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In a down economy, the smart play is to go to school to learn new skills, network, and ride it out. At least, that's the case in a normal industry. But conventional wisdom has it that planning for a future in journalism makes as much sense as signing up for a career as a Pontiac dealer.
That's not how members of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's just-graduated class of 2009 see it, though. Despite the tough times, they are excited and hopeful that their freshly minted degrees will help prepare them for the news business's rebirth.
Malia Politzer, who calls her Columbia experience "great," says she "learned a tremendous amount" there. When she was considering applying to Columbia, she adds, she reached out to some alums for advice: "A bunch told me not to go." She had already worked as an intern at The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong and had the opportunity to be a freelance writer covering the Beijing Olympics, but financial aid and networking possibilities tipped her decision in favor of Morningside Heights. Her concentration was new media and investigative journalism. "I'm a bit of a technophobe," Politzer says, so she was glad to be pushed to learn how to make websites, shoot and edit video, build flash sites, and use multimedia in her reporting.
But even new media skills aren't always enough to find work. She has been lucky to land a six-month fellowship at the Phoenix New Times, which is owned by Village Voice Media. "It's a crappy time to be looking for a full-time job," she admits.
"I grew up with doom and gloom," counters Sonja Sharp, 23, who was paralyzed at eight and, despite being told she would never walk again, is now ambulatory. "So you can doom-and-gloom until you're blue in the face, and I'll yawn." She knows things are "apocalyptic" now, but believes journalism will emerge all the stronger for it. "I decided when I was nine—and in a wheelchair—that I would write," she says. "I still want to be a journalist because I'm stubborn, and dropping in on total strangers and having them open their lives to you is addictive, and I'm not a 'just say no' person."
Sharp turned down an education beat at a Los Angeles weekly in favor of Columbia, and started in the newspaper concentration. "Journalism marries the two things in the world I'm actually good at—being nosy and writing for money," she says. After graduating, Sharp landed a six-month internship at Mother Jones. "I don't know where I'll be next year, but I'll be somewhere," she says, adding that uncertainty is fine "when you're young and you don't mind living hand-to-mouth."
"Being a reporter in New York is like being an actor in Hollywood," says Aïda Alami, 25, a native of Marrakesh who was a magazine major. "I needed a degree to get ahead a bit and meet people and make contacts."
Alami wants to be a journalist, she says, because "I could not imagine myself doing anything else." She previously worked in broadcasting at ABC News and came to Columbia to learn new media skills and "focus on writing." It's easy to pick up the multimedia skills that more jobs are requiring, she says, "but it's harder to write better." School hasn't translated into a job here in New York, so she's moving back to Morocco to look for work at news agencies and wire services in the Middle East.
Chikodi Chima went to Brazil after Columbia to strike out on his own. "In January, I launched a blog called TechTrotter to investigate start-up hot spots of the developing world," he says. "I wanted to see where innovation is happening off the radar of the mainstream American media." Chima—who worked on the 2004 Kerry campaign in his native Washington state, as well as for MTV and Google News prior to grad school—launched the blog to ensure he could write about subjects that interested him. He generates most of the content, but says that if he were to launch his own company, it would be "a subscription-based fact-checking service that hires unemployed journos to double-check blog posts" before they're published.
"I have never regretted the decision" to go to Columbia, Chima says, where he learned all the new software and multimedia techniques and how to use them "in the service of storytelling"—at TechTrotter, for now. He estimates he has six months "to figure out how to make it viable before the need to pay back student debt would force me to make other arrangements."
"If you look at it differently, it's an exciting time in journalism," Politzer says. "People are trying to come up with solutions to find out what the future is going to be."
"I'm optimistic," she says. "I might be crazy, but I'm optimistic."