Advice from professors: what college journalism students need to know (Part 1)

A few years ago, a colleague of mine retired after nearly four decades in local TV news. He stood up at his retirement and, amidst a tearful salute to friends and family, said the following about his co-workers:

“I will miss you so much. You are caustic, sarcastic, and extremely sharp.”

He meant this all as a compliment, and everyone else in the room seemed to take it that way.

I felt a bit puzzled by it. My colleague, essentially, was honoring us for our cynicism.

Many would argue journalists need to be cynical. We need to question, probe, disbelieve, and distrust in order to investigate and uncover powerful stories.

But, I would argue — and I think my colleague would, too — journalists need to blend that cynicism with idealism.

So often, the latter disappears over time. A journalist in any medium must combat a whole host of soul-crushing negatives: the drying of industry dollars, the demand to do sensational stories, the declining value of nuance, the importance of ratings and eyeballs at almost any cost.

But deep down, one would think, most journalists begin with — and would love to uphold — a certain sense of idealism about what they can accomplish.

That idealism often gets cultivated in college.

I wrote six months ago that, when I looked back at my college journalism experience at Northwestern, I appreciated most that it “focused on teaching what I would not automatically learn as a professional.” I wrote that my professors “ingrained in me a sense of the tradition and power of journalism. What we do is important. What we do is valued … Journalism is always changing, but journalists must always remember the importance of what we do.”

With the college school year now firmly underway, I decided to reach out to today’s journalism professors and get their thoughts on the state of the industry.

Earlier this month, I contacted professors from numerous journalism schools with a seven-question survey and received a handful of responses. In my opinion, the responses boiled down to several main points of commentary and advice:

The biggest positive trend for young journalists is the increasing amount of journalism. As Prof. Matthew Ehrlich at the University of Illinois writes, “There are so many opportunities to create and share good journalism.” Young journalists can now spend more time honing their craft and have more outlets with which to do so.

The biggest negative trend may also be the increasing amount of journalism. With an market over-saturated with writing and media — many of which makes money with simple, non-nuanced content — does the demand for professional, experienced journalists drop as well? Prof. Mitchell Stephens at NYU’s Carter Institute writes, “[It is] unclear whether jobs lost in traditional media will be replaced in new media — now that the competition from amateurs is so intense.”

The lines determining what is or is not journalism are blurring. This exists partially because of the aforementioned over-saturation of content. But there is also the blurring between news and commentary, as the University of Alabama’s George Daniels says: “We in the journalism arena still face an uphill battle convincing the public that there is a difference between the talk shows and personality-driven programming on cable are different and distinct from the “straight news” that is reported by the journalists working often at the same cable outlets.”

Idealism is still a young journalist’s most valuable asset. Young journalists have much to learn in the ways of the world, mainly because they mostly have not truly lived it. But, as Northwestern’s Michele Weldon points out, they also arrive with energy, fearlessness, and, yes, lack of cynicism. “I have loved teaching young men and women for more than 17 years, helping them discover their voices and learn how to tell stories well,” Weldon says. “They literally change the way they look at the world when they realize the importance and responsibility of their talents and how crucial it is that they can tell the stories of others.

The most in-depth answers came from two professors: Northwestern University’s Michele Weldon and the University of Alabama’s George Daniels. Next week, I will print their mostly full responses to my seven-question survey.

But I appreciated the idealism in the professors who responded. As the landscape constantly changes, the people who train journalists seem to admire their students’ youthful enthusiasm.

Given the challenges they face, they most certainly need it.


Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at

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