For those of you planning to teach at the local university if you get laid off by your newspaper, I’ve got some bad news: You might need another backup plan.
Yeah, I know. You don’t want to hear it. I sure didn’t. Like many of you, I don’t want to be anything but a reporter, but I always figured if it came down to it I could eke out some satisfaction in the ivory tower.
And why not, right? Teaching seems like a pretty sweet gig to a recovering journalist. You get to remain independent, there’s time to pursue a freelance story or two and, if you’re teaching journalism or mass communications, you’re still basically a journalist, right?
Besides, we’ve all known a colleague who could hardly spell journalism but somehow landed a cushy teaching job, so how hard could it be?
Well, it turns out it’s hard. Really hard. Especially in this economy.
You see, while we’ve all been watching the collapse of newspapers and the media industry in general, higher education has taken its lumps too.
Journalism professors across the country say their universities are slashing costs almost as aggressively as their local newsrooms. Publicly funded universities in my home state of California are facing massive cuts thanks to the state’s $24.3 billion deficit.
Hey, at least the journalism industry isn’t alone.
When universities start cutting, one of the first things to go is money for adjunct professors. Adjuncts are like the academic equivalent of stringers: They’re paid peanuts per class, and they don’t get any benefits.
It’s not a great gig, but universities won’t hire full-time professors without teaching experience. So if you’re fresh from the newsroom, you’re probably going to have to start as an adjunct.
The thing is, the economy is so bad that adjunct funding is virtually drying up. Rather than pay for another adjunct, some schools are asking their tenured professors to pick up more courses.
“It’s like in a newsroom,” said Steve Crane, assistant dean at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “I’ve got four reporters sitting around and I’ve got four stories to cover. So what are you going to do, go hire a freelancer? Uh, no you’re not.”
In fact, the most recently available survey of journalism faculty conducted by the James M. Cox Jr. Center for Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia shows that the number of part-time journalism professors went down slightly in 2007 to 5,341 — the first drop in four years.
In other words, there are fewer jobs.
Meanwhile, there are more journalists out of work. Competition for teaching jobs is fiercer than ever. The rare opening is drawing dozens and dozens of applicants.
The professors I spoke with for this article told me if ever there was a time you needed a master’s degree, this is it.
That made me and my bachelor’s from Missouri feel real good.
But I’m a journalist, so I thought I’d see things for myself. I called the local university, California State University, Sacramento, and asked if they’d hire me as an adjunct. One of my bosses teaches journalism there, and I’ve guest lectured for the public affairs reporting class a few times.
Plus, I have an important-sounding title with a big newspaper and a couple of fancy-pants awards. They’ve got to take me, right?
They let me down easy.
“We’re not likely to be hiring new people because of budget cuts,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of politics and mass communications who oversees some hiring matters.
Besides, I was too late. Unlike reporting jobs, which can open up at any time, teaching gigs are opened and filled in advance. Way in advance.
“If you get fired in May, good luck, because you’ve missed the hiring window for the whole year,” O’Connor told me.
And with that, I mentally checked professor off my list of possible careers if I ever get canned. It was a nice idea, but it just wouldn’t work for me.
Well, not for now, at least. I mean, things will rebound, right? How hard could it be?
Brian Joseph is an investigative reporter and Sacramento Bureau Chief for The Orange County Register and a member of the SPJ Journalism Education Committee. He doesn’t think he’d like grading papers.