Yes, more than ever
One of the things we teach in journalism school is the need to scrutinize your sources’ motives. Why are these people talking to you? What’s in it for them?
So let’s start with a little disclosure: I’m a professor and former academic dean at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism (which also publishes this journalism review). My salary and benefits depend, in large part, on ensuring that a steady stream of students continue to enroll and pay tuition here.
Could anyone be more biased?
Perhaps not. But give me a few minutes, anyway, because these ideas are based more on the 30 years of journalism work I did before Columbia, and the changes I’ve seen in the industry since, than on the nearly 10 years I’ve been on campus.
The best place to start is in Baltimore, 1981, when I was a rookie reporter for a feisty, beleaguered evening newspaper, the News-American.
One day, the paper sent me to cover a shooting south of the city. A police officer had pulled over a motorist, then shot and killed the man as he attempted to retrieve his vehicle registration from the trunk of his car. I headed to the scene, interviewed the police spokesman and some neighbors, and drove to a pay phone to call the rewrite desk.
The editor typed up my dictation and then asked me: “While I’ve got you . . . what’s the middle initial of that police spokesman?”
I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to look like I’d forgotten to get such basic information. So, figuring—idiotically—that I could correct it once I got off the phone, I replied with my 1-in-26 guess: “Um, I believe that his middle initial is . . . M.”
The editor screamed, “His middle initial is S. It is not M. And if you ever fuck up something so basic again, I will fire you on the spot!”
I tell that story because it helps to explain why I didn’t go to journalism school. It also helps to explain why I think young reporters ought to consider it.
The News-American died in 1986. But what that newspaper, and that editor, represented—the kind of in-house training that many news organizations were known for—is dying out as well.
Of course, journalists need certain qualities that can’t be taught: curiosity, intelligence, and empathy, among others. But a lot can be taught, and learned, in journalism—how to distinguish a great story from a good one, how to get people to talk, how to verify information, how to use digital tools to create and distribute your journalism, how not to get sued, or how to defend yourself if you do.
I didn’t go to journalism school, because I understood that most newsrooms had editors who would kick my ass if I got something wrong, and who would train me to be the reporter I wanted to be.
Some newsrooms still have editors who will teach you that, but there are fewer all the time. One reason is financial: If you’re a publisher who has to cut a budget, the editing desk is often the first place to go. And another reason is the ethos of some digital startups, which hold (wrongly, in my view) that errors can be corrected in real time as readers tell the reporter (or the world, via Twitter) what was screwed up.
So the traditional career path for journalists doesn’t teach what it used to. It doesn’t mean that young journalists don’t need to know those things. It just means they’re not as likely to learn them on the job.
Many young journalists will never work in a traditional newsroom. That’s great, but that means they could, very early in their careers, be posting their own stories and headlines with little or no oversight.
Which brings us to another reason for journalism school.
I messed up a few stories when I was a reporter, but there’s almost no way to find my corrections, short of looking through archives at libraries in Bismarck, Tampa, and Baltimore. But now, if you make a serious mistake, it becomes part of your digital trail, not just for a few weeks after the story is published, but for years. A journalism degree won’t prevent you from ever making a mistake, but it will give you the knowledge you’ll need to avoid making most of the worst ones.
So those are some of the defensive reasons for coming to J-school. But there are offensive ones as well.
The main one is this: Many journalism schools are becoming hothouses of innovation and research for the news business. This is a big shift. J-schools used to see themselves largely as training grounds for the cannon fodder that would head off to local radio and TV stations and newspapers. They failed to recognize the historic role universities have played in providing insight and research for industries.
That is changing, and fast. Journalism professors have seen how timidity and slow-wittedness have hampered the news business, and they’re responding, either because they fear the consequences of a shrinking job market on enrollment, or because they understand the opportunity and duty that confront higher education.
At Northwestern University, journalism students in the NUvention program and the Knight Lab Studio work with professors in engineering and communications to design tech-driven projects in media.
Arizona State University students are working with faculty and companies to invent new ways of doing local broadcast journalism—a field that has for too long relied on the same, tired “Back to you,
New York University’s journalism program has teamed up with the Netherlands’ De Correspondent platform to figure out how to engage readers so thoroughly that they’ll sustain a robust investigative news site.
And close to home, Columbia’s Tow Center has led the way on critical research about digital journalism; as just one example, look at its examination of how Russian ad networks manipulated Facebook’s lax controls. Meanwhile, the Brown Center for Media Innovation funds grants for joint projects between
students in Columbia’s journalism and Stanford University’s computer-science programs.
