Why It's a Great Time to Be a Journalism Major

Journalism is alive and kicking, thanks to the Internet.

By + More

Last week, I gave the commencement speech at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, my alma mater.

I decided to share excerpts of the speech, which I think are particularly relevant to students who hope to major in journalism, as well as those who feel pressured to select a major that is perceived to be a money maker:

Selecting a path less chosen: The biggest percentage of college students today—21 percent—are graduating with business degrees. These graduates want to make money and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I'd suggest, however, that the key to succeeding financially and professionally in journalism, business, or any other career is to choose something that you are good at and passionate about.

Unfortunately, I don't think passion is given enough attention when students and parents talk about possible college majors and future career plans. I write a college blog for CBS MoneyWatch, and the two most popular posts that I wrote in 2010 focused on the 20 best-paying college degrees and the 20 worst-paying college degrees. Since this summer, when I wrote those posts, they've had close to a half-million hits. And this is no fluke. The most popular post that I wrote in 2009 was also on the same subject.

[Read U.S. News's take on the 50 best careers of 2011.]

If you read my blog posts, you'd discover that journalism isn't on the list of the best-paying or worst-paying degrees. Most of you probably assume that business must be near the top of the most lucrative degrees, but it isn't. It's 60th on the list. What's more, the salary that the typical business major makes in mid-career is close to what the typical journalist earns.

Research has shown that it's not the specific college major that matters once you're in the workforce, but rather the passion and talent you possess for what you end up doing.

Pursuing your passion: It's so much easier today for young journalists to pursue their passions than when I was in journalism school. And yet if you listen to my peers—journalists who are old enough to be your parents—you won't hear that story. Many of these journalists are depressed right now because the media worlds they knew are crumbling.

Journalism certainly is different. I was a young reporter at the Los Angeles Times during a period when journalists there routinely referred to the newspaper as a velvet coffin because it was such a cushy place to work. When reporters at the L.A. Times, for example, had to fly more than 500 miles, we were booked in first class. Imagine that. No one would ever call newspaper jobs cushy today.

Getting started in journalism: Despite the gloom, I think this is a grand time to be getting started in journalism because the Internet has made the field far more egalitarian today. You can become an expert on anything. You can share your opinions and what you know across the globe thanks to blogs, YouTube, Facebook, and a ton of other platforms.

Young journalists also don't have to deal with the ridiculously small number of gatekeepers that the profession used to have. When I was a newspaper reporter eager to break into better markets, there were typically just two newspapers in every major town. Of course, now there are fewer. If the editor reviewing résumés wasn't interested, you were out of luck. As a newspaper reporter, I lived in Memphis; Kansas City, [Mo.]; and Los Angeles, and I can tell you that I never would have chosen to live in any of those cities—but as a newspaper reporter I felt compelled to follow the opportunities.

Limitless professional connections: Thanks to the Internet, the number of professional connections you can make are limitless and so are the opportunities. Here are three of my favorite examples:

1. Joshua Fisher, a Dodger fan and law student at the University of Minnesota, has always been intrigued by the financial side of baseball. When the couple who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers became embattled in a nasty divorce fight, the student began covering the trial. Fisher created a blog called DodgerDivorce.com that went viral, and he has become a go-to-expert on the topic. ESPN has interviewed him and he's a frequent guest on L.A. sports talk radio. He has baseball executives following his commentaries.

2. Lauren Luke was a British taxi dispatcher when she decided to sell makeup on eBay. The young woman was passionate about makeup and she videotaped her beauty tips at her computer. Unlike the journalism graduates sitting here today, she didn't know how to edit her videos so she uploaded them to YouTube, mistakes and all. [Luke] became a monster hit on YouTube, which led to a cosmetics consulting job, a beauty columnist gig at the highly respected Guardian newspaper, a book contract, and her own makeup line.

3. Zac Bissonnette, who I happen to know, is an art history major at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. He writes a financial blog for AOL, contributes to the The Daily Beast and is the bestselling author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents. How did he manage to do all this? [Bissonnette] ... decided that it would be easier to succeed if he had mentors. He set about cultivating powerful people in the financial journalism world with a simple tool: E-mail. He started E-mailing some industry leaders with the hopes of networking. That's how he ended up knowing Andrew Tobias, a bestselling financial writer; Suze Orman, [the acclaimed personal finance expert]; and others. Zac's electronic networking has paid off—and he isn't even out of college yet.

Journalism is alive and kicking: What I'm trying to illustrate in sharing these examples of young people making their mark is this: journalism is alive and kicking, [but] it just looks different. Please don't let all the 'Debbie Downers' who are whining about the state of journalism today get you depressed. This is a fabulous time for 20-somethings to be in this profession.