What happens to professional schools when the profession they are training students for is in a state of economic trouble and general instability? It was 2009, during the “Great Recession” when, as a graduate student, Assistant Professor Caitlin Petre first began thinking about this question.
She and a fellow graduate student, Max Besbris (now a faculty member at Rice University in Houston, Texas), decided then to formally conduct research to answer it. They focused specifically on the ways journalism schools were responding to the 2009 economic crisis and new distribution and production technologies that were rapidly changing the profession. They conducted interviews with more than 100 faculty and staff members from over 40 U.S. journalism graduate schools, from better known institutions such as Columbia Journalism School, to lesser-known, small journalism graduate schools in remote areas.
Their paper, titled “Professionalizing Contingency: How Journalism Schools Adapt to Deprofessionalization,” was published in 2019 in Social Forces, a peer-reviewed sociology journal.
What they found surprised them. “In most sociological literature,” Petre said, “professional schools are places where professional identity is formed, negotiated and defined. Historically, professional schools have promoted the idea that their degree will in some ways insulate their graduates from labor market precarity – that it is an investment toward a more stable future and a higher income. This was part of the value of the credential. Yet while conducting our research into how journalism graduate schools are marketing their programs during this time of instability in the journalism profession, we were surprised by the extent to which they are framing this instability as an exciting opportunity, and an indication that their students are part of a new, dynamic and flexible work force. Adapting to a precarious labor market is reframed as a core part of journalists’ professional identity, rather than something to be avoided – this is what we mean by professionalizing contingency. ”
They also discovered that journalism graduate students are being taught that traditional boundaries between journalism and public relations are blurring. Petre said, “They are not thought of as the same thing, but the idea now is that a person can be considered a journalist if he or she is working for Blue Cross/Blue Shield and writing about health care policy for employees. Or running a celebrity’s social media account. These are things that would traditionally not have fallen under the umbrella of journalism, but now the umbrella is beginning to expand to accommodate this type of work. Another change is that non- media organizations are creating news. An example is Human Rights Watch. They are fulfilling a journalism function in many ways in terms of reporting, when staff go on fact-finding missions then write long reports and disseminate them. These shifts are happening and it makes sense for these schools to adapt for that.”
However, Petre did explain that not everyone they interviewed at journalism graduate schools agreed with these adaptations. Petre said, “There were some people (although they were the minority) who were clearly troubled by what is going on in the journalism profession and graduate schools. But this is happening because educators are looking at the landscape in front of them and looking at their jobs, which are to recruit and educate journalism students, and they are trying to figure out how to approach that given the current circumstances. There are structural things going on here.”
Graduate journalism programs are a special case, Petre explained, because the degree is not needed to practice the profession, the way law and medical degrees are necessary in order to obtain a license to practice in those fields. So in some respects, this problem is not new for journalism schools, which have always had to make a case to prospective students about the value of the degree they offer. However, this has become more challenging in recent years, as many jobs and media outlets are disappearing.
Petre also noted that the instability of the journalism field has implications for who can enter the profession. “For example,” she explained, “students coming from a place of relative socio-economic privilege might be more comfortable taking on debt to go to graduate school even with the payoff of the degree is uncertain, or taking advantage of an unpaid internship. It also might not be a deal-breaker for this type of person to not have health insurance or be working in an extremely volatile labor market.
“Whereas if you don’t come from a place of socio economic privilege, you may be less inclined to feel like you can enter such a profession because you really need to have some guarantees of being able to support yourself. When that happens, the journalism workforce becomes even less diverse and journalism suffers. The quality of the reporting and the kind of reporting that gets done is limited because the profession is less of a sure bet for people who don’t come from a place of means.”
One of the most fascinating developments since they began this research, Petre said, is the unionization cutting across digital media outlets. While many journalism schools are selling precarity as cutting-edge and exciting, Petre said that hundreds of young journalists working for online-only outlets are explicitly rejecting this narrative. “They are collectively organizing themselves to gain basic protections for their labor, such as healthcare, job stability and job protections. This is in stark contrast to the marketing and recruitment rhetoric we were seeing.”
Petre said there is also a growing conversation in the media industry and the journalism studies field about whether the decimation of news organizations in the U.S., particularly at the local level, is a case of market failure. “Meaning,” Petre said, “society needs something, and the market as it is currently constituted and structured is not providing that thing. In future research I would be interested to see how journalism schools are grappling with that question. If what’s happened to the news business is indeed an instance of market failure, what is the role of journalism schools in solving that urgent problem?”
While Petre and her co-author were conducting the research for the paper, they studied the debates that originally emerged when the earliest journalism graduate schools were developing their business models. “We noticed interesting inflection points where there were big debates within journalism schools about how they will play a role in defining the fundamental values and commitments of the profession, and what role the profession plays in society,” Petre said. “Maybe we are at an inflection point right now. We are starting to see technology platforms being criticized more than in the past for, among other things, the lack of support for journalism and the way their actions and business model has harmed professional journalism. This could be an issue in the 2020 campaign. There is space for these big conversations to happen, and journalism schools can help drive those conversations about the profession: what is journalism for, what does it do, how do we define it and think about it.”