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Facing Change: The needs, attitudes and experiences of people in media

A new study of communication graduates finds that people in many different industries — from commercial brands to government and think tanks — now produce what they consider journalism, and while they are pessimistic about the direction of news in general, most believe their own work in the last five years has gotten better.

In all, about a third (35%) of these more than 10,000 journalism and communication graduates produce what they consider journalism today, according to the survey of two generations of alumni from 22 universities across the United States.

Many of those producing what they consider journalism, however, do not work for news organizations. Fully 17% of these graduates who are employed by commercial brands consider their work journalism, as do 19% of those in politics, government and think tanks, 34% of those who describe themselves as entrepreneurs and 20% of those who work for technology companies.

These graduates, whatever work they are engaged in, also tend to be skeptical of some new trends in news, including sponsored content. Most believe it will end up harming the publishing organizations that engage in it. The majority of these graduates overall also believe that aggregators should pay licensing fees to those who produce original news content if journalism is to thrive.

There is a broad pessimism about the future of news among these graduates, three quarters of whom have degrees in journalism and the rest in advertising, public relations, marketing or communication. In all, just 17% think the quality of news they see has improved in the last five years. The majority of them, 66%, think it is getting worse.

Those who describe their work as “journalism” are only somewhat more optimistic — 22% think news today is improving. But that changes markedly when they are asked about their own work. Fully 61% think the journalism they produce is better than five years ago. That difference, between perceptions of their own work and whatever they have in mind when they think of news in general, may suggest a middle ground between the work they know and consume and what they consider some of the far edges of media today.

And young journalists are the most optimistic. While still skeptical, fully a quarter (25%) of journalists under age 35 think news in general is getting better today, and 78% feel that way about their own work. Whatever their work, the youngest of these graduates are also more likely than their elders to have had pay raises and promotions in the last five years.

These are some the findings of the survey, which is a collaboration of the American Press Institute and 22 different universities with journalism or communication programs. The study may be the largest ever undertaken of people who studied media in the United States. It probed attitudes and experiences of those who studied media across two generations on a range of topics — from people’s views of the current media landscape and their education to their job experiences and what skills they need in their work today.

The large sample size, 10,482 people, allows for comparisons across different types of degrees, different age groups, and different categories of employer. API in the future will make the survey responses available to other researchers who wish to delve further into subsets to explore by gender, ethnicity and more, in ways this initial report may not.

Among other findings:

  • A degree in journalism can lead to work in many fields. While 41% of those surveyed with journalism degrees work for journalism companies, 22% work for commercial brands, 16% in education and 14% in politics/government and think tanks.  Those with degrees in other areas also work in journalism as well. Fully 33% of those with a communication degree, for instance, work for journalism employers.
  • These graduates believe the nature of information on the web, not the economics of news, is the biggest challenge facing journalism. Fully 57% think the biggest issue is “the flood of opinion and false information on the Internet.” The second challenge, cited by significantly fewer people (44%), is a broken economic model. The perceptions, moreover, don’t change much depending on the field someone works in.
  • Majorities also laud the access and new tools that technology brings. Seven in 10 (67%) say the biggest benefit technology brings to media is that people can access news from anywhere. Six in 10 cite new storytelling tools (56%) and the ease of distribution (56%).
  • These graduates identify ethics and writing as the most critical skills they need in their workplace — no matter where they work. On a list of 23 different skills they think are important in their work, ethics ranked first (84% citing it as “very” important), nearly matched by the ability to write (also 84%). Next came having expertise in a specific subject other than journalism (58%) followed by leadership skills (54%). Digital skills came further down, led by knowing social media (ranked 6th at 48%). Only 5% named coding skills and 4% understanding computer science.
  • People with communication degrees are doing more work, and working in new jobs, but not getting raises. Over the past five years, the most common experience for journalism and communication graduates has been taking on added duties in their existing jobs (without receiving promotions). Nearly two-thirds (63%) have had work added on, and 27% in all have had work added without getting paid more. In all, less than half of those surveyed (46%) say they have had a pay raise in the past five years — regardless of the industry they work in.
  • Most of these graduates feel secure in their jobs. The majority of people (78% overall) feel “very” or at least “fairly” secure in their jobs, though those employed by journalism organizations somewhat less (66%). (Those who describe themselves as entrepreneurs feel least secure, 61%). About two-thirds (67%) of those who work in journalism expect to be doing so in five years, though another 17% would like to but worry they might not be able to.
  • Most people view their academic experience positively. In all, 92% recalled their journalism or communication school experience “very” (57%) or “somewhat” (35%) favorably. When asked all the ways people have learned professionally, school ranks third, well behind people trying things on their own and seeking out mentors, though a school experience, of course involves mentors and experimentation as well.
  • But not all the curricula are rated equally. Even among those who graduated in the last decade, people believe schools still teach traditional skills best (fully 67% of graduates across years gave the highest rating to teaching writing). Yet some newer skills have not grown as much as many might expect. Just 4% of those who graduated from communication and journalism programs in the last 10 years, for instance, rank the training they received in HTML highly, nearly the same as those who graduated 10 to 20 years ago.

Who was surveyed

The survey, perhaps an unprecedentedly broad look at the experiences and attitudes of two generations of graduates of American universities in media, communication, journalism, public relations and advertising, is the product of an unusual collaboration between the American Press Institute and some 22 journalism and communication schools. (See Methodology for the list). The collaboration on a single survey instrument agreed to by all parties generated the opportunity for an unusually large number of respondents, 10,482. That large base also offers the opportunity for future researchers to delve more deeply into correlations of subsets and subgroups.

