Student journalists cannot time travel

Siobhan Eagen

Journalism school is a scam and I bought into it. I hope for the better, though.

I moved out of state and away from home at 20-years-old. I am self-supporting. In the six years since then, I have faced stints of homelessness, job insecurity, a suffocating mountain of credit debt, parental death, a new disability and more all in the name of eventually being able to continue my college education.

Do not get me wrong, I bought into the journalism school scam willingly. I changed my major about seven times in junior college before deciding on journalism. There is no doubt in my mind that this career field is for me. I love the work and I love what I am learning in school. 

Most students I have spoken to agree that the information learned in journalism school is invaluable. Still, the structure does not set lower-income and working students, like myself, up for success. 

I do not own a time machine and my reporting is often impacted by it. There are not enough hours in the day to support myself, attend class and report. Since I do not have time to report fully, sometimes I do not because I can not. Sometimes I choose soft stories, avoid enterprising ideas or choose “easy” sources who I am confident will respond to my request because my grade relies on the story not falling through.

I feel cheated. I do not have enough time or confidence to make the mistakes I need to make in an educational setting before I apply to jobs.

On a good day, a lecture about time-management is annoying. On a bad day, it feels like getting kicked in the teeth. 

I am expected to produce clips I am proud of while balancing mandatory attendance of classes, 12-or-more-unit semesters and working necessary hours to support myself. The reality is more dismal. Students like myself rush to complete assignments just for the grade. I fear I will graduate with a body of work I feel lukewarm about, at best. It is not the fault of professors, it is the fault of the academic structure and its one-size-fits-all approach. 

A furnished single-occupancy room at UPN costs a monthly installment of $1681 and San Francisco minimum wage is a little over $15. Before taxes, it would take approximately 27 hours a week in a minimum wage job to independently pay rent alone. 

Along with balancing a full schedule of classes and work, student journalists must also find the time to travel to sources on their own dime, interview them, investigate and more all before they even sit down to write. 

Reporters are never on their own time, but everyone else’s. It is very difficult to arrange classes and work so that I might have more than one day in the week free from class to report.  Many sources are unavailable on weekends or after business hours. It is especially difficult to schedule once a student is working on upper division courses since many courses often only have one or two sections to choose from. Now, add a job to the equation.

This is not to say professors do not try their best. They often go beyond. Skylar Gaven is a journalism major and junior at Humboldt University. She is currently writing for their weekly student publication, The Lumberjack. 

“I have had some experiences where I kinda had to interview somebody like, you know, really quick,” Gaven said. “And then I had class right after, you know, so stuff like that, it can be a little bit difficult. But other than that, I mean, I’m mostly taking journalism classes so they’ll understand.”

Gaven says she does not struggle too much splitting the load of school and work. 

“My boss doesn’t want me to be as stressed, so I kind of work at least maybe like 10 hours a week during the school week. And then summertime it’s full time,’ said Gaven. 

It is worth noting, though, Humboldt county living expenses create a less extreme environment than San Francisco students face. One bedroom apartments and homes on Zillow are listed as low as $700 near Humboldt university. At the time of publication, the cheapest one bedroom apartment near SF State is listed at $1950 a month on Zillow. 

“My roommates and I were very lucky to stumble on a house,” Gaven said. “I have three other roommates and my share, we each pay $450.”

Efrain Baldez writes for The Advocate at Contra Costa College. He is also a student who works an average of 30, but sometimes 40 hours a week. He said it can be difficult to make conflicting schedules work.

“When I wasn’t working it was definitely much easier to, you know, make an appointment and work around people’s schedules to get those interviews done,” Baldez said. “Like right now, since I haven’t been working a lot the last couple of weeks, it’s definitely been easier to schedule and just pop into people’s offices and make the interviews.”

Semesters where he had heavier class loads were especially difficult. He said the balance of interviewing sources, attending class and working was “definitely an issue.”

“You know, a lot of people work in the middle of the day … ” Baldez said. “ … That’s when all the stuff you have to cover actually happens. So there’s a lot of conflicting time issues, you know, that’s what makes it the most difficult.”

Professionals often tell students “reporters arrive first and leave last,” while this might work to inspire some students, it is not a sufficient response to the overworked and overextended student population who support themselves. Mandatory attendance and graded attendance almost feel punitive to me sometimes.

Working reporters are just that, working reporters. They get paid to do their job. It is their role. I split my time and play many roles: student, worker, reporter. Student journalists are paying thousands of dollars in tuition, housing and books all so they can produce clips that they throw together with some prayers for the deadline and grade. 

Baldez said,“more than half the time I was definitely just turning in stuff just because of the deadline, you know.”

Some writing intensive classes expect students to continually produce articles throughout the semester. Instead of a 3 hour class once a week, it would benefit students to have a 1.5 hour class, with the other 1.5 hours acting as “lab hours” for the time they inevitably spend reporting in the field. Where students of other majors spend their time learning, student journalists are out in the world “doing.” 

Professors are often doing their best to meet students’ needs though—both Gaven and Baldez say they feel positive about learning journalism. Gaven says she is thankful for the mentorship and guidance from her professors. 

 “I mean the professors are so cool,” she said. “They really do, you can tell that they really care for their students.They give you resources and opportunities to check out internships and stuff. And they give you feedback – really good – honest feedback about stories. It’s been a great, great time.”

 Baldez says journalism school is 100% necessary. 

 “I don’t think you need a bachelor’s degree to be a journalist,” Baldez said. “I just think you need to know the ethical standards and how to be a good reporter  … So I think school, I think the school is necessary, like not necessarily a bachelor’s degree but you know, just learning to ethical standards and learning how to interview and just, you know, all the basic stuff.”

 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1,000 journalists lose their job every month and the projected job outlook for “Reporters, Correspondents, and Broadcast News Analysts” lists -10% decline and projected loss of 5,100 jobs up to year 2028. The coal industry, by contrast, has 3% growth. If students do not have time to make clips they are proud of then how can journalism colleges say, earnestly, that they are giving students a fighting chance.

Baldez thinks investing in bettering journalism schools might not be a priority for colleges. 

 “I think a couple of points that could be made is that I don’t think journalism schools are set up to be successful,” he said. “Because they’re meant to, you know, keep the administration of that school in check and stuff …  it’s not beneficial … to keep funding somebody that keeps, you know, hurting like a vice president of the school’s pocket.… at the end of the day, something has to be done institutionally or like, like throughout the country … for a journalism school to succeed. And then number two, like, I mean,  there’s already been a massive attack on professional journalism and stuff that definitely hinders the attractiveness for universities to invest in their journalism schools.”

 If the goal of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications is to build a strong future for the journalism work force, they are failing by neglecting to address the adapting needs and reality of students. Student wellness must be part of ACEJMC’s  journalistic standards.

 Almost every major newspaper in the U.S. requires a Journalism degree. With more layoffs than the coal industry – is that equitable? How can we build diverse newsrooms while closing the doors on low-income and working students? 

 Student journalists deserve better and should demand better. The system must work for all of its students. If journalism schools fail to adapt, low income and working students will be shut out of the press permanently and journalism will dig its own grave. Journalism should not be a pay-to-play sport that favors the wealthy. 

Give student journalists the time they need to fully report so that the future has a robust, experienced and fearless press – or get digging.