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Is journalism disappearing? These top educators have a lot to say about that

Leaders of some of America's most well known journalism schools, which include Graciela Mochkofsky, David Ryfe, and Jelani Cobb weigh in on the state of the news industry and how they are making sure students are prepared to enter a turbulent business.
Daniel Mordzinski, David Ryfe, Jelani Cobb
Leaders of some of America's most well known journalism schools, which include Graciela Mochkofsky, David Ryfe, and Jelani Cobb weigh in on the state of the news industry and how they are making sure students are prepared to enter a turbulent business.

As I left my meeting with the head of the journalism department, my fingers were frozen together, a physical phenomenon that happens in times of great stress or happiness.

I had just been offered a chance to redesign a course called Media Management and Entrepreneurship, a class that hadn't been taught at the University of Kentucky in roughly seven years.

Over the following weeks, I jotted down the names of guest speakers I planned to have (Owen Thomas, Drew Curtis and Gabriel Dunn would visit) and the themes I wanted to address. There were three companies I knew I had to expose my students to each semester:

Gawker, BuzzFeed News and Vice.

These were disruptive startups who, a decade ago, thumbed their noses at naysayers and raised the middle finger to hidebound news organizations. These three companies appealed to a coveted younger, internet-obsessed, audience that has long eluded legacy media businesses. Not to mention, all three had habits of hiring young and diverse people.

It was 2014 and I ended each class discussion on these three companies with a link to their job boards showing dozens of open positions at each.

Today, those same hyperlinks from Gawker, BuzzFeed News and Vice are broken, empty, or filled with a small fraction of the open news positions they once had.

The news that Vice would reportedly stop publishing stories on its namesake website was a dour crescendo in the history of these three companies (Gawker's original incarnation shut down in 2016 and BuzzFeed News ceased publication of its Pulitzer Prize-winning website in 2023).

Almost every week in 2024 has featured news of media layoffs (more than 800 so far by one count, which would place the sector on pace for 10,000 jobs lost this year, according to Fast Company) and left many professionals penning eulogies for the news industry while asking hard questions.

Tulika Bose, a senior multimedia editor at Scientific American, posed one such question.

"Is it *ethical* to be teaching journalism right now?" Bose wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Feb. 22 along with other messages on this topic. "I know folks have strong feelings about this, especially journalism profs. Trust me — there's no one who loves journalism as much as me, or someone who is constantly screaming about the blurring lines between *content* and *journalism.* But — I'm coming from a place of concern."

That concern has not gone unnoticed in the halls of higher education.

The news business faces a "disheartening and alarming" reality

The stakes for journalists are sky-high in 2024 as the U.S. awaits a contentious presidential election and watches the wars in Europe and the Middle East in horror.

A world without journalists to cover these crucial events, and a way to educate journalists on how to do the work, is unthinkable to Graciela Mochkofsky, the dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

Mochkofsky was born in Argentina "right after a very long dictatorship," she told NPR.

"I was trained as a journalist by people who had gone into exile, who had seen their friends being killed because they were journalists," she said. "I was trained as a journalist with this very, very strong, very, very strong sense that journalism is something that is not a given; it's something you fight for every day, just like democracy."

The importance of journalism has not left Mochkofsky or any of her higher-ed peers ignorant to the headwinds America's fourth estate faces.

In interviews with Mochkofsky, David Ryfe, director of the School of Journalism and Media at The University of Texas at Austin, David Kurpius, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Mark J. Lodato, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and Charles Seife, director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, each solemnly acknowledged the harsh economic realities plaguing news companies.

"It's disheartening and alarming that we see this kind of collapse. ... That makes it harder for all of us, you know, and makes it harder for the audiences that rely on these organizations for stories, for news, for information," Cobb told NPR.

"The challenges of the industry are unchanged. And they've been unchanged since pretty soon after the advent of the internet. And it's just a slow and crushing change for the industry, over a generation," Seife added.

Bose is part of a new generation of journalists very familiar with crushing change.

As a person of color who received her master's degree in journalism from Columbia in 2018, Bose has worked at new media publications like Upworthy, Vice and NowThis which have all faced layoffs over the past few years.

