Journalism's Savior: Still on the Way

If online media is supposed to be journalism's white knight, it is taking its sweet time getting here.

AOL is hiring hundreds of journalists and so, on a somewhat smaller scale, is Yahoo. But despite the hype at a few big online outlets, the slowly thawing journalism job market is still dominated by legacy organizations like newspapers and magazines. Journalism schools and students know that newer companies will play a role in redefining journalism, and they're trying to prepare for it with additional technical training, but the old guard still reigns.

"We still are doing a lot of business with all the people we were doing business with 30 years ago," said Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. The new companies matter, he added, but "they don't come across to me as sort of the key variable in our life right now."

The old guard has shrunk dramatically in recent years, as a once-lucrative business model has fallen prey to Internet economics. Daily papers shed 5,200 jobs last year, according to The American Society of Newspaper Editors, which has conducted an annual survey since 1978. The last three years were the worst in the survey's history, with 5,900 and 2,400 jobs lost in 2008 and 2007, respectively. In 2009, the size of the workforce reached an all-time low.

Of course, online media companies are hoping to benefit from the media industry's painful transition and, without the burden of legacy business models to defend, they're well-situated to do so. AOL has at least 500 journalists and made a big splash with its announcement to hire hundreds more as part of a $50 million investment this year in Patch, a network of sites reporting on hyperlocal news. Yahoo! has also stepped up production of original content, hiring about a dozen journalists, opening a D.C. bureau and launching a daily video series, but an AOL-sized hiring spree is not in the cards.

"We don't think we'll ever produce reporting and journalism of a volume of an established media outlet," said Mark Walker, the head of Yahoo! News in North America.

The majority of Columbia Journalism School students still take jobs at traditional media outlets. More broadly, journalism school job fairs and listings are populated with some new names, but most are still legacy players and trade organizations.

Northwestern Journalism Professor Richard Gordon sees a varied job market, but new and old companies alike are looking for the same thing, he said: basic journalism skills.The job market as a whole has been slowly coming back to life, said Karen Danziger, a managing partner at the recruiting firm Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, which has conducted searches for The Atlantic. Some big new companies are active, but many of the ones hiring seem to "be more the traditional players than the absolute new startups."

Young companies, unburdened by the past, have more flexibility to experiment and are focused on training or hiring journalism graduates with technical skills. Yahoo! this summer will launch its J-Scholars Program, for which three graduate journalism students will be chosen to be trained in new media, said Walker, the head of Yahoo! News in North America. Mashable, a social media news site, has done its fair share of training as well, said Editor Adam Ostrow. The publication hired three people last month and is looking to hire four more. An ideal candidate, he said, "comes from j-school, but also has the WordPress, the Photoshop, the HTML, and the video skills."

The need for technical skills isn't lost on students or schools, but classes can be hard to come by, said Shreeya Sinha, a Columbia student who graduates in May. "I wanted to take a skills class on Flash," she said, "and I'm still on the wait list."

Such skills are fleeting, though, professors said. "Whatever it is that you teach today, there will be something new tomorrow," Northwestern's Gordon said. His Building Networked Audiences course begins with in-depth instruction on network theory before getting into specifics about search engine optimization and the link economy. And, technical skills are easier to come by than journalism skills, Lemann said: "You can learn Flash at The Learning Annex."

Nevertheless, Columbia announced plans this month to start a dual journalism and computer science degree program, which will focus less on teaching how to edit and maintain websites and more on giving students the ability to craft their own solutions to problems. The dual degree could prove to be a valuable selling point. Basic reporting skills aren't enough for many employers, said Karn Dhingra, a 2009 Columbia graduate who recently left a job at a local newspaper.

"When you go out there, these organizations are looking for a bad-ass coder."