The news industry has been shrinking, so much so that some civic leaders worry the country’s democratic future may be threatened if there aren’t enough independent watchdogs to keep an eye on government.
But at Fayetteville State University, media studies are growing. This fall, the historically Black school in North Carolina launches an undergraduate program in journalism, four years after creating one in mass communication.
Fayetteville State appears to be one of the few campuses in the country starting new academic programs in those fields. Nationally, enrollment in journalism and mass communication programs has increased slightly in recent years, mostly because more students are pursuing coursework in public relations and advertising. In 20 years, they have risen from 23 to 42 percent of total enrollment.
The pattern is similar for students of color but the small upticks in their numbers have pushed enrollments to record levels. In 2008, the latest figures available, 31 percent of undergraduates in journalism and mass communication programs were racial or ethnic minorities, the most since University of Georgia researchers started taking an annual survey in 1989. The figure was 40 percent for master’s students and 52 percent for doctoral candidates, both also records.
Black undergraduates made up 13 percent of those preparing for media jobs. Most attended traditionally White schools. About 3.5 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in the programs went to historically Black colleges and universities, according to a Diverse analysis of the 2008 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrollments.
Fayetteville State decided to establish the new degree programs in journalism and mass communication after lengthy deliberations. As part of the University of North Carolina system, the campus had to submit its plans to state higher education bodies for approval.
Dr. Todd S. Frobish, interim chairman of the Department of Communication, says almost twice as many students are majoring in mass or speech communication as the university had projected. The program’s first graduates, he says, have taken jobs at broadcast or cable television networks or pursued graduate degrees — the last a pragmatic choice often made in a weak economy.
Frobish says future journalism graduates from Fayetteville State could find work in the southeastern section of North Carolina that the school serves, although it’s not a particularly fertile media market, or doing one of many nontraditional journalism jobs, such as Web producers or video production assistants, around the country that he has seen listed on online employment services.
“We still need professionally trained journalists in the world,” he says. “That’s our job — to train these journalists for the new world of journalism.”
The leader of the main accrediting body for media studies agrees there are opportunities, despite the shrinkage and flux in the news business.
“There are still jobs. They [employers] want students with multiple skills,” says Susanne Shaw, executive director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.
Fayetteville State is making its bold moves into an uncertain media future in part to fix some awkwardness in its academic structure. For more than two decades, the field closest to journalism offered at the school — communication — was placed under theater studies. “That wasn’t working,” Frobish says.
So in 2006, the school began to offer a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in either speech or mass communication. It took a year and a half to gain needed approvals from the University of North Carolina system and its board of governors.
Frobish, a speech communication specialist whose research focuses on computer technology as a tool to persuade the public, was made coordinator of the new communication program. Despite the academic upgrade, the media field initially remained part of the Department of Performing and Fine Arts, along with theater, music and visual art.
Campus surveys had indicated the communication degree program would prove popular with students. Actually, demand was underestimated — without a boost from advertising and public relations tracks, which the school does not offer. Frobish says 80 majors were anticipated but after four years the number has reached 140. Of that total, 90 to 100 are in mass communication, with the rest in speech communication.
The rapid growth led to Frobish’s successful request, a year and a half ago, to create a separate Department of Communication. “We grew so fast and so large. We’re bigger than the other three areas combined,” he says.
It may grow bigger still with the addition of a journalism concentration this fall. Three new professors have been hired: two journalists and an audio-video production specialist. Another journalist is already on the faculty. Initially, about 20 journalism majors are expected to choose from print, broadcast and graphics tracks.
The nearest public institution with a journalism degree program is the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, located 35 miles away from Fayetteville State.
“There’s no school in this area that does journalism,” Frobish says. “We’ll be a job training site for local media. We’ll be filling that need in this area.”
He says Fayetteville State’s journalism courses will be supplemented by student work on an Internet radio station and National Public Radio affiliate WFSS, both on campus, as well as television studio that will begin to produce closed-circuit programs after being unused for two decades. This fall, the frequency of the student paper, The Voice, will be increased to weekly from biweekly.
D. Jordan Whichard, former publisher of the Daily Reflector in Greenville, N.C., says a continuing demand exists in the state for journalism graduates who have writing and editing skills, an ethical grounding and an understanding of the humanities and social sciences. “Those are valuable skills, and they’re valuable in the job market,” he says.
Whichard notes a decline in the number of traditional newspaper jobs but “students who come out of journalism jobs aren’t limited to that,” pointing to new opportunities in Internet-based media and niche publications.
Neither the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which represents educators, nor the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications keeps a count of new academic programs.
But Shaw says, “There are new schools each year that seek initial accreditation.” Some have relatively new programs that have operated for a few years before pursuing specialized accreditation, as Frobish says Fayetteville State plans to do within the next five years.
This fall, for example, the council has scheduled site visits to three colleges, including one HBCU that she declined to identify to spare the school embarrassment in the event it is turned down. The council accredits programs at 113 colleges. Nine are historically Black universities: Howard, Florida A&M, Savannah State, Grambling, Southern, Jackson State, North Carolina A&T State, Hampton and Norfolk State.
The 2008 survey covers 480 colleges, including 30 HBCUs, which together enrolled nearly 7,000 undergraduates in journalism and mass communications. The sample of Black schools was not complete; Howard and Fayetteville State were omitted — apparently because they are not listed in either of the journalism education guides that the researchers used as sources.
The average enrollment in the HBCU programs was about 230. The largest program in the survey was Clark-Atlanta University’s, with 720 undergraduates.
Shaw, a former newspaper editor who is a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, says academic programs have experienced “rapidly changing curriculum” to keep up with changes in the news business. Now they are teaching students how to write a story, shoot video and post it all on the Web.
Frobish says Fayetteville State will start with a traditional journalism program and, once the three new faculty arrive this fall, discuss changes to suit the new job market.
“I think anytime you create a new program, it’s experimental,” he says. “Journalism is in such a transitional state. We’ll have to evolve the program as journalism evolves.”