That experience helped inspire her to ask her question on X in late February.

"I don't think students always know exactly where to go after they graduate," Bose told NPR in an interview. "Because there are shrinking positions available. So people are trying to fit into these positions, but there are more and more and more applicants and they're also being squeezed against people from larger places that have been laid off so I just ethically wonder like, are people being prepared for jobs that no longer exist? That's my biggest question."

This question, and others, were posed to the six journalism school leaders. Their quotes have been edited for clarity and complemented with audio from our interviews.

On teaching journalism while the industry compresses

Graciela Mochkofsky Dean of Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York

Listen to Mochkofsky

"[W]hat's the alternative? Should we, because this is a very tough time for journalists and that is a moment in which journalists is really desperately needed, because it's a really tough time in the world for many other reasons, should we just all quit, and just do something different? I think it's a very demoralizing thought, for all the people who are doing their jobs, who are risking their lives around the world to be, you know, to serve the information needs of people and to be to be a journalist that, you know, tells the truth about the world."

David KurpiusDean of the Missouri School of Journalism

Listen to Kurpius

"The world needs more journalists, period. The training of journalists to go and research subjects and think critically about them and dig for the truth is needed in our society more now than ever. And journalism has always been an industry that ebbs and flows. And during the Watergate era, there was a huge spike in journalism, interest and enrollment. And that has tapered off. And there have been other spikes that have come and that will continue."

David Ryfe Director of the School of Journalism and Media at The University of Texas at Austin

Listen to Ryfe

"[It's] never been true that 100% of our students ever all went into journalism. You know, they were probably, at our height, we had a majority of our students going into journalism. Lots of the students have used the degree for other purposes. And that's been true, always. And what I would say is that it's more true now. You know, I don't think it's a secret among journalism school administrators, that most of our students come to us without the ambition to work in a mainstream newsroom. ... We have a 95-96% placemen rate at UT six months after graduation. I've collected the numbers for our recent graduates for the last two cycles, and about 30-35% get jobs in recognizably journalistic roles, another 30-35% get jobs in communication-related roles that are not necessarily journalism. And then the rest get jobs in non-communication roles."

Jelani Cobb Dean of the Columbia Journalism School

Hear Cobb

"Yeah, unfortunately, at the same time that this business model is so strained, it's never been more important to teach journalism. We look at the landscape, you know, what's going on, you know, in this election, we look at the real accountability issues. The George Santos debacle, you know, that is happening, the fact that we have two catastrophic wars that are going on in the world, between Israel, Gaza, and Ukraine, and Russia, both of which have implications for our lives; climate. Everything that I just mentioned, you have bearing on each of our lives. So we'd have to, you know, the question, of course, is how do we do that in a way that's sustainable? And so it's, it's ethical to teach journalism and as it ever has been, and I don't think that we should simply be contingent upon what's happening in the profession, and what's happening with organizations to make that determination."

Mark J. Lodato Dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University

Listen to Lodato

"I've been answering the question, 'is this a good major' for 20 years now. And the reality is there are still thousands of jobs in journalism. And what I really appreciate is that many of us like I was 30-40 years ago as a student myself, come to journalists because they understand the importance of the work. There are many prospective students today who want to make a difference in our society. And journalism remains one of the ways in which you can have incredible impact, whether that's on the local level, the national level, or the international level. ... [There's] an upswing in terms of everyone understanding the importance of what we do. And there are a good number of prospective students heading in that direction. And our data supports that. Meanwhile, on the flip end of it, in advance of this conversation, I wanted to get an update; we're up to a 92% job acquisition rate for our graduating class of May 2023, as of today, and that's a great figure that, again, [this] encourages me to the opportunities."

Charles Seife Director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University

Listen to Seife

"I mean, I remember when I was going to journalism school. Michael Lewis wrote a piece called 'J school ate my brain,' talking about the utility of going to a journalism school. We are no doubt in an industry which is facing some serious declines. It doesn't look like it did 30 years ago. The pipelines for students going into the industry, working their way up from local to national and having a reasonably established career from there, are gone."

