AUGUST 13, 2009 12:50PM

Let's be honest about J-school

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By Patrick Thornton: It's time for me to be frank about why you should or should not attend journalism school and the reality of what J-schools represent.

Do not under any pretext attend journalism school -- undergrad or graduate -- with the mission of working for a large metro or some other established, old-media publication. While you may be able to get a job at one of those, don't count on it. Not for a second.

If you're not willing to work on the Web, do more than write, get your hands dirty with code, blog, be a social media pro, etc, than journalism isn't for you. If you don't like turmoil, seek a different career. Journalism is going through a massive transformation right now, and unfortunately most journalism schools are not preparing students for those transformations. 

Here are some of my thoughts on J-school:

"Top-ranked" J-schools -- Every top-ranked J-school list I've ever seen looks straight out of the 1980s. Sure if you want to work for a big metro newspaper (before, you know, they all started firing people en masse, filing for bankruptcies and shutting down) many of these "top" programs were the way to go. Still, look around at many of the biggest news organizations in the country. Many employees don't have a journalism degree.

I don't want to pick on Columbia University (a lot of great journalists have come out of this program), but this post from a Columbia J-student and its comments got me thinking about this subject. In the comments after this post, people routinely cite Columbia as a top program. It was a top program a decade or two ago. 

Any list of "top programs" is going to be horribly outdated (and usually only exposed by graduates of said programs). Those programs were some of the best for years, but many of them rested on their laurels and have outdated curriculums. 

Now, Columbia is maybe the third best program in New York City. I'm serious.

I'd take the project-based Studio 20 at New York University (students work on different projects with differing skills each term) or CUNY's entrepreneurial program over Columbia's outdated curriculum any day of the week. 

Here is the rub: If you're going to attend a journalism program -- especially a graduate program -- you want to be in a program that will teach you how to start your own projects and be entrepreneurial. You want a program that realizes that the (social) Web is the present and future of journalism.

David Cohn, perhaps the most accomplished recent Columbia J-school grad, has been conflicted about his time at Columbia. From talking with him and studying his career, I'm not sure that his time at Columbia had much impact on his career arc. But this is what he had to say on his blog

What I do regret is the student debt that I still have on my shoulders. The reason J-school worked out for me: I was a part-time student and continued to work while I was a student. As a result my loans aren’t that bad, I paid some tuition out of pocket.  More importantly, I was WORKING the whole time. I got practical experience while I was in New York. And in truth – I learned more on the job than I did in J-school. And while my connections from Columbia are great (and some would argue the whole point of going to J-school is to make connections) I got more practical and meaningful connections while working. I got to work for folks like Jay Rosen on Without a doubt, that helped bolster my young career.

You can't learn to be David Cohn by going to J-school. You have to want to start something new like Spot.Us and doggedly work at it. Yes, a good J-school could help nurture your instincts and help you forge the road to Journalism Next, but no school can teach you the fire and desire necessary to want to change and improve journalism. 

Professors matter -- It's important to keep in mind that professors matter a lot with journalism school (and moreso at the graduate level). Journalism is in upheaval, you need professors who grok the Web, social media, multimedia, Web design, etc. You especially want professors who understand the intersection of modern technology and journalism. 

At NYU you get people like Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky, while at CUNY you get Jeff Jarvis. Quality, forward-thinking professors are a major reason I think NYU and CUNY are on a better path right now than Columbia.

Here are some more: Mindy McAdams at Florida, Dan Gillmor at Arizona State, Stacy Spaulding at Towson, Paul Bradshaw at Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom, etc. Those are the kinds of people I'd want to study with.

If a professor doesn't even have a Web site and isn't on social media, I'd be gravely concerned about whether he or she gets where journalism is headed. A quality blog is another thing to look for in a professor. I'm serious. 

Undergrad vs. grad school -- There is a big difference between the two. An undergrad journalism degree, at the bare minimum, will teach you how to research, write and report. These are skills applicable to a wide range of fields. Also, right or wrong, having a degree -- any degree -- makes a big difference when it comes to finding a job. 

If you're 21 and you don't have an undergraduate degree, good luck finding a good job these days. Having a degree is important in today's economy, and there are a lot of fields besides journalism that value the skills a journalism degree teaches. 

The math changes with a graduate degree. You already have a degree. The math now involves a cost/benefit analysis of whether or not your second degree will be worth the time and money you lose pursuing it. 

If you really want to become a journalist and you don't have an undergrad journalism degree and you have no journalism experience, a graduate degree may make a lot of sense. A lot of journalists break into journalism by working for campus publications, but that option isn't available to people who have already graduated. I would first try to see if I could get a job working for a small local publication or blog before deciding on graduate J-school, but this is still an instance where it makes a bit of sense to attend graduate school.

