Journalism in the classroom

A weekend workshop at Columbia explored how to help j-school students succeed

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.

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.

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Naomi Sharp is a CJR intern