On the cost of j-school and how to help journalism students navigate a tumultuous media landscape

Graciela Mochkofsky Dean of Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York

Hear Mochkofsky

"We're going to be 50% tuition-free next year, we hope to raise enough money to be fully tuition-free by 2026. I mean, raise the money by the end of 2026. So that's a very important conversation we need to be having. And then, what is it that we are teaching? ... We need to teach for the industry that we have. And we need to also teach for the industry that we want to have."

David Ryfe Director of the School of Journalism and Media at The University of Texas at Austin

Hear Ryfe

"It used to be that journalists could not pay attention to how their organizations make money. And that's no longer true. Journalists need to know how the organization makes money, what its vision for product development is, you know, we're in the mid stages of creating a graduate program for mid-career journalists. And when I go out and talk to our alumni and folks who lead media organizations, these organizations today and ask them, 'What do you need? What is it that our students are lacking these days?' And they tell me, 'you know, your students are great at being journalists, you know, they know how to tell stories, they know how to report. They, they know the basic mechanics of being a journalist, but they don't know the business side of news almost at all.' We're still not doing a good job of that. And I think we have to reinforce that."

David KurpiusDean of the Missouri School of Journalism

Hear Kurpius

"The industry is going to change multiple times throughout their careers, and they need to be able to change with that. And here at the Missouri School of Journalism, we focus on making sure that students understand business models, they understand new product development, which is kind of an odd thing to say when you're talking about journalism."

Jelani Cobb Dean of the Columbia Journalism School

Listen to Cobb

"One of the things I've been very upfront about is trying to make journalism school more affordable. And it's been in response to these very pressures. So it's not, I didn't get this idea when BuzzFeed or the LA Times, or Sports Illustrated, you know, had the issues that they've had. You know, from the outset, I knew this was going to be essential for all of us, really, to do business differently. And so that's what I've been working on and that's why we created the loan repayment assistance program that we have now, where students will be eligible to get up to $50,000 of loan debt paid off through working in local and nonprofit news."

Mark J. Lodato Dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University

Hear Lodato

"I think it is critical for any student walking into not just journalism, but the media landscape today, to have a solid understanding of the challenges and the disruption that's happening in the industry and in those various sectors. Because if they don't, they won't be able to pivot appropriately and continue on a road to success. When I'm talking to prospective students or their parents, one thing that I make sure that I stress is that one of the key qualities, I believe, to a Newhouse degree is the sense and understanding of adaptability."

Charles Seife Director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University

Hear Seife

"[We] have those skills, we teach those skills. And the real question is, how do you get all of them in a short amount of time that doesn't wreck the bank for the students? And then that's the other big problem is that graduate education is so damn expensive now. And so it would be nice to be able to kind of keep a student in for two, two and a half years and give them this full array of tools. But it's not realistic when you're talking about $2,000 a credit. It's just too expensive, especially when you're not expecting to land on Fleet Street and make $150,000 a year to start out with; it just doesn't make sense."

The last time I taught Media Management and Entrepreneurship was in May 2017.

I'm now in my second semester teaching the course at Morehouse College, though its name has changed to "Digging Deep Into the Business of Media." The class now has an added focus on the inequalities people of color face when raising venture capital funding while also focusing on historic Black-owned companies like Ebony.

My Feb. 26 lecture was coincidentally about Gawker but before educating my students on the Shakespearean demise of Nick Denton's once-brash company, I started that class, as I always do, with a discussion on some media news.

That day's headline, courtesy of CBS News, was "Vice Media to lay off hundreds of workers as digital media outlets implode."

We have yet to reach Vice as a larger point of discussion this semester so I provided a rough overview of why the company was in decline.

"Does anyone have any questions or thoughts on this?" I asked, leaning on the radiator near the window.

One hand shot up.

"It's hard to hear about this. It just seems like the industry I want to join is disappearing," the student said.

A few other students nodded in agreement.

"I can't disagree with you but it's important you're here," I said, while moving to the next slide.

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Fernando Alfonso III
Fernando Alfonso III is a supervising editor who manages a team of editors and reporters responsible for powering
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