Though googling can be a helpful strategy with some difficult life questions, typing “Is journalism school worth it?” into the search engine yields mixed results. Some commentators say it’s still a necessity; others argue that j-school graduates don’t get much out of the experience except crippling student debt. The contentious back-and-forth is only a reminder of how fractured the topic has become.
As a student considering j-school, I didn’t find an answer to the question at Saturday’s “Classrooms as Newsrooms” conference at the Columbia Journalism School. Still, the conference did provide a glimpse into the efforts of journalism schools to bridge the gap between theoretical and practical education. Beginning with the premise that a j-school education is valuable, faculty members and media representatives discussed how schools could best equip students to succeed in an ever-changing industry. A series of panels covered wide ground, including best practices of j-schools across the country, the value of partnerships with news outlets, and innovative projects in journalism.
In the first panel, “How Faculty Teach in the Real World,” faculty representatives from five journalism schools discussed (and sometimes disagreed on) their teaching methods. Journalism schools increasingly have moved toward a “teaching hospital” model, noted Columbia dean Bill Grueskin, which simulates the circumstances professional journalists encounter in the industry. The goal there is to give students as much real-world experience as possible. To that end, j-school faculty are sometimes editors as much as professors—the “attendings” of the media business, so to speak. They oversee the coverage that students produce before pitching the pieces to real news outlets.
Still, not all schools interpret the teaching hospital model in the same way. Jason Begay, the director of the Native News Honors Project at the University of Montana School of Journalism, described a “class [that] functions like a full-blown newsroom” and sends students to report stories on a reservation. Students at Medill adhere to a structured schedule with classes from 9am to 6pm, Monday through Friday, with occasional evening classes. “With the intensity of the program, we really need to be with the students essentially all day, every day,” explained Medill faculty member Ellen Shearer.
To give students practical experience and a platform for their work, j-schools often partner with media outlets. Medill, for instance, partners with the The Washington Post, Florida International University with the Miami Herald. Students often spend a portion of their time working from the bureau of one of these partners. Though they hope to get bylines, it’s not a given that their articles will be published.
“It’s gotta be something that the paper wants to run,” said John Sullivan, the investigative reporter-in-residence at American University and a reporter at The Washington Post, in a later panel. “It can’t be charity work.”
The value of these partnerships is still debatable. Marc Cooper, a professor at the University of Southern California, came down firmly against them, saying the j-school news site, Neon Tommy, gives students at USC freedom to develop voice, and challenges them to assert themselves as journalists without the backing of a big-name newspaper. Despite a title that could double as the name of a male strip club, Neon Tommy won 10 LA Press Club awards in 2012. On the few occasions that USC’s j-school has worked with media partners, Cooper has a take-it-or-leave-it stance. The j-school sets the terms of of the partnership. Partners should know j-schools are “doing them a favor,” he said, not the other way around.
Cooper’s perspective might have been a little bullish—it set off a string of rebuttals from other panel members. But it’s certainly working for students at USC. His method also seems most true to the teaching-hospital model, with students producing their own news outlet with real stakes, albeit in a controlled environment. Neon Tommy also gets around one of the stickier issues in journalism education: whether media partners should pay students for their work. Most partners do not, as a quick poll of the panelists showed. The news outlets get free content while giving students valuable access to a real-life newsroom and the chance to see their names in print.