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EDITORIAL: A NOTE TO BOSTON-AREA JOURNALISM STUDENTS

Let’s talk

 

October 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”

 

Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.

 

Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.

 

Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.

 

Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.

 

Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.

 

The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.

 

Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.

 

For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.

 

Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.

 

We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.

 

It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at internships@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

HOW TO MANAGE YOUR PROFS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR THE NEW COLLEGE STUDENT

September 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a first-year undergraduate. You’re in college to cram your head full of knowledge, true. But you’re also there to build your personal network. Because the friends and allies you make while taking courses could very well stay with you for your whole life. And the stronger you build this interlocking web of connections, the better your job prospects (and existence in general) will be. The best way to do that—the most lasting and meaningful way—is to graduate. Everyone who does so has a profound experience in common. A strong bond forged in the fires of a seemingly endless series of term papers, labs (for you scientists), crits (for you artists), and exams. You get through that together, you can do anything… together.

 

However, to graduate you need to meet the standards of the people who stand between you and your degree of choice: your professors. And it may seem to students new to higher education that the profs hold all the power in the relationships they have with you and your classmates.

 

Two considerations should mitigate this concern. First, some professors—the best of them—will become part of your network. Help you get jobs, get into grad school, and so on and so forth.

 

Second, you are living in an era where professors have less power in the academy than they’ve had since the Renaissance (American higher education being based, as it is, on older European models). You see, if you had been a college student in, say, Italy in the 16th century, you (being a rich male, as you would have had to be) would essentially be hiring older (also male, but often pretty broke) scholars to teach you what you wanted to study. The universities of the period were basically groups of students paying groups of professors to teach them. Each group had certain rights and responsibilities, and power on campus was distributed between them.

 

In the intervening centuries, professors seized more and more control over higher education—culminating in the mid-20th century when they pretty much controlled the academy from top to bottom. Most of them were granted “tenure” by their colleges, guaranteeing them a permanent job in the interest of academic freedom.

 

Fast-forward to today, and many professors—at least at the undergraduate level—have fallen upon hard times. Over the last half century, American higher education has become more and more corporatized. Colleges today are run like businesses. And many are big businesses indeed. Campus administrations have professionalized. Most key staff are no longer professors, but specialists trained to run universities along capitalist lines.

 

One important job these administrators have is to keep students relatively happy—while extracting the federally guaranteed student loan money most bring with them. The better to convert them to donors after they graduate and become alumni.

 

Unsurprisingly, as time has gone on, administrators have sucked up larger and larger portions of college budgets. So, less and less of most schools’ budgets are being spent on professors. Causing faculty power to decline. Thus, in today’s higher ed establishment, a smaller and smaller percentage of professors are tenured faculty with good salaries and lifetime sinecures.

 

A slightly larger percentage of lower-paid professors are tenure-track faculty spending several years at the mercy of their administrations and tenured colleagues in hope of landing a rare tenured professorship. And the vast majority of faculty are adjuncts—contract professors who, at many institutions, don’t know whether they’re going to have enough courses from semester to semester to pay their rent and keep food on the table. Unless they unionize (a movement that’s spread across public universities in the last quarter century and is gradually taking hold in private ones), the amount of money they get per course can be very low indeed and job security will be nonexistent. Yet even when unionized, adjuncts have trouble making ends meet.

 

And where does all this leave an enterprising student like yourself? In a bit of a catbird seat, if you know how to manage your profs.

 

Doing that involves four simple steps. The first three are practical tactics you’ll want to focus on with your most helpful professors. And the fourth is a “nuclear option” you can deploy if you’re unlucky enough to get a bad teacher while completing your undergraduate coursework.

 

1) Do what your professors ask you to do

If you want to convert your professors from indifferent functionaries to active allies, you’ve got to get their attention. In a good way. And how best to get a prof’s attention? Follow directions carefully. Give them what they ask for in homework assignments, papers, and tests. Don’t go overboard. Good professors understand you have other courses. Just do what they want you to do, the way they want you to do it. Right there that puts you in the top 10 percent of students in a typical undergrad class. Particularly with adjuncts who have very little time to spend with each student, since they need to teach as many courses as possible—sometimes at more than one school—to attempt to make a living wage. The less work you make for professors, the more they will be pleased with you. The more pleased any faculty member is with you, the better your educational experience is going to be.

