Or so the argument goes. It’s not entirely convincing, and not only because I suspect my future landlord won’t accept a collection of bylines in lieu of a rent check. The no-pay expectation also puts students who need to earn money at a distinct disadvantage. Juggling an extra job with the heavy workload (and heavy tuition) of journalism school shouldn’t be a necessity for some students and not for others. More and more journalists have been pointing out in the past few years that expecting to be paid doesn’t make you a head-in-the-clouds idealist; it makes you a professional. If a piece is good enough to be published in the Post, it should follow that it’s good enough to be paid work—whether or not the journalist is a student.
The Columbia Journalism School, to its credit, is one of the few institutions with a policy of turning down partners that don’t pay. It also discourages students from accepting unpaid internships. As Columbia j-school Dean of Academic Affairs Bill Grueskin argued, writing for free doesn’t do any favors to journalists long out of j-school who still deal with requests to write for nothing. “There’s a little ickiness associated,” he said,” with student journalists doing their work for free taking the place of paid journalists doing their jobs.”
Other challenges to media partnerships surfaced in the second panel, “What News Organizations Want.” Mary Ann Giordano, an editor at The New York Times, noted: “Here’s what’s problematic—here’s the you-asked-for-it part—what [news orgs] really want is control.” Newsrooms are less willing to publish student content if they don’t have a chance to shape it themselves.
Newsrooms also want extra body parts—or at least, that seemed to be the gist of Giordano’s call for eyes, ears, and legs. They want students who can pitch ideas, take notes at conferences, knock on doors, and pull relevant information from databases. She also listed several common problems with student work, including using too few sources for a story. “We get topics rather than story ideas,” she continued. “We get weak writing without flair. We get a lot of things that come to us that are regurgitations of what we’ve already written.” She thinks truth-squadding is a good way for young journalists to pick up skills, since “you can’t learn reporting better than figuring out who’s lying.”
Other panels followed, including an impressive group of recent j-school alums, but the interaction between j-schools and newsrooms was most memorable. The discussion didn’t convince me j-school is the right decision for anyone trying to be a journalist. Some aspects of j-school don’t seem to allow much room for creative freedom, though approaches like Neon Tommy are exciting because they give students that ownership over their work.
“Classrooms as Newsrooms” made a convincing case that journalism schools are not—by any means—irrelevant. And I did pick up a Columbia j-school brochure on the way out.