Woodstein U: Notes on the Mass Production and Questionable Education of Journalists

More than enough students are enrolled in journalism courses at this moment to replace every professional journalist now employed on an American newspaper. What explains this madcap scramble for jobs that don't exist, and how well are the students prepared? A veteran journalist reports on the state of America's schools of communications.

Roger Williams prepared himself for a career in journalism by studying history for four undergraduate years. Then he went to Pennsylvania State University, where he wrote his master's thesis on William Bradford and took enough practical courses to learn basic skills. He graduated with a 3.6 average. Several months before graduation he began to seek a job.

Williams did not commit the sin most often attributed to journalism graduates: he did not insist upon getting an important reporting job on a high quality metropolitan paper in a sophisticated big city. He took out various publishing directories and looked for small to medium papers, any place except central Pennsylvania where he grew up. He realized that job opportunities were greatest on smaller papers and with a bit of luck one would get more experience in two years on a small paper than on a big one where the beginner is often ignored.

He typed a neat one-page résumé that included the crucial ingredient of former practical experience: he had been proofreader and high school sports editor on his hometown paper, the Huntingdon News, for over a year. He offered enthusiastic recommendations from his professors. He attached a one-page letter and sent out forty-five copies of the material, each addressed not to the "Managing Editor" or "Personnel Director," but by name to the editor who did the hiring. This he determined either from directories or from people who knew.

The letters went out after the first of the year. Of the forty-five editors who received them, thirty-six did not bother to reply. Nine others replied by the end of May, most of them curtly, some of them with form letters. Typical of the answers was:

"There are no openings at the present time. We will keep your letter on file but I should tell you that the situation for the future does not look good."

So Williams wrote to his former managing editor at the Huntington News  who replied with a more personal letter but said essentially the same thing. 

By commencement Williams began to feel desperate. He was married and had an eighteen-month-old son. His wife had been a teacher but had been at home since the baby was born. They had been living on their savings of $1200 and they were down to $130.            

Williams sold a revision of his master's thesis to a historical magazine for $300. He used the money for a job-hunting trip. He went to the Pennsylvania state capital at Harrisburg and applied at the Associated Press and United Press International bureaus, with no success. He made the rounds of the local newspapers and radio stations, offering to do anything-sweep the floor or sell ads-but found no openings. He tried the governor's press office. No luck. He started answering want ads in the Harrisburg paper. A meat-packing plant needed someone on the assembly line. He applied for the job but they told him he was overqualified. 

"At that point," he said, "we were scared."

On July 10, 1976, he had an unexpected telephone call from the managing editor in Huntingdon. A reporter on the staff had left for a public relations job at a local college. Would Williams want his job? He'd be paid $2.25 an hour, about $90 a week. Williams took the job. It could have been worse. The June 1975 Penn State Journalist listed the present jobs of the class of 1974. Of sixty-nine responses, 19 percent were working on small dailies or weeklies, but 25 percent, one year after graduation, were still looking for newspaper jobs while doing other things like selling insurance, cutting lawns, painting houses, and delivering prescriptions for a pharmacy. The rest were in non-journalistic jobs and no longer expecting to enter the field. In the June 1976 issue, according to responses from the 1975 class, 44 percent were on small dailies or weeklies and 56 percent were in nonjournalistic jobs.

ENROLLMENT GLUT: On the Trail of Woodward & Bernstein

Today's generation of young Americans is flocking to journalism schools in unprece- dented numbers. In 1960, 11,000 college and university students were majoring in journalism or "communications." This year the number is 64,000. The growth rate is double the rate in all higher education. More than enough students are enrolled in some kind of journalism major at this moment to replace every professional journalist currently em- ployed on American newspapers.

If jobs are the goal, the rush to journalism defies all reason. An appalling percentage of journalism graduates face guaranteed unemployment in their chosen field. Almost every year since the late 1940s, the U.S. Department of Labor has warned that journalism jobs are scarce. In the last twenty-five years, reportorial and editorial jobs on newspapers increased 33 percent, while journalism majors increased tenfold. One of the worst job shortages in journalism occurred in 1974; that year freshman enrollments in journalism rose 20 percent. In 1975, jobs continued to be scarce, but freshman enrollments rose another 21 percent. In 1976, the job market improved slightly; enrollments, however, increased by only 351 students, or .5 percent, possibly signaling the crest of the boom.

The glut has hit every college and university that had not put an arbitrary limit on journalism majors. The ten biggest journalism schools in the country (in order of size, University of Texas at Austin, Syracuse University, Boston University. University of Georgia, University of Missouri, University of Florida, California State University at Fullerton, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of South Carolina, and Kent State University) enrolled a total of 3360 journalism majors in 1965. In 1975, the number was 14,000.

More and more junior high schools offer courses in journalism and at least 40 percent of the high schools teach it. Five hundred and eighty-eight two-year junior colleges offer journalism courses, a 50 percent increase in four years. More than 200 colleges and universities have established departments or schools of journalism, and last year 451 Ph.D.'s were awarded in the field.

Colleges and universities, caught in a shrinking economy, welcome the journalism students. Textbook publishers are selling books on the subject in record numbers. Small newspapers that used to beg for raw beginners are now inundated each year with hundreds of applications from college-trained and sometimes experienced reporters. Broadcasters who used to teach technical skills to office aides now have universities do it at no cost to the industry.

The motives of the students entering the field are mixed. Some, as ever, think they have found a glamorous postponement of the moment when they must decide on a lifetime career. Many see the subject as practical entry to jobs in a society that has no place for graduates in fields like English, history, or philosophy. Others are serious about a career with a palpable impact on society and with growing intellectual demands.

Whatever their motivation, some students are among the brightest ever to enter journalism education. At the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, for example, verbal and English composition standard achievement scores for entering freshmen are the highest (over 600) for any school within the university. Rank in graduating high school classes is the highest for any department of the university (93rd percentile).

Other students, however, are not only poorly trained in high school but shoddily prepared in journalism afterward. Transfer students from junior college journalism courses-a major source of current training-are seldom able to meet ordinary university competition in journalism. Too often they have been taught by faculty members with neither professional nor academic backgrounds in journalism. Their courses, in a dismaying number of cases, have been largely a rote imitation of some wretched local publication or broadcast station.

The extraordinary popularity of "communications" has been attributed to "the Woodstein Phenomenon," the effect of the Woodward and Bernstein feat of exposing and unseating the Nixon gang in the White House. The model has been irresistible. Woodward and Bernstein were young, inexperienced, and not particularly promising in the eyes of their superiors. Working in a city and on a paper where the country's most celebrated journalists were in top command, the two beginners beat them all and became national heroes. Their books became best sellers and they were memorialized in the movie All the President's Men. They became millionaires. Even their style was appropriate for the young professionals of the 1970s—cool, informal, unideological. If they could do it, why couldn't every high school student?

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