 

2) Give your professors good evaluations

Every semester, at most colleges, your administration will ask you to give a fairly comprehensive evaluation of each course you take. This, in effect, allows you to evaluate your professors’ performances. What most students don’t know is that faculty are usually shown the evaluations—minus their students’ names. And what even fewer know is that many faculty members can tell which students gave which evaluations. Meaning they know who trashes them, and who praises them. So, be sure to mention something in your write-up that will help your professors know which eval came from you. Don’t be too glowing in your praise. But be fair. They will be much more likely to become your allies going forward if you are.

 

3) Help your professors with their careers

Professors, especially adjuncts, are always looking for chances to stand out from the pack. In hopes of getting more secure long-term employment. Or, if they already have tenure or are tenure-track (or at least have a solid union contract), in hopes of getting the types of “gold stars on their foreheads” that lead to better gigs. Those desired promotions come by making administrators like deans and provosts happy. And stuff like winning grants for flashy research projects is exactly the type of thing that makes such top dogs happy in today’s academy. Because it makes them look good to their higher-ups: campus presidents and boards of trustees. Given that, if your professor mentions an opportunity to assist them with some grant writing or research work or preparing for a big conference or whatever—and you can spare some time—help them out. Don’t be a suck-up or teacher’s pet. Don’t jump on every opportunity that presents itself. That can backfire, or become inappropriate in any number of ways. But maybe once a semester do them a solid. That’s the kind of thing that leads to a long-term connection and adds professors to your personal network.

 

“But surely,” you’re now thinking, “every professor isn’t good.” Isn’t helpful. Some professors are, in fact, obstacles that could stop you from getting your degree and solidifying your all-important personal network of classmates and good faculty.

 

Correct. In a system of higher education where most professors didn’t get any practice teaching unless they were in the minority of graduate students that decided to be teaching assistants instead of research assistants, bad teachers are an unfortunately common fact of college life.

 

And here’s where your newfound knowledge of the falling status of professors comes into play.

 

4) The enemy of your enemy is your friend

If you have a bad professor… and I don’t mean a professor that makes you work for your grades. Those are generally the good ones. I mean if you have a professor who is feral. Arbitrary and capricious in their teaching method and in their treatment of students. Someone who gets off on giving low grades because they think they can do so with impunity. If you get a teacher like that, do not waste too much time complaining to them directly. Nasty professors are inclined to think they’re better than you—even if you make more money working at Starbucks than many of them make as academics. So they’ll tend to ignore your protestations. Better to try a different tack. Remember how administrators have steadily taken control of today’s corporatized academy? And how they want students to be happy? You go complain to them. To the highest level administrators that will sit down with you. In person. And encourage your classmates to do the same. And keep doing it. If enough people complain, and the complaints are legitimate, it will negatively affect problem professors’ careers. To forestall that—and being unable to retaliate since the eyes of the administration are on them—said profs will likely moderate their behavior. And you will have won.

 

Have a great school year, folks. Study hard, don’t party too much, be decent to your fellow beings, and you’ll be fine.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He has also been both an adjunct and a “regular” professor at some college or other. And helped organize faculty unions at same. He has degrees and stuff.

BPS STUDENTS TAKE TO THE STREETS, MAYOR WALSH FEELING THE HEAT

2016-03-07 14.04.16

Photos by Chris Faraone

March 10, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

With their schools facing up to a $50 million deficit next year, over 2,000 Boston Public School students from all over the city marched on the Massachusetts State House and Boston City Hall this week to demand that BPS be properly funded going forward.

Clearly the messaging and targeting of the action owed a lot to BPS parents groups and teachers unions who have become more militant of late as the funding situation has grown worse. Thanks to budget-stealing charter schools being pushed by Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker—and the pair’s shameful recently inked deal to throw upwards of $270 million in public funds and tax breaks at General Electric to move their headquarters to Boston. Resulting in lots of “Million$ for GE, Budget Cuts for Schools” stickers and at least one “Fuck GE” sign being sported by the young activists. Plus at least one other student yelling “One Term Walsh” from a megaphone opposite Boston City Hall during the demo, according to Universal Hub. But no one forced these kids to take to the streets. They know when they’re being screwed. And who’s doing it.