The graduates surveyed came from a cross-section of degrees and ages, and work in a wide range of fields in and outside media.

Including those who might have more than one degree, 75% have an undergraduate or master’s degree in journalism or TV/radio/film. Another 16% hold degrees in public relations, marketing or advertising. Fourteen percent have degrees in communication. Another 9% had degrees in other disciplines.

What degrees people earned

Degree type Percent
ALL JOURNALISM 74.8%*
Undergraduate in journalism 56.3%
Masters in journalism 18%
Undergraduate in TV/radio/film 1.7%
Graduate in TV/radio/film 0.4%
ALL COMMUNICATIONS (non-journalism) 13.5%*
Undergraduate in communications 10.9%
Graduate in communications 2.4%
 Telecom (graduate or undergraduate) 0.4%
ALL PR/MARKETING/ADVERTISING 15.7%*
Undergraduate in PR 8.9%
Undergraduate in advertising / marketing 6.4%
Masters in PR 0.5%
Masters in advertising / marketing 0.4%
OTHER DEGREES 8.6%*
 Undergraduate in other subjects 4.6%
Masters in other subjects 1.9%
PhD / doctorate program (non-MD) 1.9%
Law degree 0.4%
MBA 0.2%
INCOMPLETE (certificate or no degree) 0.7%*

Data Source: Question: What college or graduate degrees do you have? Check all that apply.
* Percent who answered any of the included subcategories

American Press Institute

The respondent group crossed generations. Fully 22% received their degrees in 1980 or earlier, 25% between 1981 and 1995, 20% between 1996 and 2005 and roughly a third (32%) in the past decade.

Degree date Percent
No answer 1%
1980 and before 22%
1981-95 25%
1996-2005 20%
2006-15 32%

Data Source: Question: In what year did you earn your degree?

American Press Institute

More than two-thirds (68%) of these graduates are currently working full-time; 11% are retired. About 15% described themselves as working part-time or freelancing.

Employment status Percent
Working full-time 68%
Working part-time 6%
Freelance 9%
Not working but looking for work 4%
Employed but looking for something new 1%
Retired or not looking 11%
Interning 1%

Data Source: Question: What is your current employment status?

American Press Institute

And where do these people work? While 75% had degrees in journalism, just 36% reported working for journalistic employers. Another 25% reported working for commercial brand companies.

Fully 17% work in education, including academic publishing, journalism education or collegiate athletics. Close to 15% worked in the political world, in government, advocacy, nonprofits or think tanks, while another 15% were either entrepreneurs or worked in other professions such as law, finance or health. (Those retired noted where they last worked.)

The type of degree a person earned only somewhat predicts the type of work they currently do. For instance, 41% of those with journalism degrees work for journalistic enterprises, but 22% work for commercial brands. A similar number of public relations and advertising graduates work in public relations and advertising, 44%. The percentage who ended up in politics and advocacy was similar across all degree types.

Employer type Journalism degree Communication degree Advertising/PR degree Other subject degree
Journalism employers 41.4% 33.0% 11.0% 26.9%
Commercial employers 21.9% 26.7% 43.8% 16.0%
Educational employers 16.0% 17.4% 15.8% 31.8%
Political employers 14.6% 14.4% 15.1% 16.2%
Entrepreneurial employers 8.8% 9.5% 6.8% 9.2%
Technology employers 4.9% 7.1% 6.8% 5.1%
Other professions 6.8% 7.3% 10.8% 9.4%
Other / NA 6.1% 6.7% 6.0% 6.5%

Data Source: Question: Which of the following best describes where you work? (If multiple places, check all that apply)

American Press Institute

The graduates of journalism and communication schools who stayed in journalism seem to mostly be at legacy media outlets. Among the 36% in journalism organizations, there are 11% in newspaper media, 10% television, 6% magazine, and 3% radio. Only 4% work for digital-only news organizations. Another 5% have gone to work for non-journalistic technology companies.

However, as we will detail in the next chapter, many of those working in traditional organizations are employing modern digital skills. And many of those who work in non-journalistic organizations still consider their own work to be journalistic in nature.

Where people work

By employer category Percent
JOURNALISM 36.1%*
Newspaper media 11.1%
TV media 10.2%
Freelancing 8.7%
Magazines 5.6%
Digital-only news organization 4.4%
Radio media 2.7%
Sports (non-broadcast) 0.6%
Film media 0.5%
News agency/wire service 0.5%
Other multimedia 0.1%
COMMERCIAL 25.0%*
Advertising/marketing/public relations/communication/media agency 16.1%
Commercial product or services company (for-profit, non-media or communications) 8.7%
Sales/retail / rental / wholesale 1.2%
EDUCATION 16.8%*
Educational institution 16.6%
Continuing education 0.2%
POLITICAL 14.6%*
Advocacy/public interest/think-tank group (nonprofit) 8.2%
Government 6.8%
ENTREPRENEURIAL/START-UP 8.4%
TECHNOLOGY 5.2*
Technology or social media company 4.6%
Science / engineering 0.3%
Research / development 0.2%
IT 0.1%
OTHER PROFESSIONAL 7.3%*
Commercial / financial services 3.1%
Law 2.3%
Health / well-being 1.9%

Data Source: Question: Which of the following best describes where you work? Check all that apply.
* Percent who answered any of the included subcategories

American Press Institute

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