Not every journalism student will take part in such projects, and many will stick with traditional training in newswriting or broadcast skills, or take a stab at data analysis and visualization. But the impact of these programs spreads beyond those who participate; at forward-looking schools, they raise the bar for even the most tradition-bound faculty.
We’re fortunate in this country that journalists are neither licensed nor regulated. No government body requires reporters or editors to have a degree, and I’ve never met a journalism professor or dean who suggests that should change. Many journalists, including those starting and ending their careers, have done illustrious work without formal training.
And any undergraduate journalism program should leave students room to take courses in literature, history, and economics, while ensuring they hone their writing and numeracy skills.
But a strong journalism program will help young reporters challenge their presumptions and prejudices, will encourage them to meet people and go to neighborhoods outside their comfort zone, and will force them to develop the resilience that journalists need, especially now.
The best programs will also enable students to develop the intellectual dexterity to deal with unending technological change, so journalism can emerge more interesting and more dynamic than ever before.
No, and they should not exist
When it comes to journalism school, there are two questions. The first is the tough one, and was asked and answered by Michael Lewis in a blistering (and very funny) takedown in The New Republic in 1993: Is it all bullshit? The answer then was a clear yes.
In the 25 years since Lewis wrote his article, the occupation of journalism has become more precarious than ever: Joseph Pulitzer’s plan to “raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession” rings hollow in an age of Chartbeat, post quotas, and pay-per-pageview. If you meet a theologian today, or a lawyer, or a doctor, it’s reasonable to assume they have studied deeply and learned a lot in order to do their job. That’s not the case with journalism, nor should it be; even J-school’s staunchest defenders don’t consider a journalism degree to be a necessary prerequisite for anybody entering the field.
Thus have the contours of the debate stood for at least a quarter century. On one side, we find people who think a journalism degree can be a useful way to learn skills that come in handy while editing and reporting; on the other, more perspicacious types look around, see that many of the greatest journalists have no such degree, and can find no evidence that a J-school education correlates in any way with better work.
Perhaps it is worth asking a more pointed question: Should J-school even exist?
For anybody on Lewis’s side of the original question, the answer is easy. If J-school is indeed bullshit, if it adds no value to the world, if it has signally failed in more than a century of existence to raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession—well, then, it has no real ability to justify its existence, and the world would be better off without it. But the fact is that everybody should concede that the world would be better off without J-school, no matter how noble they consider Pulitzer’s original undertaking.
Indeed, the more useful J-school is, the more urgent and important its abolition becomes. A useless J-school is a waste of time and money for those who go there, offset by the benefit that accrues to teachers and other recipients of the students’ tuition. The net effect is negative, but the only people suffering real harm are the students. What’s more, it’s easy to avoid that harm: Don’t go to J-school. But what if the J-school defenders are right? What if J-school students really do end up with a significant advantage over those who don’t share their credentials? In that case, even more people are harmed.
J-school attendees might get a benefit from their journalism degree, but it comes at an eye-watering cost. The price tag of the Columbia Journalism School, for instance, is $105,820 for a 10-month program, $147,418 for a 12-month program, or $108,464 per year for a two-year program. That’s a $216,928 graduate degree, on top of all the costs associated with gaining the undergraduate prerequisites. (Columbia, it seems important to say, is also the publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, the publication you’re now reading.)
There are also substantial opportunity costs. Once you’ve graduated from a four-year college, you’re eminently employable, and can enter the workforce immediately. If you delay your career by another year or two, you lose out on a significant amount of income as well as valuable professional experience. Even if you start working in journalism at minimum wage, after a year or two you’re still going to be richer, more experienced, more employable, and almost certainly more skilled than someone who’s spent that time getting a grad-school degree.
But what about the people who choose not to go to J-school? Here’s their problem: When you’re looking for that entry-level foot in the door, you’re going to be competing against applicants a year or two older than you who have just spent six figures getting themselves a Columbia degree. And if that credential is worth even marginally more than nothing, those candidates are going to be more attractive to employers, and more likely to get the job.
The result is a crowding-out effect, whereby job-hunting J-school graduates, having already caused themselves substantial financial harm, then go on to harm any aspiring journalistic employee who was smart enough not go to J-school.
