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ON THE MEDIA

As newspapers decline, journalism schools thrive

Young people are flocking to graduate school programs, driven by the thrill of deadlines, the lure of a good story and a belief that they'll play a role in shaping the evolution of journalism.

April 17, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Maybe this is what it feels like to be a minister returning to the seminary, an officer back at the academy, an old ballplayer joining the rookies for another spring training.

I'm at a journalism school talking to young people and they are affirming the faith: the thrill of chasing a story, the queasy high of deadline, the satisfaction of getting it first and the enduring hope it all might matter.

Those forces may be intangible, but they're powerful enough to lighten an old news hound's heart and to keep pumping up enrollment at journalism schools, even as newspapers fold, TV slashes reporters and radio outlets combine staffs.

Applications jumped more than 20% this year for the graduate journalism program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism got 44% more applicants this year than in 2008. Other J-schools reported similar increases.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
On the Media: The On the Media column in Friday's Section A gave the wrong last name of a journalist set to enroll at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Her name is Rachel Heller, not Rachel Hunter.

For almost $100,000 (including room and board) over two years, USC's graduate journalism program will prepare you for a profession that features low pay, long hours and an uncertain future. You'll learn to produce video, to blog and to write a tight news lead. (I don't think they're yet offering the section on responding to e-mails that begin "Hey Moron.")

So what are these nutty kids thinking?

"It's like an adrenaline rush. Every day is different. Every story is different," said Annenberg student Adrianna Weingold, 24. When she added, "There are very few careers that let you get out in the world and talk to people and learn something new every day," an old flame within me leaped anew. Really.

Chris Nelson, 29 and a refugee from a DVD production job in Hollywood, told me Annenberg students aren't so naive that they've overlooked the sickly media job market. But they've embraced an axiom: Crisis=Opportunity.

The young ones may not have the same reporting and writing chops, but they tend to beat the stuffing out of old-timers in their facile use of the Internet for reporting and writing and with their entrepreneurial spirit.

"They are much less afraid of change," said Jonathan Kotler, an Annenberg professor and chairman of graduate admissions. "Start-ups don't scare them, they excite them."

"I don't think people are feeding us a line when they say this is the most exciting time to be in journalism," Nelson said. "It's a ground-floor opportunity to shape how journalism is going to be. . . . We are sort of setting the rules right now."

At any good university, the students end up teaching their professors a thing or two. That adage couldn't be truer than in journalism today, when students' ability to ply social networks and dig information out of online databases often outstrips their teachers'.

Bill Grueskin, a dean at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, gave an example when I called Thursday. The school's Bronx Beat weekly paper had already moved online.

But as he sat in class Thursday morning, students added a feature so they could post instant Twitter feeds to supplement their already exhaustive coverage of the Yankees' home opener at their new stadium.

"They just said 'Boom, let's do it' and it was done," said Grueskin, who previously ran the Wall Street Journal's website. "So the faculty teaches the core. But the students drive a lot of the process."

Political animosities ("The press is too liberal" or "It's too corporate") overshadow almost any discussion about the future of the media. But the future journalists talk much more passionately about stories.

Nelson recalled vividly what he learned visiting a home for emotionally disturbed teens. Weingold enthused over putting together a video report explaining an LAPD debate over the use of emergency lights and sirens by squad cars.

Rachel Hunter, 24, looks forward to enrolling in the fall in an Annenberg program in urban ecology.

How can you not admire a young woman who said she got "a glow" out of doing a story about a program in which businesses plant gardens and donate the harvest to local food banks?

"There will be a need for people who tell stories in the right way, with depth and context," said Hunter, who now freelances for the Jewish Journal and Los Feliz Ledger.

No, not all of the roughly 60 students who join the next graduate class at Annenberg will find jobs in journalism. Some will make their way to law school or other businesses.

But some appear hopelessly smitten. News slaves.

Weingold flips from CNN to KCAL 9 to NBC and beyond every night. She takes a half-hour break to watch "Jeopardy" with her roommate

Initially focused on a future in television, she still hopes for an on-air position.

But she realizes her video might as easily be streaming via computer as coming from a TV set. And she's ready to write in every medium.

"I think we're headed for a complete convergence," Weingold said. "And I'm just headed for journalism, in whatever form it decides to take."

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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