Journalism School?

For years, journalism school for undergrads seemed like a bad idea to me. Better to study English or History, if you were inclined toward the liberal arts, or Science or Business, if your rod bent that way. Journalism, after all, is a trade, not a discipline with a body of content, it seemed. You could pick up any needed skills by working on the school paper or, if you wanted the union card, by going to grad school in journalism at Columbia or Missouri or somesuch.

Now, with jobs in media disappearing by the thousands, the arguments against J-School are taking on a new force. Some critics even say it’s immoral that we teach students journalism when the field is shriveling. There will be no jobs for our grads, they say. A lawyer friend argues that J-School teachers ought to be sued for their perfidy (of course, as a lawyer he would say that).

After four months of teaching at Nebraska, however, it’s clear to me that J-School is every bit as worthwhile as any other academic pursuit and more useful than many. First, there is the content. I teach magazine-writing, for instance. Writing for mags is a particular skill that demands the ability to report thoroughly, using interviewing and documentary research techniques, as well as a talent for structuring a piece well. Do History instructors or even English teachers school students in how to develop ledes, nut grafs and kickers? None I ever had did so. Students who master such abilities will have an edge.

Then there are crucial writing elements that one learns only by repeated practice and through criticism. Focus, for instance. In each of my three classes, I’ve seen that students struggle to focus their writing. What is this story about? How can they boil it down to a nut graf that is both on point and moves the reader along? When I and other students edit the work, and discuss it in class, these budding writers learn just what focus means. It is through the criticism/self-criticism approach that they see what they need to do to put a piece on target, to nail down the dramatic tension.

Other disciplines rarely dwell on such writing skills. And they are useful whether students wind up in journalism or not. Must a lawyer focus and write clearly? Do physicians need to know how to identify problems and investigate alternatives to solve them? If we, by teaching sound writing skills, can help students think broadly and question thoroughly, are we not preparing them for just about any field? Is not journalism as useful a pursuit in school as English? (Indeed, since students are limited to a modest percentage of journalism classes and must take many outside the college, they do get rich exposure to other fields.)

“So is journalism school practical or just a nice bit of training for other things?” Well, it’s both. Despite the old-media meltdown, we see continuing demand for interns by news organizations. They show up to recruit our students on campus. They need the talent, especially young talent hip to the Net. Yes, jobs are disappearing in this transition to the new media, but others are being created. Our students are being recruited for them.

This raises another point. One of the skills we are teaching is multi-media journalism. We pair print and broadcast veterans to team-teach a major required course aimed at the delivery of news by the Net. I help my students write in the “light, tight and right” style needed on the Net. My broadcast partner teaches them how to do video and slide-shows to accompany the print pieces. They learn how to post material on a web site — — as well as how to operate cameras, organize video and written presentations and appear on camera. They develop smart, technically competent pieces that new media demands.

Talk about skills. I have learned an enormous amount about such multi-media presentations in the last few months. These skills were simply not taught until the Net required them. The old-media outfits now demand such skills and rarely teach them to their old hands. Our kids will be experts in these needed skills.

There is still more content that our students get that is tough to come by in other fields. For instance, a colleague teaches science-writing. Students learn how to cover disparate fields, from medicine to alternative energy. They learn how to question sources well enough to develop a point of view on complex issues, how not to be intimidated by arcane areas that use their own peculiar lingo. Next year, I’ll teach a new course in business and economic journalism which similarly will equip students to write about how the economy and corporations function.

Could students get such skills by studying Science or Business? Yes, but they would also move into the weeds in such fields in ways that might be less useful to them. They will need some accounting, for instance, but may not need as much as the B-School provides. And if they focus on, say, biology, will they develop skills useful for other scientific fields? It won’t hurt them to study such things, of course, but with a more applied journalistic approach, they’ll get the broad sweep.

So, is journalism school worthwhile? As you can tell, I’m now sold on it. Indeed, as the media world changes, smart journalism education that changes with it will prove more necessary than ever. Times of tumult yield opportunities for those quick enough to grab for them. Our goal is to help our students see those openings and be ready to pursue them.

The Debut

This blogging business is all new to me. But then so much in my life now is all new, as well. New house, new town, new job. That’s why this effort at an Internet journal could be intriguing. Certainly, it will be novel.

In August, I left the world of working journalism for the world of the academy. After 22 years at BUSINESS WEEK and 13 years at other pubs, I put in my last day as a paid reporter — as chief of correspondents for that wonderful pub in the end — and joined the University of Nebraska as an associate professor. As I left Chicago for Lincoln, I took up the art of teaching journalism to fresh-faced undergrads. I did so all too well aware that my field is undergoing some of its most wrenching change ever.

I’ve learned a lot in just one semester already. For one thing, I’ve come to take a longer view, as academics are supposed to. That means seeing that change is actually the norm in journalism. All the Internet-driven and recession-pained ferment of late seems to many to be something terribly new (and terrible, in fact). And yet, newspapers and magazines have been rising and falling for decades, if one takes in the long sweep.

Evidence of that? Time was, not so long ago, when cities such as NYC and Chicago had a half-dozen dailies ferociously competing for readers. Along came radio and TV, and the numbers shrank. As for magazines, remember Look and Life? They soared and flamed out, like so many other pubs. Journalism, in fact, has been a field in tumult ever since print was put on paper and sounds and pictures thrust into the air.

Now, does the Internet change things even more? Well, it certainly accelerates change. I can’t recall a more unsettling year in the history of newspapers as this past one, for instance. So many gone. The change is certainly horrendous for people thrown out of work, as over 100 of my colleagues at BW were when Bloomberg bought the magazine a few weeks ago.

But, taking the long view, what the Net has wrought is not unprecedented. To cast things in a personal light, of the four media organizations I worked for since my college days, two were sold and continue to publish — The Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., now a Gannett newspaper, and BW. Two others died — Dun’s Business Month, which perished years ago, long before the Net, and, as of this year, the Rocky Mountain News. I personally have seen both Net-induced ruin and change that has nothing to do with the medium.

The Net seems to be doing for media (and information generally) what the printing press did when it debuted. Does the term “sea-change” get at it a bit? And yet, Gutenberg opened vast new opportunities. So, too, will the Net.

Over their careers, my students will be writing for both new and old media. My job now is to prepare them for that world, an already-fascinating realm and one that is rich in creativity. Over time, I believe, this world will prove at least as lucrative as print journalism was (never so much as other fields, but not bad. The compensation has always been such intangibles as access to all tiers of society and a heck of a lot of fun, adventure and, for some, even danger. The latter prospect is the kind of thing that gets a young person’s juices going; strange thing, isn’t it?)

So my purpose in this blog is to chart the changes I see. Along the way, I will share stories from my new life as an academic. For an ink-stained wretch, the world of leather elbow pads and chalkboards is wholly new and intriguing. (Actually, it’s more like a realm of rumpled sweaters, computer-aided visual displays with overhead projectors, and whiteboards). I aim to share this new world with whoever out there may stumble upon this space.

I hope this effort proves as entertaining and informative to readers as I expect it will prove to me.