Another career path open for the history Ph.D. is to go into journalism. Given major transitions within this profession, though, this is career path is one that a historian should make with a good understanding of its limitations.
First things first, history and journalism are professions that are quite similar in many ways. If a history Ph.D. is looking for a job outside of academia, journalism would be a nice fit. With that point made, journalism is a profession that is in major turmoil and transition at the moment, which is a consideration that anyone must take into consideration when making their career plans.
The similarities between journalism and history and significant. Both basically are doing the same thing: communicating information and explaining what happened. “Good journalists have a drive to seek the truth without bias,” Steve Komarow, deputy chief of the Associated Press bureau in Washington, D.C., stated.
The two fields basically require practitioners to research and then communicate their findings in writing. “Ultimately journalism is all about writing,” Jamie McIntyre, formerly a reporter with the Cable News Network and now an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, explained. Business Week editor-in-chief Stephen Adler, observed that few journalists working for magazines write well, so his advice is that reporters really work at honing that skill. Editing resources are shrinking and a reporter that needs little revision will have an advantage over others.
Do you need to major in journalism to become a reporter? The short answer is no. A number of reporters have made this point. “It’s not necessarily appropriate,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a former reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and now a professor of cultural history and media studies at the University of Virginia, said. Vaidhyanathan was a history major as an undergraduate before earning a Ph.D. in American Studies. “Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school,” Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker, remarked. “If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.”
Can a history Ph.D. be a journalist? The short answer is yes. The James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia has conducted a number of surveys on the hiring practice of media outlets. Print news organizations show a healthy willingness to hire people from other professions. The numbers vary from year to year, but on a percentage basis, the figure is in the high teens. (The figures are lower in broadcast journalism).
The skills that a history Ph.D. has are useful for a career in journalism. These include research, foreign language, writing, subject matter expertise, critical inquiry, storytelling, and analysis. David Nather, formerly a reporter with The Dallas Morning News and Congressional Quarterly was a history major at the University of Texas. He called history and journalism “complimentary or adjacent fields.” Good historical understanding adds depth of understanding to a story and allows the journalist to see parallels. So, for example, a legal historian, might be very good at covering the courthouse beat, a military historian might do well as a defense correspondent, and so on.
That is the good news; the bad news is that the Ph.D. itself is not an asset. “No one ever asks if you have an advanced degree,” McIntyre observed.
Finally, becoming a journalist does not mean the end to a career in history, or even as a scholar. Many journalists write books. In fact, many media outlets have sabbatical policies for their reporters that are working on a book. There are many, many universities, foundations, and think tanks that have fellowship programs for journalists. Having a degree in history and working experience as a reporter would expand the number of academic jobs one could apply for if an individual wanted to return to college teaching. Having been a working reporter or editor is often one of the main criteria for employment at journalism school.
While the skill sets of the historian and the journalist are similar, both professions are facing serious professional problems. Journalism is “undergoing incredible seismic change,” John D’Anna, a reporter for The Arizona Republic and an adjunct professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said.
Two major social phenomenon account for the problems facing the profession at the moment. The first was the rise of the internet and the other new communication technologies. The power and potential of this new medium caught journalism off guard, challenging a business model where the major revenue stream was from advertising. Many publications gave their content away for free while at the same time failing to understand the power and reach of the internet. Many websites—even those that one might not think of as competing with news organizations, Facebook and MySpace come to mind—derive their principle source of income from advertising, increasing competition for a revenue stream that had not increased in size.
The second phenomenon was the downturn in the economy. The biggest source of revenue for news organizations is advertising. In any downturn in the economy, advertising is one of the first things that businesses cut.
Either change would have been tough to handle. The combination has been devastating. Some publications, like the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, have gone out of business. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended its print operations and is now available only on-line. Many media corporations like the Tribune Company have filed for bankruptcy. There have also been massive layoffs—generally of senior, more expensive journalists—in the industry. There is even a website Paper Cuts documenting layoffs, and this phenomenon served as the backdrop to novelist Michael Connelly’s recent book The Scarecrow (2009).
As a result, journalism can be very rough for someone wanting to make their living as a reporter. The average starting salaries in journalism are $30,000, which is less than that of an average new assistant professor of history. The important thing to remember is that most of these jobs are advertising for someone with a bachelor’s degree and not a Ph.D. Although the labor market is depressed, the situation is “not hopeless at all,” according to Nather. D’Anna notes that he is still encouraging people to enter the profession because there is still a market for the reporter. Nather explained, “It’s pretty bad, but if your young and just starting out, there’s still hope.” He also added, “There are other kinds of journalism jobs that are opening in non-traditional outlets.”
What do those facts mean for the history Ph.D.? Well, first they have to be creative in looking for employment opportunities. They might need to consider working for media outlets that are primarily based on the internet. Second, journalism appears to best treated as an early career option. Being a reporter is a good activity for ten years or so, but individuals working in the field need to be developing another career path. For a historian with a Ph.D., the obvious path is to return to return to academia. As a result, the historian should be working to get their academic work accepted for publication during this time, which will make them viable candidates for jobs among the professoriate.
