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 — NewsNetNebraska.org — 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.

4 Replies to “Journalism School?”

  1. Speaking as a business journalist, I think it's easier for me and perhaps my colleagues to accept the creative destruction process going on now in our industry, or to even recognize it as such. At Medill, where I teach a business/econ seminar and advanced reporting class,I've observed much of what you have outlined: our students are in demand; they must have more tools in their toolbox than we ever had to have starting out; but the basics of solid reporting and good writing remain the same.
    Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. Ceci,
    Sage comments. All too often, non-biz journos forget that our at-times noble pursuit is also a business. And businesses rise and fall as part of the natural order of things. In journalism, we've had a long stretch of stability not all that dissimilar to that of such industries as autos. We now know that such stretches don't last forever in any industry.
    Best,
    JW

  3. I get to speak with the (alleged) wisdom of age, as the following details will reveal: In the late 1970s, I was a graduate student in United States history. All the humanities were already oversupplied with eager new PhDs looking for work…but I and my classmates figured that somehow, we'd prevail and get positions. After all, things had always turned out OK for us. So, in 1978, I got my PhD and…surprise! No jobs. Some of my comrades took very low-paid part-time positions, and some of them (after a long period) even got tenure-track, full-time jobs. But those who succeeded were few, and most people, like me, had to find some other form of work.

    Now, journalism seems to be in the same rut: Journalism students must imagine that, somehow in spite of all evidence to the contrary, they will get jobs…in time. So, they're now in denial.

    The next phase: Pretend that j-school education is broadly useful. This thinking is predicated on the logic that, hey, the study of journalism teaches discipline and writing/reporting skills that can be useful in a lot of non-journalism jobs.

    Historians used to say stuff like that. Some of unemployed/underemployed historians even found jobs working in local-history museums or foundations. But they could probably have gotten equivalent jobs with no graduate education. And I suspect that j-school grads will be in the same situation–equipped with a superfluous degree.

    My own PhD in history impressed some employers, who I guess didn't appreciate that such diplomas were a dime a dozen. So, it may be that j-school grads will impress some similar employers with their degrees. But that's not guaranteed, to say the least.

    By the early '80s (it took them a while), most major universities had cut back their graduate history departments, and I suspect that sooner or later universities will do the same to j-schools. Maybe I'm wrong: Mike Mandel and John Byrne are predicting a media boom to follow after the current recession. They say the now-unemployed types (like me) will go to work on the Web and create new entities that will run the Times and the Bloombergs out of business. It's hard to see that now, but I never have been much of a soothsayer.

  4. Hardy,
    Thanks. A sobering reflection. I can relate to it because while you were pondering history I was mulling a career as an English prof., something grad students in the field counseled against. The reason: a glutted and gloomy job market. So I put aside my acceptance at the Univ. of Va. (where they would have made a gentleman out of me, one teacher said) and became a scribbler for the popular prints. The cost-benefit analysis and risk-reward ratio weighed in favor of journalism.

    Has that risk-reward changed anew, against journalism? Perhaps. But the calculation today is different. Back then, we didn't have the advent of new media, the growth of something as revolutionary as the Net. It has already created opportunities we've not seen before. Sites like politico.com and news- and feature-oriented operations like the new AOL are reinventing journalism. For the moment, it's impossible to ignore the buggy-whip makers who are disappearing and it's hard to see just who will replace them.

    I believe the demand for information won't disappear. And we in the the J-Schools now are trying to equip our kids to serve that up however it is demanded. Some will wind up in the brave new journalism world, but those who don't won't be ill-served by their educations either.

    I don't believe you were ill-served by your history schooling. I occasionally regret not pursuing advanced English studies. But is there any percentage in regretting the road not taken (to mix up references to economics and poetry)? The kids will be alright.
    JW

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