What does that mean in practice? It means a much less diverse workforce, at a time when newsroom diversity has perhaps never been more important. If you’re poor, or working-class, or a rural person of color, or mobility-constrained, or a single mother struggling to bring up multiple children, or otherwise part of a group that has historically been underrepresented in newsrooms, is it possible for you to go to J-school? Sure. Is it likely? Not in the slightest. Is it advisable? It is not.
Yet you’re exactly the kind of person news organizations should be spending more effort bringing into their ranks. Carl Bernstein never went to college; the journalistic profession needs more of his ilk, not fewer.
The best and simplest way to move toward that goal would be to abolish the graduate journalism degree entirely. That would help to level the playing field, while saving students billions of dollars in tuition. Better yet, it would bring the industry back to a model of on-the-job training. People wanting to enter the profession would get paid to learn the ropes. It’s more effective, it’s infinitely more real, and it focuses the mind: No one’s going to fire you from J-school if you misspell the mayor’s name in a headline.
Rather than putting money and effort into expensive trainee programs, news organizations no doubt will attempt to outsource their training to journalism schools, thereby getting someone else (anybody else!) to pay the cost. It’s a false economy, because a well-run trainee or internship program is not only cheaper than J-school, it’s also vastly more valuable.
So let’s abolish J-school, or at the very least turn it into a purely academic subject no one can mistake for vocational training. By doing so, we will force the training back into the newsrooms, where it belongs.
Maybe, but cost is key
A teacher living in Indiana contacted me on Twitter early this spring. She is a former Teach for America corps member (as am I), and she’d just been accepted into Columbia Journalism School, of which I am an alumna. We had a lot in common: She is black. She studied journalism as an undergraduate student and completed several journalism internships. She’d taken an unexpected detour into the classroom. And now she was ready to write.
She wanted to know if I’d talk to her about my experience at Columbia. It was her dream school, she said, and she had a decision to make.
Debates over the necessity of a graduate-level journalism education aren’t new. For years, working journalists have gathered into familiar camps to argue their points (see the two pieces preceding this one). Most people agree that journalism is a trade—there are rules and norms, and much of the reporting process involves skills that can be taught, refined, and updated. But where reporters should learn those skills—in a classroom or in a newsroom—remains a topic of hot debate.
Meantime, journalism schools have enjoyed their own version of the so-called Trump Bump (which also has goosed subscription numbers at news outlets around the country). A MarketWatch article published in mid-March reported on an increase in journalism school applications at universities around the country. Applications to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism (which houses both undergraduate and graduate degree programs) spiked 19 percent over the past four years, and the school saw a record number of first-year journalism majors this year. Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications saw a 24 percent spike in undergraduate journalism applications over the last school year. And Columbia’s graduate program saw a 10 percent increase this year.
Those reports inspired a round of spirited, sometimes scathing debate about the worth of a journalism degree. Sopan Deb, a culture writer for The New York Times, said on Twitter that he wasn’t suggesting journalism school had no benefits, but to “let internships be your J-school.”
“ . . . is it worth tens of thousands in loans for a profession you will mostly learn on your own in the industry? No good journalist learns the craft inside a classroom. Like, you wouldn’t trust a doctor who didn’t go to med school. But there are a bunch of highly respected journalists who didn’t go to school for it. (And bad ones who did.)”
Hamilton Nolan, a writer at Splinter News, was blunter. In an article titled “J-School Is a Scam,” he advised wannabe reporters to simply dig up news, write it down, and then “find someone to pay you to do this activity.”
Both sides tend eventually to zero in on the breathtaking costs of a graduate journalism school program. (The current estimated cost for a full-time master of science student at Columbia, a 10-month program, is $105,820, a truly bonkers amount given the median salary of working journalists.)
Newsrooms, Nolan points out, are still stubbornly homogeneous and not at all reflective of the communities they cover. Prohibitive costs make journalism school applicant pools less, not more, diverse. He’s right. But so do fellowships and internships that don’t pay living wages or, like so many jobs in journalism, rely on the narrow halls of nepotism and connections that routinely shut out marginalized people, the same people who are desperately needed in newsrooms across the country and have been for decades. If journalism school is an imperfect, excessively expensive “scam,” then so are the tuition-less routes that have failed to produce the diverse news corps many say they want. The bottom line is that both—journalism school and the job market—exist within the same system of inequitable capitalism. Mocking a person’s hesitance to trust that system, instead of denouncing the system itself, is a bit rich.
