If there's one thing a journalism school expects of its students, it is the ability to pose a tough question. Orion de Nevers, a freshman at the University of Southern California, serves up this one: Why would anyone major in journalism at all?
"Information will just all be basically free, so there's no money to be made in journalism," says de Nevers, an 18-year-old from Portland, Ore. "As much as I would like to pursue my love and all that, I like food, too. And I just don't want to sacrifice it all."
Callie Schweitzer is a one-woman counterargument. She's a 21-year-old senior from Westchester, N.Y., and she's already had internships at People magazine and The New York Times. Schweitzer used to write for the independent student paper, The Daily Trojan. Now she's the editor-in-chief of Neon Tommy, the 24-hour online news website for USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
"I don't believe it when people say journalism is dead," Schweitzer says. "I'm the one raising my hand saying, 'No it's not!' I think it will always exist."
But the question lingers. At USC, undergraduate tuition alone reaches $40,000, and, when taken with fees, books, room, board and other charges, a year’s cost can exceed $55,000. These days journalism schools around the country are often challenged to justify a mission that trains students at such a high cost for a collapsing industry that doesn't even require a degree.
After all, many newspaper companies have been forced to seek bankruptcy protection, including the owner of the nearby Los Angeles Times. ABC News just let go a quarter of its entire staff. And Newsweek and BusinessWeek magazines were in such tough shape their longtime owners sold them for $1 a piece.
Administrators are well aware of the challenges.
"It's awful," says Geneva Overholser, director of journalism at the USC Annenberg School. "This is an extremely expensive school."
Yet Overholser makes a fierce case that journalism is not simply cracking up, but realigning. While she says the school still trains students in traditional news values, she argues Annenberg also provides them the technical and intellectual tools to figure out how to apply those values to a very different age.
"It's a renaissance, a re-creation," says Overholser, the former top editor at the Des Moines Register and former editorial writer for The New York Times.
"I don't mean to sound blithe about this," she says. "It's unsettling, but my favorite word for it — and I'll carry this one all the way — is promising. And these students know that they're going to re-create it."
These students have signed up for journalism school knowing that's the climate they're facing, and they're not thinking 'gloom and doom.'
– Robert Hernandez, Annenberg professor
During an introductory class, former Annenberg Dean Geoffrey Cowan asked students why they want to study journalism. Freshman Aaron Liu said he wrote articles for his high school newspaper about teacher layoffs at his school.
"As I was writing that story and discovering about implications [for] people with kids and bills to pay, you realize the power of journalism to enlighten people," Liu said.
"Initially my parents were really skeptical," Liu recalled. "Everyone in my community would say, 'Oh do you know that's a dying profession?' and I'd say, 'Oh you're only the 50th person to say that.' "
But Liu said he thought there were innovations giving new life to journalism that he wanted to learn about. Among Annenberg's new projects: giving flip cameras and cell phones to migrant workers so they can post blog entries about their own experiences.
"We've been journalistically in crisis for more than five years," says Robert Hernandez, a 34-year-old professor who used to be a multimedia editor at several big newspapers, including the Seattle Times.
"These students have signed up for journalism school knowing that's the climate they're facing, and they're not thinking 'doom and gloom,' " Hernandez says. "There's something exciting happening in our industry. These folks want to become part of that."
Count Schweitzer among them. "We need reliable journalists who are trustworthy and credible," Schweitzer said. "I look at people on Twitter who build followings; it's because they're reputable."
Schweitzer helped to write and edit stories for Neon Tommy about swine flu-related deaths in Los Angeles County that put a senior health official on the hot seat.
Indeed, Neon Tommy has broken enough charged stories that Ernest Wilson, the dean of USC's Annenberg School, says he is both weary of taking complaining calls and proud the stories are having such an impact. (Disclosure: Wilson is also chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the congressionally chartered company funded with federal dollars that makes significant grants to public television and NPR member stations.)
Wilson argues that good citizenship and a vibrant press are inextricably linked.
"If you look around the world, whether it's a developed country or a developing country … if that country has a free and independent press it's much more likely they're going to be a democracy," he says. "And I think those of us in [the] journalism education field have an obligation to help train people to provide information in the public interest."
Other students said they believed getting a degree from a leading journalism school would aid their job search. One student burst into the newsroom of the Annenberg-run television station to tell his peers he had received a call the day before with a job offer to be a local sports reporter, and was about to drive across country to Lansing, Mich., to take it.
In addition, the costs may not be quite as onerous as they first appear. Many of the Annenberg journalism students interviewed said they received significant aid packages — a mixture of loans and grants that lessens their actual financial obligation. More than 60 percent of all USC undergraduates receive some form of financial aid, according to the university. Other public campuses charge their in-state students significantly less in tuition.
"I am concerned, as a dean, at the costs and debt burdens these students take on," Wilson said. "But I'm also concerned about training the next generation of people who are going to provide the backbone of democracy."