as newer voices such as Vox and Vice, both of which have increased the size of their staffs, are thriving. Long-form journalism is making a comeback. The Atlantic and The New Yorker, 148 years old and 90 years old respectively, have seen growth in subscriptions and online views.

Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can instantaneously send his or her thoughts out to the world, but that’s not journalism. Too many people also equate journalism with opinion shows on cable television. In fact, most original reporting still comes from the nation's print media. Hometown papers all over the country keep tabs on government, investigate waste spills, run obits and weddings, and so on.

The three broadcast news networks still produce solid reporting. The CBS Evening News, for example, recently ran an investigation into phony drug companies scamming seniors. PBS Newshour and Frontline also do wonderful in-depth journalism.

Felix Salmon warning young people away from journalism will only ensure its demise. Young journalists don’t want sugar coating, but neither do they want to hear “there’s nothing for you here.”

Luckily, many other veteran journalists want to see things improve and are mentoring young people to make that happen.

Those of us who educate tomorrow’s journalists haven’t given up on the profession. Many graduates of the nation’s top journalism programs land at innovative news companies that are making both money and an impact.

We’re not naïve, and we don’t know what our business will look like in the next year or decade. But we are taking an active role in journalism’s future. We’ve got more than hope, and we’re forging ahead.

Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University and a former reporter. Kaitlin Ugolik holds journalism degrees from Elon University and Columbia University, and she works for the financial magazine Institutional Investor. 

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/1/2015 9:05 AM