If you already have journalism experience and lots of clips, I'd only attend a program that is going to modernize your skills and thought processes (and you're not a self starter). This is where programs that are heavy into entrepreneurism make a lot of sense. 

There are two instances where I'd say attending J-school a second time makes no sense: for connections and to improve your writing skills. 

Connections -- I have a cubic crapload of connections. Virtually none of them came from J-school. My first set of connections came from my personal blog and being active in the journalism blogging community.

Working on BeatBlogging.Org provided another treasure trove of connections. Also, being active on social networks like Twitter and Wired Journalists helped. In general, being a member of the larger journalism community has helped. I love talking about journalism, especially the Future of Journalism, and I spend a lot of my time away from work doing so. That is how you build connections.

Notice two things: I built a lot of my connections online (hey, isn't that where journalism is going?) and in person, at events like ONA and Revenue TwoPointZero. Conferences like ONA and SND are much cheaper than graduate school and much better for building connections.

Other learning options -- J-school is not your only option for learning new skills. Free sites like BeatBlogging.Org can teach you a lot about the nexus of reporting and social media. BeatBlogging.Org was an NYU and Jay Rosen project. Schools that have cool projects like that (or The Nieman Lab or Innovation in College Media) stand out to me. 

Beyond free sites, there are places like Poynter.Org's News U that offer great training in new media skills for a fraction of what a graduate degree costs. There is also and MediaBistro. 

You could sign up for all three sites, learn a bunch of new skills and save a lot of money. That's what we call a win-win-win.

Writing skills are overrated -- If you're thinking about getting a second J-degree to make yourself a better writer, skip it. Reporting is the heart of journalism, not writing. Great writers do things like write novels. Great journalism has been -- and always will be -- about great reporting. 

No amount of great writing will cover up for shoddy reporting. Never. 

If you go back to journalism school, make sure it's to improve and broaden your reporting. If you already have training in how to write, the best way to improve your writing is to do more of it. But I have noticed that many readers prefer broken up lists like this post to long, flowing works of written art (broaden your conception of what writing is on the Web). 

Remember, good journalism is always about serving our audiences, not ourselves. 

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Pat, this is a sensible post (and thank you for the shout-out). I think we might be able to boil it down to two essentials:

1) The actual, specific content of the courses you can take in the journalism program.

2) Who teaches those courses.

For example, say there are two classes called Reporting 1 and Reporting 2. How are they taught, what will you learn, what are the assignments in them? Too few students check this stuff out before they pay their money -- either for grad school or for undergrad. One school's Reporting 1 might be 20 years out of date, and another school's Reporting 1 might be all multimedia.

As for who is teaching -- in a lot of programs, all or most of the skills classes are taught by adjuncts, who come and go like the wind. Some are great and some are not. Some are great journalists and lousy teachers. So it is wise to research who will be teaching you.

This is all true regardless of whether it's a graduate or an undergraduate program.
Gawker had a hilarious piece on this very issue yesterday ("The First Rule of J-School Is You Don't Talk About J-School Debt"). I'd post a link but can't in comments. Scroll through the comments for lots of insights. It was written by a currently-enrolled Columbia J-school student with a decent resume.
I really wish you had penned this post before I started grad school in 2002--though one could argue that the media landscape was different then. I know that while I have learned quite a bit about journalism during my graduate career, it hasn't been the skills I need to compete in today's marketplace. And while I keep trying to mold my professional project into something whereby I can learn these things, I'm finding it hard to learn all I need to learn on my own.
I would mention, however, that my main motivation for attempting a master's degree (beyond doing _something_ while between journalism jobs) was to be able to pursue teaching positions. An advanced degree is still very advantageous for people trying to be professors.
Finally, I would like to remind everyone that if you're going to school to learn the basics, you don't have to go to one of the "top journalism schools" to get a good grounding in reporting, writing or the rest. There are a lot of smaller, less-well-known programs out there that do a great job of teaching students.
I like the way you distinguish between writing and reporting. I need to remind myself of that sometimes. I'm not a journalist, but I'm trying to figure out a way to capitalize on my writing skills one way or another. I'm just experimenting on OS while I substitute teach, but I do notice that there are two (well, more than two) whole different kinds of successful posts--those that "break" news of some sort (even if it's considered "breaking" only to the OS audience or even if it's an analysis of some sort of breaking news) and those that really offer superior prose, whether it's a riff on something personal or public. I tend toward the more thoughtful, longer version of writing and recognize that it doesn't garner near the audience that a simple and quick but timely post on a national subject does. (My only cover was a dashed-off analysis of one of the presidential debates, and its timeliness beat the inevitable repeat of my own initial insight. That piece continues to show up as my most read post.) Anyway, I'm glad to be learning these distinctions as they help me consider my audience and purpose and figure out what the hell my own goals are. (Elusive at this point).
King--what was your undergrad major?

