Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Universities Are Like Newspapers

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

I was on the phone with a reporter who was trying to track down my brother for a story the other day. Nothing bad; she was a Montreal reporter looking to talk to fans who had made the trip to Edmonton for the Grey Cup (the Canadian Super Bowl). At the end of our conversation, she thanked me for all of my help and wished that all of her leads were as helpful as I was. I am sympathetic, I said, I originally wanted to be a journalist. Really, she asked, what did you end up doing? I'm a professor, I answered. She laughed, saying, "that sounds like a much better idea."

Sigh. Not really, unfortunately.

When I started out as an undergraduate, the Internet was still in it's infancy. But the newspaper industry was already losing money, shedding full-time writers, and increasingly relying on freelance reporters and wire stories. At least, it was in a shrinking English market in Montreal, a city in a predominantly French province. My program was ahead of it's time, offering classes in web publishing, such as it was at the time. But the idea of getting into a dying industry wasn't very appealing to me. I have a few friends who have "made it" as journalists, but they work in really isolated locations and often do so much more than writing stories; they are editors, formatters, and web designers.

So I choose to enter a field where I, too, will be paid little while I pay my dues, in an industry that is under heavy fire and on the brink of, perhaps, dying. There are fewer and fewer full-time positions, and the people in those positions are being asked to perform increasing duties within the institution. If you are lucky enough to get a full-time positions, it is often, once again, in a small, isolated location. The biggest difference? Instead of starting my career as a fresh-faced 23-year-old with a brand-new BA, I am starting it ten years and many tens of thousands of dollars of extra debt later.

In both industries, the wild Web is radically changing how we do our jobs and deliver our content. We are both increasingly using low paid (or free) labor who are more than willing to undervalue themselves in the name of exposure or experience. Newspapers, and thus aspiring journalists, are about ten years ahead of universities in term of their downward trajectory. If universities, and aspiring professors, want to know what things are going to look like in another decade? Look at newspapers, for better or for worse.

(I'm not sure how the resiliency and durability of magazines fit into this little analogy. The highly specialized liberal arts college?)

Journalism schools and aspiring journalists have had to adapt. PhD programs will have to adapt as well. There is a new hashtag making the rounds on Twitter, #NewPhD, in the hopes of fostering a exactly that, new types of PhDs to meet the demands (or lack thereof) of the new university and economy. Just as journalism students quickly realized that they wouldn't make a living working for a newspaper, so too are we realizing that we will not make a living as a university professor, as we have historically understood it. So what will we do?

Some of us, like me, will move to the middle of nowhere in order to be able to work as a professor (ok, full time instructor, but it's still better than adjuncting). Others, however, will re-imagine what it means to be successful in or out of higher education. And we all need to fight to play a role in whatever form higher education takes in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a journalism major turned academic librarian for similar reasons. I didn't want to move to a small town and cover high school football or city hall. Instead I opted to get my Master's in Library Science (arguably a dying field) rather than a PhD (again, geography and my choice of it spoke loudly) and managed to get a job that lets me teach one class a semester and work with students and faculty year-round. I love it. One of the best parts: I'm the liaison for journalism, so I get a taste of it, which is just enough.

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