The news is out, and has been for some time, about the imminent death of print media. And yet, I am amazed that everywhere I teach--from my reporting and writing class at Loyola University Chicago to Northwestern University's summer program for gifted students--young men and women have a passion for pursuing journalism as a career. Maybe it has something to do with those glamorous images kids see of reporters in the movies and on TV. Maybe it's the rewards of a career that gives access to rock stars, famous folks and world leaders.
Today is my last day teaching 9-to-12 year olds at Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development for this summer. In a grueling three weeks, we learned plenty about using strong verbs, beating writer's block and reviewing food in the dining hall the way a restaurant critic might. (Oh! The gargantuan grease slick covering those burgers. I think one kid wanted to rename those fatty patties in honor of BP.)
Many of these kids not only know they want to be journalists, but can tell you exactly what niche they want to occupy. Noor B., who's 9, wants to be a travel reporter. James J., 12, wants to work for ESPN or otherwise cover sports. He gave me World Cup updates every hour on the hour, it seemed.
But even with 20-plus years experience as a pro, there's one question I cannot answer for these bright students: Will there be journalism jobs waiting for them when they're ready to turn professional?
You can read all the particulars in any number of pieces, including an excellent one that ran in the American Journalism Review in 2009. In it, we read of some sobering statistics among journalsits who involuntarily lost their jobs and filled out a questionnaire: "Only a handful – 6 percent – found other newspaper jobs. The rest are doing everything from public relations to teaching to driving a bus and clerking in a liquor store."
Or, you can go straight to the source, and look to the future. Here's what my students have to say regarding their prospects in the years ahead.
Says Noor: "When I grow up and I become a journalist, people in that field might have trouble, and that would cause me to have trouble." Since she wants to be a travel blogger badly, she says she'll travel anyway, no matter what the prospects are. She just hopes she can make a living by it.
"I think it'll be harder to get into it," says Kayla W., 10, of Chicago's Near West Side. "Things have changed a lot in five years, and with the recession, it's really hard to get a job and harder to keep it. The company you're working for might not have the money to pay you, even if you're really it."
Now of course, these kids are smart enough to think ahead. They spent the last week of class making real, working news websites, many of which will continue long after this class ends. One such site, Iron Chicken, has already amassed 600 hits in its infancy, thanks to its mix of news, movie reviews and cheeky humor. Say creator Joe F., 12, of Northbrook, "I hope it continues to get more viewers. I'm going to turn it into a weekly thing."
How Iron Chicken will make money is another story, so during a class break, Joe and I discussed ways to finance his passion: Everything from mowing lawns to web site design came up. At least Joe is flexible and understands the notion of entrepreneurial journalism--that journalists of the future must not wait for opportunities to sail in, but rather swim out to meet them.
Yet will web journalism drown in the cacphony of all the other diversions on the Internet? Or will it limit access to the news? That's the worry of Aaron L., 12, of Highland Park, who dreams of being a sports journalist. "Some people might not be able to access the newspaper because they don't have the Internet. Since they won't be selling it on the street anymore, people who don't have a computer won't be able to get the news."
My prognostication, for what it's worth, is that you can't hold down talent and creativity, especially when teamed with persistence. And so, I tell these students exactly what I tell my college kids: Find good mentors in the business. If no one else will hire you, create your own business or media idea. (Hey, it worked well for Mark Zuckerberg and that crazy little thing called Facebook.) And most of all, tap your passion. In an uncertain field, currently mired in an uncertain economy, that's a prescription for success that transcends all manner of monetary reward.
Lou Carlozo is WalletPop's managing editor and the founder/editor of Money College.
The future of journalism careers for gifted kids? Here's hoping for good news