With those points made the crisis in journalism could easily end in a short while. “I’m just waiting for the pendulum to swing back the other way,” Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press remarked. Once the economy becomes stronger, advertising revenue will increase. More importantly, it will be easier to plot a career as a journalist once the new media formats stabilize and the leaders of media companies understand how to use them to turn a profit. For example, the trend right now is towards specialization and narrow, niche markets. This tendency runs counter toward the general effort of most media companies in the twentieth century of reaching as big an audience as possible. Blogs were all the rage four years ago, but they seem to be on the decline now. While there might be an audience for a blog about education policy and politics in Wisconsin, the ability of individual bloggers to make their enterprise economic sustainable seems suspect. The quality of that effort is equally questionable. Reporters have repeatedly noted that individual efforts do not produce the same quality product as that which comes from bigger news agencies.
So, how do you go about getting a job in this field. Having a portfolio of your work is important. “Any place you can get published of any kind will help you,” Nather observed.
With that point made, academic publications are not going to be particularly useful. A good rule of thumb is you have to be published in the media format in which you wish to work. If you want to be a print journalist, you need to have a collection of newspaper, magazine and web site clippings to your name. If you want to be a broadcast journalist, you need a collection of your stories on a DVD.
The historian also must develop certain abilities that are not encouraged in graduate school. “The best and worst journalism skill—both—is being a quick learner,” Vaidhyanathan said. Journalists need to challenge cursory judgments but know when to accept easy answers and when not to. Hitting that balance is difficult. Historians, Vaidhyanathan explains, are good at rejecting quick assessments, but in compensation they are “too much like Hamlet.” He means they are narrow, not bold and “wishy-washy.” He also notes that reporters need to be interesting and fast. Basically, a reporter must know how to catch his readers attention and how to produce on deadline.
Adapting to this different environment might be a challenge for the history Ph.D, but all journalists are adapting at this moment. McIntyre notes that a major trend in the profession is that “everybody does everything.” There will no longer be reporters who only work in television or those that only work in newspapers, and those that work in television need to be prepared to do camera and editing work in addition to being on the air. “You have to be really good at a lot of things and excellent at something,” McIntyre added. Since blogs allow people to use various media formats in combination, this is a format all journalists need to learn. “If you want to be a journalist, you ought to be blogging,” he explained. He said a blog is now a reporter’s “calling card.”
Dozier of the Associated Press agrees. She came to national attention as a reporter for CBS News after an early career in print and radio. “I was an unlikely television correspondent in 2003.” She went into television because it had resources that other news agencies did not have available. After writing a book about her experiences in Iraq, she recently left CBS to write on the intelligence community for AP. Her advice to new journalists: “learn all the mediums.”
It is fairly easy for historians to go about acquiring the needed clippings and sample stories needed to seek employment in journalism. School newspapers, magazines, and stations (radio and television) offer good places to begin. Many news organizations offer summer internships. Having a summer internship has often been a critical component in professionally advancement as a journalists. These positions are usually designed for advanced undergraduates, but grad students will have an advantage in maturity and experience. As media outlets downsize, they are depending more and more on interns to make up the difference. The quality of reporting is not necessarily as good as what the reader would get from an experienced report, but these programs allow rookies to get more experience sooner than they would have under other circumstances. Since most history graduate programs have little for their students to do in the summer, an internship would fit in nice into their academic schedules. College placement offices are good places to start looking for internship announcements.
Another thing worth noting is that just as there are many different types of specializations in history, so there are in journalism. Many of these groups are similar to fields of historical inquiry. A military historian will be happy to learn that there is an association of military journalists. If a career in journalism seems like a possibility, it might be wise to consider joining one of the many professional organizations that exist to get a feel for the profession and issues of concern in the field, since those concerns are different from those of historians. Organizations with websites include: Military Reporters and Editors: The Association of Military Journalists, Association of Food Journalists, Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Criminal Justice Journalists, Football Writers Association of America, Garden Writers Association, International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association, National College Baseball Writers Association, and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
There are three publications worth consulting to get a feel for the profession. They are: Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, and Editor & Publisher.
So, if you are interested in a job in journalism, where do you go to look for a job? The good news is that there are many places. College placement offices are good places to start. Editor & Publisher has a job listings section. Many professional organizations have job listings. Some, though, require membership to access this section of their websites. The biggest one is Sigma Delta Chi: The Society of Professional Journalists. Others include: the Association for Alternative Newsweeklies, National Education Writers Association, the Association of Health Care Journalists, National Association of Science Writers, National Conference of Editorial Writers, North American Agricultural Journalists, Society of American Business Editors and Writers, Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Religion Newswriters Association.
There are several useful websites that list jobs available in journalism: http://www.sportsjournalists.com/ is as its name implies all about sports reporting. The http://www.journalismjobs.com/ web site has listings for all types of media. The http://www.amfmjobs.com/ website is about work in radio and http://www.tvjobs.com/ is a site listing employment opportunities in television broadcasting.
The Poytner Institute is basically a journalism think tank, but it has also a section on its website showing available jobs and another listing people looking for employment. The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is an association of journalism faculty.
Some of the bigger media corporations and new services have sections on their web sites listing jobs. These include the Associated Press, Gannett, Cox, the Tribune Company and The Washington Post Company.