Dina Cappiello, who covers environmental issues out of The Associated Press’s D.C. bureau, has worked at some half dozen news outlets since she completed Columbia’s dual-degree program in 1999. She says she has managed to stay “one step ahead of the crashing wave” of layoffs that has battered the industry. And having an environmental degree has, at times, been a nuisance when applying for jobs where editors mistook her for an environmentalist or didn’t understand the need for the rigorous scientific training she received. But once on the job, Cappiello adds, editors always recognized the value of her training, and never more so than over the last couple years.
“You have legislation on Capitol Hill that rivals the environmental statutes of the 1970s, at the beginning of the environmental movement,” she says. “You have an administration that made climate and energy its number-two priority, behind healthcare. It’s a beat that I, as one person, struggle at times to keep up with, and I wouldn’t be able to cover it as well as I do without my experience and training. At my last job at Energy & Environment Publishing, there were ten people that break my beat into ten slices.”
More recent graduates of Columbia’s dual-degree program also affirmed the value of their education, but tended to support the decision to spend a year re-evaluating its financing and direction. Most of those interviewed for this piece seem optimistic about their own prospects, but less so about the outlook for future graduates. According to Kastens’ most recent records, only two of the nine graduates in the last three years has found a full-time staff job in journalism; although many have landed coveted internships and others are happily freelancing.
“I may be a bit unusual but I never was seeking gainful employment, and I am still not,” Justin Nobel, who graduated in 2007, wrote in e-mail from Micronesia, where he is working on a story. “I am after a way to stitch together a life that allows me to explore science and culture and get paid for it. Columbia’s program has given me the credibility, confidence, and work ethic to be able to do that. I have been able to get paying gigs at small newspapers and mainstream magazines, while harnessing opportunities on the side.”
Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, says the future of the dual-degree program comes down to a “matter of money.” If the journalism school can raise enough to provide students with “substantial” tuition support, they will return, be believes.
Venkat Srinivasan, who was accepted into the dual-degree class of 2010 and opted to enroll only in Columbia’s one-year journalism program instead, says the decision was largely financial. “I couldn’t afford a two-year cost, and the scholarship was never going to be enough to make it more attractive than a one-year program,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It was difficult at first, but money quickly decided everything.”
Finding more financial support for the dual-degree problem will be difficult for many complicated reasons that involve a lot of inside academic baseball. Basically, the program’s strength is also its Achilles heel. It compartmentalizes the education into a year of immersion in the sciences and a second year in the journalism school, but neither the science departments at Columbia nor the school of journalism take real ownership of the program.
Lemann says he’d “very much like to find a way to reawaken the dual-degree program,” but concedes that it belongs to a “far-flung corner of the realm” and that it is not one of his top priorities. “A lot depends on donors,” he said. “If I encounter a donor who says, ‘I have a passion for better environmental journalism,’ then I’d say, ‘Great. I’ve got a great idea for you.’”
Fagin says the financial aid budget of NYU’s program has not increased since before he took the job in 2005, but applications have remained steady and the percentage of students who accept offers to enroll has never been higher. NYU’s sixteen-month program is about $30,000 less than Columbia’s two-year program, however, which costs nearly $89,000. Columbia also offers a separate, one-year master’s in science journalism, but what makes the dual-degree program unique is the rigorous hands-on lab and fieldwork in environmental science.