Does the ROI on a degree in journalism affect choice of career?

A recent edition of Forbes magazine explores the ROI — return on investment — of the cost of attending the nation’s more prestigious schools of business. Generally speaking, graduates of these top 75 schools need 4 to 4 1/2 years to recoup tuition, fees and foregone compensation.

Part of my job as a journalism professor is to recruit students. Because I was a journalist, I’m interested in finding bright, hard-working young men and women who’d like to follow the calling of the public service mission of journalism. (I remain optimistic, perhaps foolishly.)

Parents of prospective students, of course, routinely ask: “What’s your record on job placement?” That I can tell them, based on surveys of our grads six months after matriculation. (And it’s an excellent record, too.)

But here’s the question I dread:

My daughter says she wants to be a journalist. Even if her financial aid package is half your $35,000 per year cost — and rising at 5 percent a year — and despite what parents can pay, she may end up with more than $30,000 or $40,000 in student loans. How long will it take for her on an entry-level journalist’s salary to recover her investment?

Surveys of journalism school grads from recent years say salaries in the mid-20s are customary. Entry-level print journalists earn a little less (in some cases, a lot less, as my graduates tell me); PR, advertising and some broadcast jobs earn more. That parent envisions an ROI on the family’s investment in the daughter’s education at three to five years or more. That’s at a private school; presumably, a public school grad would fare better.

If that young woman is bright, she’ll do her homework. She’ll ask me before sending in her enrollent deposit for the names of recent grads who landed daily print jobs after graduation. After getting their permission, I’ll give them to her. They’ll tell her this:

They love being journalists. They love telling a good story. But they detest working 60 or 70 hours, nights and weekends, for 40 hours’ pay. They detest the unpaid furloughs imposed by corporate managers looking to cut costs. Their raises, if profferred, lag significantly behind inflation. Because of numerous rounds of buyouts and layoffs, fewer older, experienced reporters and editors are available (and willing) to serve as mentors. Young journos are tired of seeing assignments that serve more as fluff than substance. They thought, as journalists, that they could make a difference. They are discovering that the current structure of the industry prevents that, frustrating them. Their health-care plans suck. And they’re tired of providing their own reporter’s notebooks.

That prospective student may still attend my journalism program — but if she’s keenly aware of her ROI, she may apply her time, treasure and talent to mastering the skills of a journalist only to apply them to other avenues of communication that pay more. She’ll learn to observe, record, analyze, organize and present. But she’ll do that concocting advertising and PR campaigns instead of digging up the dirt at city hall that unpaid “volunteer” amateurs and bloggers don’t do well or at all. That’s because those stories — the mundane but necessary stuff of holding government accountable — don’t drive traffic to blogs.

Yes, I paint a bleak picture. Yes, it’s overdrawn. But scratch journalists in their mid-20s, either at print jobs or small-market broadcast stations, and you’ll hear all these threads. And yes, there are a number of emerging avenues for distribution of journalists’ work operated by laid-off journos, foundations, non-profits and for-profit, online-only startups. There are places she can work as a journalist. But then there’s that ROI calculation: Making a difference vs. paying the bills and student loans.

I wonder where the journalists will come from who will be around 10 to 20 years from now to cover the financial funeral of Social Security, the continuing debate over health-care reform, the attempt by President Hillary Clinton to amend the constitution to allow her a third term and the still unfolding drama of Brett Favre’s 15th “retirement” from the Toronto Argonauts.

Thousands of journalists at daily papers have lost their jobs in just the past few years. Generally, they’ve been the older, more experienced journalists. Bean counters figure they can hire two, maybe three cub reporters for the dough they pay an experienced journo making Guild scale and excellent benefits after 25 years. And that’s if they hire at all.

Studies show that the nation’s journalism schools are cranking out about 12,000 graduates every year. But is the trend line of those who wish a journalism career with a public-service aura ascending or descending?

Where will the next generation of skilled, committed journalists come from if the perceived ROI of a journalism education is so dismal?

5 replies »

  1. Journalism suffers from the same problem as teaching – it’s under-appreciated, so it’s dramatically underpaid. I have to wonder how many journalists can only make it because their SO covers far more than 50% of the bills, or because they have to work two jobs. That’s what I see the most with teachers – summer jobs as an income supplement and/or they’re married/living with someone who makes WAY more than they do.

  2. Bleak? No doubt. Overdrawn? I don’t know. You don’t say a thing that contradicts what I hear from young journalists.

    As you say, if the debt gets paid off, it’s probably not by J work. If you ring up the debt and slog through a career as a journalist, unless you’re damned lucky you’ll probably NEVER pay it off.

    But at least you’ll have the satisfaction that attends a life in “public service” and the goodwill of your fellow citizens. That ought to keep you warm on those cold nights sleeping under a bridge, huh?

  3. Journalists have it easy. The ROI on a classics degree(what my son is studying) from a top school is about 31 years. This figure is derived from calculating from the net and figuring in reasonable living expenses etc.

  4. Why go to school for journalism when the public doesn’t seem interested in real news and instead rewards those who pander to the lowest common denominator? It seems that to be a journalistic success all you need to do is rehash the corporate media take on events or or break “news” about a drunk celebrity involved with shenanigans.

    Britney’s lack of underwear will make headlines while serious journalists reporting big news from the streets will be overlooked. <– Perhaps the most underreported story of the year.

  5. There’s nothing new here, sad to say. Thirty years ago, when journalism was “healthy,”: entry-level jobs still paid slave wages owing to simple supply-and-demand forces. I left an Ivy League school in 1981 toting a barrel of student loan debt and went straight to work as an on-air reporter ahchor in the 93rd ADI — not a huge market, but far from a tiny one — for the princely sum of $10,400 a year. I owed Uncle Sam more than that. Most of my peers went to Wall Street or law school; some soon made my annual salary each week. When I walked downtown on Saturday night people recognized me from TV and said hello, which was nice, but I could not afford to follow them into a restaurant to buy dinner. I went home and lived on tuna and generic mac-and-cheese at 19 cents per box… that is, when I wasn’t working my 70-hour week. Bottom line, choosing a journalism career has ALWAYS been a conscious choice to keep prosperity at bay, at least in the early years. You do it because it’s important and fun, not because of some cold-eyed ROI analysis. The fact that the profession / industry is imploding today doesn’t change a thing.

    Second point: In a long broadcast TV news career I saw people who’d been expensively processed through J-school, and people who hadn’t, and I couldn’t tell the difference. I would gently argue that three years in the 93rd market covering arraignments, interviewing city council candidates, figuring out how utility rate hikes go through and how to explain them, etc., etc. is better career prep than paying huge sums of (borrowed) cash to sit in a classroom and hear these things subscribed to you.

    I think the real queation is not, “What’s the ROI of a journalism career?” It’s always been tepid. The real question is, “How do you defend the ROI of journalism school when I can go plant a flag in West Weirdston, Indiana, get paid a little instead of spending a lot, and learn my craft in a real-world practicum?”