For all the grandiose chatter about the future of news, some parents of Medill School undergraduates are probably wondering: What about my child’s future? Will she find a job in journalism? And will it pay enough to cover her student loans?
The answers, unfortunately, are elusive. Loraine Hasebe, Medill’s director of career services, says that the overall economic environment in media traditionally means lower starting salaries. And now change is roiling the industry. With the recent breakup of Knight Ridder, which had been the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, and the poor financial performance of nearly all media companies, job openings for graduates have dipped, according to Hasebe. At the same time, new job titles are cropping up — with a big increase in demand for online producers and reporters with multimedia skills.
“If I can give any advice to students, it would be to get into multimedia as fast as possible,” says Will Sullivan (GJ04), the interactive projects editor at the Palm Beach Post. “Even basic reporting positions want (candidates) to have as much experience as possible doing other media, whether it’s grabbing an audio feed or shooting video.” As a testament to the fever-pitched demand for skilled multimedia journalists, Sullivan is Exhibit A. In the first six months of 2006, he received four unsolicited calls from recruiters looking to lure him away.
More media companies are looking for graduates who have expertise in one area, such as news reporting, but also experience and a comfort level working in other media, particularly online video and audio.
“When you get e-mails from career services, it feels like the majority of jobs are looking for online content producers,” says Tiffany Sakato (J06) of Fairfield, Calif. Sakato, who will return to campus in the fall to finish her second bachelor’s degree, in art theory and practice, is spending the summer at the New York Times as a design intern in the art department.
There is evidence that Medill students have already adopted Sullivan’s advice to become multidimensional. A magazine major, Nicole Matuska (J06) of Tampa, Fla., took a documentary filmmaking class this spring, fell in love with the camera and won a Fulbright to shoot a film about a women’s soccer team in Morocco. “I found out that I really like telling long-form stories,” she says, and Medill opened her eyes to accomplishing that through video and audio, in addition to writing.
Graham Webster (J06) from Boulder, Colo., accepted a job as associate editor of CampusProgress.org, a web publication from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. Webster credits his job, in part, to the lessons he learned in launching the Passenger, a short-lived magazine he started at Northwestern for his peers in the digital generation — a venture seeded with money from Medill.
Unlike careers in business, full-time journalism jobs are often tough to secure immediately after graduation, Hasebe says. Most newsrooms only hire when positions open, encouraging many grads to opt for another summer internship with the hope of landing an offer at the end of the summer, she says. Therefore, Medill tracks the job placement and income of graduates one year after they leave school.
Of the journalism majors from Medill’s 2004 undergraduate class who returned a survey, 81 percent held full-time jobs and another 15 percent were pursuing further education. Graduates of the master’s program had a higher percentage with full-time jobs, at 92 percent, but a higher percentage were looking for work, with 3.6 percent opting to freelance, 1.8 percent pursuing further education and 1.8 percent registering as unemployed compared to zero percent registering as unemployed among holders of the bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Climbing the ladder in journalism often means starting on a much lower salary rung than classmates who enter investment banking or consulting. The median salary as reported in the Medill survey for the undergraduate class of 2004, across all news jobs, was $28,706. For holders of the master’s degree, the median salary at daily newspapers was $31,000 and at television stations it was $24,500. (Survey data for 2005 was unavailable at press time. Check the Medill web site for updated information.)
While Medill salaries are consistently higher than the national averages for journalism graduates, those figures pale in comparison to the $43,818 per year that Northwestern charges for tuition, fees, and room and board. (More than 40 percent of undergraduates receive grants and scholarships from the University.)
Hasebe cautions students and parents to take a long-term perspective. “Be patient,” Hasebe says. Aspiring journalists usually enter the field as cub reporters on very small newspapers or at television stations in very small markets that pay very small salaries. Thankfully, those first jobs are typically in places with low costs of living, and the next job at a bigger paper or larger television market carries a bigger paycheck, Hasebe says.
The journalism degree is valuable in other ways. “Our graduates are taught to research and condense a tremendous amount of information into an easy-to-read document, to think quickly and clearly, to be creative and resourceful and to be good writers,” Hasebe says. “Those skills are applicable to all industries and all functions.”
Despite the recent downtick for newsroom jobs, the good news is that employers continue to seek Medill graduates for their preparation and passion, Hasebe says. And whatever shape the news will take in the future, excellent journalists will always be in demand, says George de Lama (J79), the deputy managing editor for news at the Chicago Tribune. “In an increasingly interconnected global economy, people need quality journalism more than ever,” he says. — J.K.