IIJNM's closure: Can students still lean against the Fourth Pillar?

Many students of journalism and journalists alike see journalism as an unsafe career with diminishing prospects. Can this be reversed?
The closing of IIJNM is a symptom of a bigger disease
The closing of IIJNM is a symptom of a bigger disease (Pic: EdexLive Desk)

“My mother warned me against choosing journalism as a career because Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in front of her home. She was worried that something similar would happen to me,” says Gayathri GS, a graduate of Mass Communication and Journalism from Hyderabad. 

Gayathri, who completed her Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication and Journalism in 2021, has since gone on to work as a marketing and content development professional. Like her, several journalism graduates in India have been weaning away from a career in journalism, for several reasons. 

This sentiment seemed to have reached a fever pitch when the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media (IIJNM), a premier institute for media education near Bengaluru announced that it would be closing down as there have been low enrollments this year. 

Such startling developments beg the question – why are students actively choosing not to pursue careers in journalism? Why does this profession, once considered glorious and noble, have lesser takers today?

Too little remuneration, too few journalists

As per a 2022 study from the United States of America-based recruitment agency ZipRecruiter, journalism topped the list of the ten most regretted college degrees. 

The study goes on to say, “Job seekers’ feelings about their college majors are strongly tied to their job prospects later”, and that “the most highly paid respondents are much more likely to be happy about their college major choice”. 

In this context, many are put off by the lack of financial opportunities in journalism. 

Prof Devadas Rajaram, former senior faculty at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, who currently teaches at Alliance University, Bengaluru, says, “Low job opportunities and low pay packages are the main reason behind such trends.” 

He further cites an anecdote, wherein, one of his students was offered a salary of around Rs 19,000 at a reputed media organisation in Delhi for the position of a new sub-editor. “New recruits in journalism are paid peanuts compared to other professions. Youngsters cannot sustain themselves with this kind of pay,” he adds.

This lack of adequate salary is why many journalists themselves are changing their professions. Tushar Kaushik, a journalist-turned-communications professional says, “This was something that me and my batchmates endured while working as journalists. Eventually, we had to consider other career options as we had to settle down, get married and start families – and none of these was feasible with the kind of money we were making as journalists.”

According to Gayathri, this lack of financial incentive is another reason for her to not choose a career in journalism. “I’ve heard accounts and podcasts of seniors, established journalists who claimed that media organisations often lack the funds they need to operate. A few of them even lack the money to procure important equipment or technology,” she explains. 

Journalists who choose to remain in the industry also face the brunt of this issue. 

Aparna Karthikeyan, an independent journalist and author, says that most journalists often find themselves picking up side hustles to sustain themselves financially. 

“Both media organisations and journalists are cash-strapped. For example, if you are an independent journalist and your story requires you to travel to another place, the remuneration you receive from the organisation that commissioned your story isn’t enough to cover your travel expenses,” she elaborates. 

“Such situations make young journalists question whether journalism is still financially viable or remunerative enough, and can turn them away from the profession,” she says.  

She adds that while independent journalists have the freedom to pursue any stories that they are interested in, pitching them to media organisations is difficult. She adds, “We don’t know which organisation would accept our pitches, which leaves us uncertain about where our next paycheck will come from.”

Limited opportunities, poor work environment

Perhaps this financial peril is why journalism students often don’t see themselves working as journalists. As Prof Danish Iqbal, Faculty at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), New Delhi narrates, “ When we ask students in interviews about their future goals, most of them say that they want to teach. Rarely does anyone say that they want to work as journalists.” 

According to him, students are also less enthusiastic about placements, apart from a few reputed organisations. “Most organisations these days also have an exploitative and abusive work environment, and students avoid such companies,” he explains.

Another concerning issue in the field is the lack of job opportunities. “Students are struggling to find proper jobs and a lot of that responsibility also falls on the publishing industry. They must maintain the respectability of the job by maintaining their ethics and providing opportunities to younger students,” exclaims Prof Rajaram. 

Reflecting on the lack of opportunities in the industry for freshers, an irked Mass Communication graduate from a university of repute in Karnataka says on the condition of anonymity, “While students are enthusiastic about working in the media, media companies are not ready for these students.” 

She adds that most media organisations do not complement young journalism graduates' independent streak. 

Prof Iqbal also points out how students also fail to name role models from the industry that they look up to. “There are no role models these days,” he laments. “The few journalists doing good work hardly gain mainstream recognition,” he adds.

