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Akst: All the news that’s … whatever

“Is anyone from journalism here?” the man asked.

Inwardly I cringed because I try to keep a low profile and have a healthy sense of paranoia. One of my nicknames from working in academia is “Dean of the Paranoid School.” Occasionally my spouse, who also works in academia, promotes me to “Provost of the Paranoid School.”

Anyway, on Monday, when the man asked that question of about 80 people at Northern Illinois University’s Convocation Center, it was really cringeworthy, because the man was The Man: Douglas Baker, NIU’s new president.

I had not met Baker before. He seems friendly and rides a motorcycle, so that’s all good.

My new boss was asking about journalism as part of a larger conversation about “market relevance,” and about how NIU must ensure that what we’re researching and teaching continues to be relevant, appropriate and leads to a rewarding career and life.

The gathering was part of a series of “Bold Futures” workshops, in which students, faculty, staff, alumni and community residents met to brainstorm strategies for improving the university. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s the basic idea.

There was no ducking Baker’s question. I was only a few feet away, the only one from journalism there, and I had just told my tablemates who I was.

Most importantly, I’m proud to be a journalism educator and practicing journalist. I was at a Bold Futures workshop and I’m a bold person (yes, I’m both bold and paranoid).

So I raised my hand. Baker asked for impressions of how my profession had changed recently. It’s a good question because even a glance at the news media landscape shows how profoundly much of journalism has changed over the past few years.

I mentioned a couple of the biggies, including how in my basic graphic design class, I wrangle with whether to continue teaching the design of printed newspapers.

This isn’t intended as a pity party. You have way bigger fish to fry.

But like tires, the work product quality of my profession is something people need and rely on, whether they realize it or not. Where do you think Google news comes from?

So because it came up, I thought it might help to mention a few things going on in journalism.

A few months back, the Chicago Sun-Times summarily fired its photographers and told reporters to shoot photos with iPhones.

Editors at The Arizona Republic told about 20 reporters a couple of weeks ago they were getting laptops ... but no desk to put them on. They were instructed to stay in the field to report. The Republic recommended hanging out at Starbucks or McDonald’s for the free Wi-Fi. They were told not to work from home, but rather, take home their files and keep them in their car or at home.

In “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment,” recently ranked the most worthless degree – from a financial perspective – as communications (at NIU and elsewhere, journalism programs are often part of departments, schools or colleges of communication). The median salary for a news reporter was about $37,000.

Foundations that help fund journalism programs said recently that curriculum and equipment had to be revamped PDQ, or the money would dry up. Except: money is already scarce.

Journalists have been fighting for more than a century about whether training should even be college-related. Meanwhile, three prominent journalism deans just wrote a lengthy report titled “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition.”

Many think the news media is at fault ... for everything. One Facebook post I saw Wednesday put it this way: “THE MEDIA said it is going to be the end of the world if we don’t fix this [government shutdown].”

The end of the world. Wow.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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