Hyperlinked to the future of journalism

Internet redefines how young people view the news - and the news business

To Sara Lyle newspapers are, well, "kind of archaic."

The recent journalism graduate from the University of Florida now works at CPNet.com - an online college news service in Miami.

She's making far more money then she could as a starting print reporter or even as an editorial assistant at a magazine. As for traditional newspaper writing, which used to offer just the facts in an "inverted-pyramid style," Ms. Lyle finds it "completely unappealing."

"I enjoy getting my news in story form and that's not a story to me," she says. "That's just throwing facts at a wall and hoping some of them stick."

Lyle reflects a fundamental shift in the public's attitudes about the media. The Internet has accelerated the redefinition of what the public - especially the young - considers important, even considers what is news. The multidimensional nature of the Web - where familiar text and still photos collide with exotic hyperlinks, audio bites, and streaming video - plays into the melding of entertainment and journalism.

That's creating a crisis of sorts in print newsrooms around the country, because fewer people are interested in traditional journalism as a career. Throughout the early 1990s, the numbers of students going into journalism have declined, according to a survey conducted by the University of Georgia. While those numbers began to pick up a few years ago, they still lag behind their 1989 peak when 145,781 undergraduate students were in schools of communications.

These statistics track with the number of college students interested in what has been called "hard news." In 1966, for instance, a survey of the nation's college freshmen found that 57.8 percent believed that "keeping up to date with political affairs" is "very important" or an "essential life goal." In 1998, that dropped to a record low of 25.9 percent, according to the University of California at Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute.

Even those students who do enter journalism and communications programs at universities are less interested in news. In 1986, the majority of communications students majored in traditional news editorial writing, with advertising, public relations, and broadcasting pulling up the rear. In 1997, the top category is "other," with news editorial dropping to fourth place, just slightly ahead of advertising. "Other" includes combined PR and advertising specialties, but also the new online services.

Some of the student shift to the "new" media can be explained by the creative challenge of writing for the Web. Not only does information have to be conveyed well, but a Web writer also taps all of the Internet's resources and includes video soundbites, timelines, and info-graphics, as well as links to archives and related Web sites.

"You need all kinds of things to make it a package so that if somebody wants to spend the time to find out more about a topic, they can," say Lyle.

Besides the different professional challenge, the online world generally pays far better than print or even broadcast, especially for beginners. Although standard journalism salaries have been going up, they still lag behind those of other professions.

The effect of all these changes, according to Rick Doyle, chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) Small Newspaper Committee, is that there are fewer people coming in "at the start of the pipeline" - a situation that is prompting a crisis in many traditional newsrooms.

For decades, small newspapers, where long hours and low pay are the dues expected of promising young reporters, have been the feeding pools for the large metropolitan papers. But today many young journalists, like Lyle, expect more, faster, from employers. They want a job that pays well at the start, and one that allows them time for a life outside of the newsroom.

As a result, small local newspapers, which make up 80 percent of the daily and weekly papers in this country, are now desperate for staff. The low pay, cultural and technological changes - all exacerbated by the generally tight labor market - have meant that the average small-paper vacancy now takes five to seven months to fill, according to ASNE. The once-rich employment pool has shrunk to a puddle.

Even when newspapers do manage to attract candidates, editors say, it can be hard to retain the best people. "When you're at a small newspaper you can't have those vacancies, it just kills you," says Mr. Doyle, also editor of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, a small daily in Washington State.

Some in the academic community blame the newspapers themselves for offering too low salaries, but many editors worry that some schools of communications are now promoting the notion that newspapers are white elephants - or in Lyle's words, archaic. But people in both worlds are working to bridge the culture and technology gap, such as the university where Lyle received her degree.

"When we say print, it's not exclusively print anymore - we teach two online courses now," says John Griffith of the University of Florida.

For many young journalists, like Lyle, that's helped crack the future wide open. "I may go back to print in my next job, it depends on what's out there, but I'll be able to offer them a perspective on the Web." That's something many newspapers are already looking for as they try to chart their own futures in the new high tech world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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