Censorship, compromise and intimidation

Over the last few years, few of the tallest figures in Indian journalism have quit mainstream television media, to start their channels and ventures on YouTube. The most prominent of such shifts has been by Ravish Kumar, the former Senior Director at NDTV, who resigned from the organisation after it was taken over by the Adani Group in 2022. 

Many detractors see this as a purge of dissenting voices from the mainstream media in favour of government and corporate interests. 

Echoing this, Aparna Karthikeyan says, “The stage for telling stories and asking questions to power is shrinking. Journalism today has become so vitiated, that only journalism that eggs people on is being given prominence.”

She says that as a result, news organisations are hesitant to upset people in power. “Sometimes, certain quotes are asked to be taken off stories so that someone in power would not be upset,” she adds. 

Most strikingly, however, journalists are also resorting to self-censorship, she says. 

“Today, we see journalists depoliticise their journalism and water it down. How can they then question power? How can they then speak on behalf of the powerless?” she asks. 

Prof Iqbal says that students are cognisant of these shifts in journalism. He says, “News agencies no longer visit to recruit journalists, they recruit Public Relations personnel. Journalists have become a group of middlemen — mouthpieces for certain ideologies.”

Students do not want to settle for a profession which has its integrity compromised, he adds. 

It is important to note that as of 2024, India ranks 159 among 180 nations on the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. 

Moreover, over five journalists were killed and 226 reporters were targeted in 2023 by state agencies, non-state political actors, anti-social elements, and criminals in India, according to the India Press Freedom Annual Report. 

The irked Mass Communication Graduate says, “Such repercussions to doing journalism are making students reconsider pursuing careers in journalism. 

She adds that it is very easy to misrepresent any statement made by a journalist, to generate outrage and misattribute false statements to them through DeepFake and attack them by using generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), adding an additional cause for fear. 

Rethinking J-Schools and journalism education in India

Funding for J-Schools and journalism departments in public universities has dropped in recent years, alleges Prof Iqbal. He also claims that there isn’t enough permanent faculty and that institutes are unwilling to pay their existing teachers.

“We have 16 faculty members in our department, but we need at least 40,” says Prof Iqbal. He adds, “ We have seven other courses apart from our flagship programme, but they are not funded by the government. Their funding goes from the students’ tuition fees.” 

On the other hand, Prof Rajaram insists that J-Schools must redefine themselves and the courses they offer. 

“J-Schools need to push the boundaries of storytelling and reinvent journalism courses. This should be done without diluting the core quality and rigour of journalism,” he says, noting how American universities have been offering unique and modernised courses in journalism. 

“There are so many ways to upscale journalism courses to make them more attractive. For example, Columbia University offers Journalism & Design, and Journalism & Coding courses,” he explains. 

He suggests that Indian J-Schools can complement core journalism with subjects like audience analytics, product development, entrepreneurial journalism, and more. 

Audience behaviour, alternate models of journalism, and a silver lining

The dire straits of revenue in journalism could also be attributed to a simple factor — the younger generation does not consume news the same way that their parents or grandparents did. 

“Back then, people had the patience to read newspapers and magazines cover-to-cover. However, our collective attention span has come down significantly, and this is extremely evident among Gen-Z,” the irked Mass Communication graduate opines. Due to this, she says, readers today prefer their news fast and bite-sized, and often get their news from social media, and not from news websites or newspapers. 

A 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, titled Digital News Report 2022 states that a majority of Indian respondents (about 63 per cent) used social media to access news. 

While one could argue that this decrease in readership due to decreased attention spans could cause significant losses to newspapers, the same cannot be said for digital media platforms. “Digital media platforms can invest in their social media, which may create more jobs,” says Tushar. 

This problem of diminishing attention spans is not a new one, Aparna says. “People used to say the same things about books, and that they will be replaced by radio, TV, and more. Nothing like that has happened,” she explains. 

However, she also believes that there needs to be a degree of editorial freedom to make journalism more engaging. “Subscription-based models of journalism not only create dedicated reader bases but also help digital platforms sustain themselves without compromise,” she says. 

In a similar vein, Gayatri suggests that media organisations could also be funded by investors or backers who are not afraid of being associated with journalism that questions power. 

At a more granular level, Aparna believes that the key to creating good, engaging journalism is to not focus on big, explosive events, but on details from the everyday lives of people. 

“Chase processes, not events. There are so many stories to cover from mundane occurrences, that one only needs to look for them,” she explains.

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