Arkansas Journalism Schools Shift to Meet Needs of Job Market

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018 12:00 am   6 min read

When the University of Arkansas’ journalism program became a school last fall and erased Walter J. Lemke from its name, Larry Foley wondered how the old professor might have reacted.

Would Lemke, who died in 1968, have hated the Lemke Department of Journalism becoming UA’s School of Journalism & Strategic Media?

Maybe not, Foley concluded, saying the new name reflects growth in the 700-student program and conforms with the needs of a transformed job market. It also presents a potential multimillion-dollar opportunity for the university, which can now put a donor’s name on the school.

“I’d like to think that if Walter Lemke were sitting in a room with me, he’d say, ‘Good job, Lar, but make sure you continue to honor me,’” said Foley, an award-winning documentarian and 21-year veteran of the journalism department. “The new name reflects who we really are. Public relations and advertising students make up half of our enrollment, and that’s strategic media. We wanted to get that into the name.”

Most of the nation’s top journalism schools have donors’ names attached, he said, and a named endowment “would provide funds for our program that we have not had since Lemke founded our department in 1930.”

New Facilities
The new school has new quarters on the Fayetteville campus after a $5.6 million renovation and building program, with student media outlets housed in the new $2.5 million Susan Walk Burnett Journalism & Student Media Center. It is named for a UA journalism alumna and former yearbook editor who founded Burnett Specialists, a $70 million staffing firm in Texas. Sue Burnett and her husband donated $1 million for the facility. Renovations in Kimpel Hall last year provided new offices and classrooms for the program, whose renaming reflects a trend of Arkansas universities remaking their media programs.

The University of Central Arkansas in Conway introduced its School of Communication in 2016, two years after Arkansas State University reorganized its College of Liberal Arts & Communication, which now has a Department of Media teaching all journalism specialties and a Communication Department focusing on strategic communications (advertising and public relations) and communication studies. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has long had a School of Mass Communication.

While academic reorganization and fierce competition for top students played a role, the new names also reflect job market realities in a media world disrupted by the internet and social media.

From January 2017 to April of this year, 36 percent of American newspapers and 23 percent of original-news digital outlets experienced layoffs, according to the Pew Research Center. American newspapers employed 412,000 people in 2001, about a third of those employees in the newsroom, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By the end of 2016, that number was 174,000 and plunging. Meanwhile, PR jobs and positions in corporate communications have surged, with average PR salaries of $55,000 dwarfing reporting salaries of $35,600 last year.

Old Fields of Study
Non-journalism fields are not new to journalism programs, Foley emphasized. “Even when I was in school in the 1970s, people like former Arkansas Gazette columnist Ernie Deane taught public relations classes,” Foley said. Columbia County native and former Texas magazine editor Wanda Belzung was brought in to teach advertising, he added.

“Even Lemke, who founded the department in the basement of Old Main, had a PR background. He had worked at papers, but he was [longtime university president] John C. Futrall’s PR man, leading what we’d now call university relations.

“So we’re doing what we were always doing, trying to stay on top of trends but always teaching the fundamentals,” Foley said. “Non-journalism positions are prominent now, and on the journalism side, there are questions about the future of print journalism, but broadcast journalism is thriving and digital journalism jobs are out there.”

Donna Lampkin Stephens, a former newspaper writer and longtime UCA professor who was tapped as interim director of its School of Communication just weeks ago, said changes at her school have given new stature to communication disciplines.

‘A Bigger-Picture Look’
“We’re seeing opportunities to enhance our students’ learning experience through collaborating with our journalism, PR, communication and writing colleagues,” Stephens said. “We’re taking a bigger-picture look as opposed to focusing just on technical skills and narrower fields. We want to be able to use this realignment for the bigger mission.”

TV stations are hiring many graduates as multimedia journalists, she said, so UCA has scrapped its separate broadcast and print journalism majors. “Now it’s just journalism, and students can choose an emphasis, but we require a core curriculum that exposes them to a little bit of print, a little bit of online and a little bit of broadcast. And I’d say we’re ahead of the curve, because we did all of this several years ago.”

Noting that UCA’s student newsroom has been consolidated for several years, she said new hires at newspapers have to know how to produce video, take pictures and post material to the web. “Wherever they’re going, graduates have to have the skills to do everything.”

The Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church demonstrated the kinds of job skills now in demand when Amy Ezell, the conference’s communications chief, hired Hamburg native and A-State graduate Caleb Hennington as digital content editor as she helped transform Arkansas United Methodist, once a monthly newspaper, into a digital publication. “We wanted someone with experience in digital content, with past magazine experience and with writing skills,” Ezell told Arkansas Business. “But we wanted those writing skills to be more in a modern style that could incorporate interactive aspects and appeal to a modern audience.”

The rise of social media has also transformed corporate communications, creating positions for online marketing and external messaging on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all outlets that didn’t exist 15 years ago. UCA’s PR curriculum includes beginning reporting and publication design, and journalism students can take electives in technical writing and public affairs production.

Arkansas State’s Department of Media prepares students for jobs in broadcasting, advertising, film production, news reporting and technical writing, while Department of Communication graduates are steered toward sales, social media management, crisis and organizational communication and corporate training.

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“Broadcast and print journalism were brought under what we now call multimedia in the Department of Media, while strategic communications, paired with communication studies, are in the Department of Communication,” said Osabuohien Amienyi, the Nigerian-born former film producer who chairs Arkansas State’s Department of Media. “The idea was to bring journalism together in today’s online environment for print and electronic media, and for advertising and public relations to be brought together to make sure those people are prepared for multiplatform delivery.”

Job Market Success
Shrinking newsrooms expect employees to do many tasks, said Amienyi, who has spent 30 years at ASU. “We expect journalists to be competent in multiple platforms and even portals that are not traditional news. We give the foundation, teaching writing skills and ethics to all, and incorporating video, pictures and text. Students may choose a particular focus, but our faculty has had to become broader in their preparation.”

How is the new arrangement working? “We can go by alumni surveys, and the last one told us that six months after graduation more than 70 percent have jobs in their fields, and a year out, 99 percent had jobs they were pleased with. Many are getting precisely the jobs they want.”

At UA, where the $2.5 million Burnett Center will be dedicated Sept. 7, a new converged newsroom will serve “all areas of journalism: print, broadcast and digital,” Foley said. “The center will include a new TV studio and control room and our offices for student media.”

Next door is a new second-floor wing with offices of the School of Journalism & Strategic Media. “Last summer’s renovation gave us four brand new classrooms and classroom labs, as well as video editing suites. The total project is between $5 million and $6 million.”

As Foley and his two dozen faculty colleagues move in, the new school has something else to celebrate. The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism & Mass Communications voted unanimously over the summer to fully accredit the program, a distinction achieved by fewer than a quarter of U.S. journalism programs. A-State’s two departments are also accredited by the ACEJMC.

“Before we were a school, potential students and parents would ask the difference between a journalism school and a department, and we did some homework and discovered we were one of only two programs ranked in the nation’s top 50 that still called itself a department,” Foley said. “Then at a national meeting, a fellow from Brigham Young came up and said, ‘Now, you’re it.’ He said that out of the top 50 programs only two still called themselves departments. BYU was one, and we were the other. ‘We’ve now become a school, so you’re it,’ he said.”

But even in its exalted status as a school, the UA program won’t forget its founder, Foley pledges. “Our sign when we move into our building will say ‘The School of Journalism & Strategic Media, founded 1930, by Walter J. Lemke.’”

Somewhere the old PR pro may be smiling.



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