What can you even do with that?

Judgment, disrespect, and skepticism aimed at journalism majors

esthervargasc | Flickr

esthervargasc | Flickr

Once a month, the Anoka County Law Library invites those who can’t afford proper legal advice to speak with law professionals from around the Twin Cities about their legal issues. When I found myself at the law library as a college freshman, I wasn’t there for legal advice; I was with my at-the-time-boyfriend, helping his dad, a law librarian, organize paperwork for some extra cash.

Gene introduced me to Mr. Old Lawyer—a man whose name I consciously blocked from my memory. All conversations with middle-to-upper-class, educated, white folks tend to go the same way: “Do you go to school? Where? What do you study?” This one was no different.

“I’m a journalism major,” I said in a meek tone, already anticipating the wrinkles on his face squishing together with perplexity.

“Journalism?” His balding head went back into his neck. “What can you even do with that?”

I cared because no matter how hard I worked or how talented I was, I knew there was some validity to his skepticism.

What I wanted to say was…

I’m going to communicate clearly and successfully. I’m going to follow in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press journalists Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo who led the investigation into the NYPD’s spying program targeting daily life in Muslim communities. I’m going to ask the tough questions. I’m going to analyze the media messages all around me with social, political, and economic contexts in mind. I’m going to take after The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert to contemplate and explore seemingly small issues (in her case, the Paleolithic diet, different perspectives on cockroaches, or red lights) deeply and with care. I’m going to help hold those in positions of authority accountable to the public. I’m going to write every day. I’m going to write well.

But instead I just shrugged. “I’m not certain yet,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”

Sure, I was angry with the man for being an asshole. At a time when I was my most vulnerable—choosing my career and diving into the unknown—I was brushed off and not taken seriously. But I was also angry with myself for caring about what he thought. I cared because no matter how hard I worked or how talented I was, I knew there was some validity to his skepticism.

Not only am I vulnerable, but the industry is vulnerable too. The lawyer spoke in comparison to a time when journalism was consistent—most people relied on a newspaper or the evening news to get their fill. Now, only 23 percent of Americans read a print newspaper; according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study on News Consumption Trends.

Do I buy into the guarantees of a career on the web? Many digital-only news outlets are still unprofitable, according to Pew, and I’ve had enough of unpaid internships.

The changing industry is certainly not so wonderful, but perhaps additionally not so bleak. A major in journalism opens up a lot of doors in the ever-growing media industry. It could give you the tools to start a successful blog, to contribute multi-media or web-exclusive content to a publication, or to run and expand an organization’s social media presence.

Jobs may be few and far between (eek)—but they’re out there. Pew’s 2014 State of the Media looked at 468 different digital news outlets, most that started in the past decade, and found a total of 5,000 full-time editorial jobs there. There’s a lot of hype surrounding the potential of these digital news sites. Pew cites places like Vice, The Huffington Post, and Gawker all as growing their full-time staff, while BuzzFeed brings on Pulitzer Prize-winning Mark Schoofs of The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice to run a new investigative team.

But is this enough to comfort me against the Pew’s cited loss of 16,200 full-time newspaper jobs and 38,000 magazine jobs between 2003 and 2012? Do I buy into the guarantees of a career on the web? Many digital-only news outlets are still unprofitable, according to Pew, and I’ve had enough of unpaid internships.

To me, the findings in Pew offer glimmers of hope, but not solutions that I can shove back in the lawyer’s face. Journalism has changed before, many times, and it will change again. It simply wouldn’t be worth my time to try and find a personal solution to the depleting job market. Before I graduate, things will probably have changed again.

The inconsistency and uninviting nature of my chosen field does not inspire confidence in me, especially with my graduation date approaching, but it gives me the opportunity to get creative when navigating my career goals. I’ll work to find a niche that might not be exactly what I dreamed while watching HBO’s The Newsroom, but that’ll have to be okay.

I’m not settling—I’m grappling with the inevitable obstacles I’m going to confront as a journalist. And I’m still grappling with the inevitable skeptical people I’ve met and will continue to meet along the way.