Entering the field of journalism requires convincing someone to give you a shot. And it’s easy for white men or anyone who enjoys some measure of privilege to underestimate just how incredibly difficult this can be for people of color, for women, for queer or disabled or low-income reporters. Rachelle Hampton, an editorial assistant at Slate, makes this point in a rebuttal to Nolan’s article:
“ . . . the recycled take that journalism school is fundamentally useless is one that not only lacks nuance but one that assumes that the industry is a meritocracy. It’s not.”
When I started looking into a graduate degree in journalism, I did so with the primary aim of increasing my chances at tapping into the cronyism that the industry continues to fuel. I wasn’t so naive as to believe a degree alone would get me the job I wanted; I understood that a degree wouldn’t help me skip the line, so much as it would familiarize me with the people who decide who even gets to stand in it.
In my mind, journalism school wouldn’t be a guarantee, but an opportunity—to practice and, perhaps more importantly, make relationships with people who could help me begin to build a career, people I had no real access to from Hawaii, where I lived when I applied. I looked at financing my degree like it was an investment. There was risk, but the potential payoff might be worth it. Then I looked at the cost of tuition at Columbia; that year, it cost $51,656, excluding fees. It scared the hell out of me, and maybe that’s why I allowed my own insecurity to convince myself that getting in was a long shot, even if it was a way to help me break into the industry.
I was in the parking lot of a bank, as it happens, when I found out I’d been accepted. The following weeks were filled with early morning phone calls with my mom on the East Coast, six hours ahead, as we crunched numbers and considered what attending would mean for my financial future. My mother had financed law school in the 1980s with a loan that took her about 20 years to pay back; she owed $35,000 and ultimately paid about $70,000. She understood the long-term impact of loans and high interest rates. We considered how much money I was likely to make as a journalist; I was worried my salary wouldn’t live up to the bills I’d be responsible for. But my mom seemed sure that, over time, if I hustled, I’d earn a decent wage and, with some budgetary discipline, be able to make monthly payments. And I’d be lying if the prestige of having been accepted to an Ivy League institution—the first in my family—didn’t mean something to my parents, and thus to me.
By the time I decided to enroll, I’d already written off a future in which I purchased property; I started to view graduate school as my life’s proverbial house.
Columbia initially offered me a $7,000 scholarship, and later increased that amount to $9,150. I didn’t receive any other aid until my second semester, when I was awarded two other scholarships that brought my total to $14,596.
The hefty cost of attending weighed on me. I was surprised to have been offered so little financial aid. I recently asked 16 of my cohorts from the 2014 class for details on how they paid for journalism school. While the sample is not representative of my entire class, 75 percent of those I spoke with were offered university scholarships of amounts ranging from $1,500 to $20,000. Just over half said they used personal savings or received help from family members paying for tuition and other costs.
Seven respondents took out one or more federal loans to pay for tuition and living expenses, ranging from $20,400 to $90,000. And four respondents borrowed money from private banks, ranging from $35,000 to $70,000. Just writing the numbers here pains me.
In the end, I took out two federal loans—one subsidized—to pay for my tuition and for living expenses the year I was out of work. In total, I borrowed $82,778.69. I’m on a 25-year, income-based repayment plan, and I send about $325 per month to Navient.
The year I enrolled at Columbia, the program did away with its traditional tracking system. Students instead were allowed to take courses across a range of media, including video production, data, reporting and writing, radio, and television. Some classes, like the required audience and engagement course, were new (and deemed unhelpful by many of us). But others, like a narrative writing course I took in the fall, taught me how to report, organize, and write a longform story reported over several months—skills I’d need two years later when I got my first national magazine assignment from an editor at Harper’s. An education reporting class taught by working journalists helped me transition out of being an educator and into learning how to report on one. One instructor, who was still actively writing for The New York Times, ran that class like a newsroom, and I am better for it. But how core classes ran depended largely on which professors you were assigned, and so the experience was inconsistent. We spent a huge portion of our 10 months in school working on a 5,000-word thesis that, for most of us, would never be published. Many of my classmates walked away feeling like the curriculum was lacking—in some ways, significantly.
But I can’t ignore that just being a student at the school put me in a position to meet people who would, for nearly every job opportunity I had post-graduation, help me get hired. I did an internship at The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit education news outlet, the summer after I graduated; the organization chooses its interns almost exclusively from the education reporting class I took in the spring.
I spent two years as a fellow with the Columbia-based Teacher Project, where I was part of a team that acted as the education vertical for Slate. And after a year working first as a fellow and later as a staff writer at The Village Voice, I contacted my old professor Vanessa Gezari, then CJR’s managing editor, and she encouraged me to apply for what would become my current position at CJR.