All of which foreshadows the political payback to come. In part from the many BPS student protestors who will be able to vote in the next mayoral election. Leaving Walsh on the defensive at a speech to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau—a business-oriented think tank— the day after the student protest. Trying to explain how the massive giveaway to one of the worst corporate criminals on the planet is a fine idea that will somehow make Boston the first polity that it doesn’t completely screw over.

Which probably explains the Boston Globe subsequently reporting that the mayor was “fuming” about the protest in a piece that went fishing for evidence that the teachers unions were manipulating the students for their own ends. Walsh is running scared. Unfortunately for him, although coming off as rather eager to point the finger at union-led pro-public education coalitions like the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA) and the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Globe discovered that the students really did organize the big protest themselves—with coalitions like BEJA playing only supporting roles. The Boston Herald, meanwhile, contented itself with straight union bashing.

2016-03-07 14.02.56

What’s unspoken is that the best proof that the unions didn’t have much of a role in the protest is that historically they’ve shown little ability to mobilize significant numbers of students in the Bay State. Typically, union-backed coalitions like BEJA will pull a few dozen to a few hundred people to such protests. Students or non-students, the story is always the same. The people who turn out will be a mix of union and nonprofit staffers—paid advocates, although often not specifically paid to work on a particular campaign and doing so in their spare time—and dedicated activists from the involved communities. That is, the generally small number of people who are motivated enough to take a stand on any given issue. Even one so important as the future of public education.

For really important actions, unions (and allied nonprofits) will do their best to bus in members from around the region. But even then, numbers will often be disappointing because—right-wing conspiracy theories to the contrary—unions don’t control their members. They can pay for transportation to make it easier for members to turn out to political actions from a broad enough geographic area to bulk up their usual numbers, but they have no way of forcing members to participate. Especially when important local and state hearings are often held at inconvenient times for working people and students alike.

If their control over their members is minimal, union control over K-12 students is nonexistent. This is one reason why last month’s BEJA-led protest drew only a couple hundred activists. A portion of whom were students who had been activated by BEJA member-organizations like the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project (BYOP). Yet it is precisely the ability of groups like BYOP to educate young people on important issues like public education funding over years that was really behind Monday’s action. Students, as human actors, are perfectly capable of looking at the available information on a topic like education reform and making their own decisions. But even the best grassroots political organizers can’t predict when or even if their educational work will ever pay off with mass mobilization on their core issues. Plus with every issue having at least two sides, it’s always possible that students will back the charters—and some definitely do.

In this case, and to their credit, lots of Boston students have decided to back the underdogs in the charter school debate—teachers unions, parents groups, and other advocates for a strong public education system. Rather than the extremely well-funded pro-charter groups. Many students heard about the looming cuts to the BPS budget, on the heels of years of similar cuts, from both the news media, their unionized teachers, advocacy coalitions like BEJA, and youth organizations like BYOP. Then they got angry. Then they got active.

So the big props for this student action go to the young people who turned out their classmates for what was—for many of them—their first protest. From Snowden International School students who sent out an initial call on social media last week to other incipient student leaders from Boston Arts Academy, both Boston Latin campuses, Jeremiah Burke High School, Brighton High School and many more, Boston’s best and brightest young people organized a cross-class, multiracial walkout. On a school day. At significant risk of getting disciplined by their pro-charter administration. To demand redress. To demand that their city and state governments fund their right to a decent K-12 education.

Some of the student protestors, including key youth organizers, were connected to the existing pro-public education coalitions that were inside the State House on Monday morning testifying to the Joint Committee on Education to #KeepTheCap on the number of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts. But it was the existential crisis facing BPS students that impelled so many of them to take action on their own behalf. On their own terms. Making it, without a doubt, one of the best grassroots political demonstrations Boston has seen in quite some time. Much like the Market Basket workers movementtwo years ago. And that’s why the students made such a powerful impression, and immediately won over large swaths of the general public over to their cause. Locally and nationally.

Mayor Walsh may be angry that the students were bold enough to call him out on the charter issue—and related issues like the GE Boston Deal. But he has only himself to blame. He can’t have it both ways: sucking up to the rich and powerful, and being a man of the people. He has to choose. Is he for the students of Boston? Or against them? Right now, it’s looking like the latter.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.