Recommendations from journalism profs

CJR asked eight J-school professors what they wished they’d read and listened to before starting out

The Columbia campus is suddenly flooded with new students, some of them young journalists about to embark on the 10-month whirlwind that is a master’s at the Graduate School of Journalism. In honor of the incoming class, we asked some of our Columbia Journalism School professors what material they wish they’d got their hands on before they started out. Here are their recommendations:

Bill Grueskin, Academic Dean:

A Time to Die, by Tom Wicker, a gripping account of the Attica prison uprising; Interview with History, by Oriana Fallaci, a selection of interviews by a passionate reporter; and Follow The Story by James Stewart, an excellent guide to making sense of narrative. (This was also recommended by Professor Hancock, who writes: “I assign James Stewart’s Follow The Story, to all my masters project students, because it’s a wonderfully practical guide from a master journalist to building a complex story, from idea to the published result.”)

Emily Bell, digital media:

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, as he is a wonderful writer and early advocate for the social web. Even if you don’t agree with his hypotheses, his explanation of disruption in communications and how it has sparked a golden age of self expression is a magnificent read.

Kevin Coyne, narrative writing:

J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, a book not just about the school-busing crisis in Boston, but about class and race in America’s cities. Deep, complex, with a swift and arresting foreground narrative — the gold standard of narrative nonfiction.

LynNell Hancock, education:

Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, for pure storytelling enjoyment. Then return to the first few pages and work through all the vast reporting that went into each sentence, each quote, each nuance, each conclusion. Kate spent three and a half years in one of the most miserable places on earth, “a sumpy plug of a slum” outside Mumbai, and managed to recreate that world with lyrical writing and fresh understanding. She neither condescends to her subjects, nor sinks into predictable conclusions. And she does it all with the gritty skills of a curious reporter, combing through reams of public documents, hours of interviews, weeks inside courtrooms and police stations. It’s a book that shows new reporters what is possible in this profession they have just chosen, and what hard work is needed to get there.

Ann Cooper, international reporting:

The Giant Pool of Money takes a complex moment in recent U.S. history — the 2008 economic crisis — and explains (with greater clarity than just about anything written on the subject) how banks came to make so many mortgages to people who were lousy risks, who profited from that, how that evolved into the housing crisis that is still reverberating through the U.S. economy, and how all of that tied in to the Wall Street and banking crises. And — it’s all told in an engrossing audio story. No visuals, yet the storytellers introduce you to characters so vivid you can see them and their situations with greater clarity than if they were part of a video piece. This was an early effort by public radio journalists who developed the Planet Money reporting project, which explores innovative ways of telling complicated economic stories that have significant impact on our everyday lives. Masterful, sometimes entertaining, sometimes poignant, storytelling. One of the best pieces of American journalism in any medium in the last several years.

Paula Span, profiles:

This is one of my favorite examples, over recent decades, of knock-out narrative non-fiction, long-form division. A book that showed me what was possible. And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts is a sweeping chronicle of the early years of the AIDS epidemic by a gutsy, tireless, infuriated San Francisco Chronicle reporter. Shilts, generally acknowledged the first openly gay reporter at a major U.S. newspaper, saw what was coming, saw how willing most Americans were to turn away, and researched his book (meticulously) for five or six years — during which the president of the United States famously declined to say the word AIDS. Shilts preserved a history that might have been lost, as the disease claimed victims, caregivers, organizers, protestors. In 1994, it killed him, too.

Helen Benedict, social justice:

The First Casualty by Philip Knightley. This is a history of war reporting in both the US and the UK from the Crimean War until today — in other words, a history of reporting, censorship and the relationship between journalists and the government. Knightley writes in lively, lucid prose, and will give students a perspective that will inform everything they read from now on.

Richard R. John, history of communication:

Paul Starr’s Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (2004) is the best single-volume history of American communications policy. Though Starr only takes the story up to the Second World War, his analysis of the political context in which communications media (including journalism) has evolved provides a welcome corrective to common assumptions about the relationship of the government and the press.

Richard Wald, media and society:

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, an almost-true account of newspaper reporting in Africa that is well-written, funny, and depressingly accurate.

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,