That I have a degree from Columbia isn’t what matters. What does is that being a student here, particularly as a black woman, opened doors that may otherwise have stayed closed. Columbia has helped, and continues to help, me get not only in the line, but in the room. Even some of my most trusted mentors—people unaffiliated with Columbia—I met because of stories I chased as a student.
Has all of that been worth $82,778.69 in debt, plus interest? My debt didn’t happen to me. I made a choice to borrow money, and today, I feel confident saying I regret taking out the loans. They have been the root of much worry and stress and anxiety over the past four years. Though my salary has risen steadily since I graduated, I still make less than $70,000. In New York City, that doesn’t go far, even for a single person with no children.
I eventually called the teacher from Indiana, and we spoke at length about my experience at Columbia and about the kind of future she saw for herself in journalism. She has so far been offered no financial aid from Columbia, though she’s been working a second job for several months to save money and is applying for external scholarships. And she’s been accepted to two other journalism schools.
I told her what I tell everyone: Journalism school, especially at a place like Columbia (though not exclusively so), has real benefits to offer. But you shouldn’t go unless you can secure significant funding to pay for it. I can’t in good conscience encourage anyone—especially a woman of color, given the ever-stubborn wage gap—to incur the kind of debt I did, even if it will help open doors. I encouraged her to look into CUNY, a state school that, even for non-New Yorkers, costs half as much as both Columbia and Northwestern, the other schools she was accepted to, and offered financial aid (although both require you to stay out of the full-time workforce for two years, a big reason I gravitated away from those schools during my own search).
For now, my mental health requires that I not denigrate myself for understanding that opportunities are not handed out equally—having sought a way to give myself a chance at the career I wanted, even if it has cost me in ways I can’t yet see. Even if I won’t push someone else to take the same route. If anything, the persistence of this debate demonstrates less about the “right” or “wrong” way to learn journalism, and more about the multigenerational failure, from classroom to newsroom, to make the industry truly inclusive.
Response to Salmon from Grueskin
I always enjoy Felix Salmon’s writing. I enjoy it even more when it’s accompanied by reporting.
And there’s the problem with his anti–J-school screed. There’s no evidence of interviews with students, faculty, or alumni. Indeed, outside of a 1993 New Republic article and a few references to tuition costs, Salmon spends most of his time mooshing antiquated views of journalism education with a vaporous claim that J-school degrees further inequality in newsrooms.
It’s useful to remember that journalism education occurs at many places beyond the southeast corner of 116th Street and Broadway (where Columbia’s graduate school sits). There are more than 100 journalism programs—many of them undergraduate—around the US, and dozens more overseas.
Salmon’s main point, though, appears to be that journalism schools spit out an elite layer of young reporters who crowd out diverse, lower-income people from the business.
But Salmon didn’t need to leave his cubicle to learn the problem with that idea. He could’ve simply clicked a few times on Twitter and seen this recent thread from Lydia Polgreen, a Columbia alumna who became editor in chief of The Huffington Post after an illustrious career as a foreign correspondent at The New York Times: “There is approximately zero chance I would have ended up with the career I have without the networks I built at journalism school,” she wrote, citing a Slate article by Rachelle Hampton, another African-American journalist. (Hampton graduated from Northwestern.)
I’m sure many journalism instructors would be happy to have Salmon stop by, so he can see what is taught and learned in their classrooms. And they might enjoy reading the column that would come from doing the reporting we teach every day.
Response to Grueskin from Salmon
I’ve been a professional reporter for 23 years, during which time I’ve never known, nor felt the need to know, the middle initial of any spokesperson. And while I’m sure there are lots of people at Columbia J-School with smart social-media insights and digital photography skills, I doubt most of them are on the faculty. I also defy you to find me a decent journalist whose bullshit detector doesn’t automatically start ringing whenever she’s pitched a program bearing a name like “NUvention.”
Bill Grueskin seems to agree with me that on-the-job training is better than going to J-school. But I reject his defeatist attitude that today’s journalists can no longer learn on the job. And I certainly reject his
privileged and elitist stance that the enormous financial costs of J-school are so trivial as to not be worth mentioning even once.
Still, I’m happy to let a third party decide this debate. Let’s find that grizzled Baltimore editor and ask him whether he would advise anybody to spend $216,928 on a two-year graduate journalism degree, or whether it’s conscionable to offer such a degree in the first place. I suspect the answer will be brief, and unambiguous.
TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Sonia Pulido