Calling J-school a trade brings back memories of my 80's college years as an English major and all the contempt the head of the English dept had for such skill-based disciplines. He probably didn't use the word "discipline" for journalism, though. Anyway, I agree with you that the reading, writing, and thinking nurtured in a liberal arts education are essential to good reporting, and I've come to realize what a natural "reporter" I am, even though I'm not actually one. I have such an instinct for discovering the truth, and it just comes from within me. It transcends partisanship and tribalism and just leads me to call people to find things out, whether they are people in power or just people running businesses or people on the street. I'm a natural "asker" and a natural skeptic. I tend not to take anybody's word for it and want to see for myself. I skulk around natural disasters, embarrassed to admit to others that I'm one of those showing up at sites of tornadoes (or potentially explosive town hall meetings) taking pictures. As a stay-at-home mom, I nurtured intellectual curiosity in my children, so I'm happy to have transferred something, even if I was never paid for my digging. (I was gratified to see all three of my children leap up from lunch a couple of weeks ago at the sound of sirens near Fisherman's Wharf in SF--they couldn't get there fast enough to witness whatever was going on. I know there are parents who would be embarrassed by such "ambulance chasing" but I recognized the love of truth and independently gained knowledge when I saw it.)
I agree with most of this. It's interesting that a basic J-school degree today isn't worth much more than my basic J-school degree from 1986. That was a particularly crappy time for newspapers and magazines, too. And of course there was no internet.

I would add, though, that lots of talent helps. Not just writing talent, but a talent in terms of having a nose for finding the crux of a story, and for being fearless with a strong backbone. Seymour Hershs and David Halberstams are born, not made.
At 18, I got my first newspaper job at my hometown paper, the Middletown Times-Herald Record, which had a decent circulation. I was a college freshman at the time. At first, I got the usual car fire assignments, but slowly worked my way to some better stuff.

I shared a room with 2 guys who'd been in the business all their lives, veterans who drank and smoked too much. I asked them about journalism school. They both laughed. "Waste of time," one of them said. "Nobody gives a shit. Experience is all that matters."
Lainey, you wrote:

"Calling J-school a trade brings back memories of my 80's college years as an English major and all the contempt the head of the English dept had for such skill-based disciplines. He probably didn't use the word "discipline" for journalism, though."

Boy does that bring back memories. I was also in college in the 80s, in an expensive liberal arts English department, only my interest was technical writing, not journalism. If I'd said I wanted to get a PhD studying Chaucer and starve in a garret, they would have been overjoyed. But to use my precious English degree by making a living in software companies? Oh the horrors!

I do get tired of the academic Pile O Crap that says any worldly use for your arts degree is selling out. Tell that to my accountant.
Oh froggy, if you went into technical writing, then your accountant is much happier than mine! Oh, wait a minute: I can't afford an accountant. :)
I can't believe I'm agreeing with king, but I am. Wholeheartedly. I speak as someone who taught 8 years at a very hands-on journalism school that offered a 2-year certificate as well as a 4-year diploma. All the connections and web skills in the world can't make you a good reporter, much less a good writer. I think it is insane that everyone is supposed to do and excel at everything -- design, html, layout, writing, reporting, social networking -- very few people in fact can be good at all those things simultaneously. Of course the more versatile you are the better to a certain extent, but I see an awful lot of terrible writing and reporting online but hey, I guess as long as those people keep connecting with others, and more powerful others, they'll never be out of a gig. That isn't necessarily any different than how traditional print journalism works, although I do think there is a greater emphasis on quality. Or at least there used to be.
Was Journalism school really the path to the newspaper business? In the 80's? I wouldn't know. It was never that here in Israel, I know that much. I was never under the impression it was in the states, in my adult lifetime at least, but I could be wrong.
Speaking from the side of things where journalists' work is researched to make sense of events and ideas of a time, I really, really want journalists to have the academic background king talks about. I spend a good deal of my day trying to teach students about information literacy, which includes being able to distinguish good, reliable sources from crap. I don't want them using crap to write their own papers. Many of them have no idea what makes a source reliable, and I want to be able to say, "Well, if it's in the newspaper, you can probably trust it." It scares me to think of a generation of journalists that don't have the background in reporting and ethics to verify with multiple sources, so that what they print is reliable and responsible, regardless of what medium they are using to publish. If you don't go to J-School, where do you learn those critical ideas?
I had a burning desire to be a Journalist way back in 1972 and spent one year at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I took not ONE SINGLE Journalism course as an undergrad. I did work on the school paper and learned my skills, as you said, in practical experience. I transferred to Syracuse University - Newhouse where I finished my degree and spent most of my time at the radio station.

All these years later, I've written for several magazines, for very little money and used my experience to write a fiction novel about a Los Angeles radio station: Red Wine For Breakfast.

Reporting today is nothing like it was when I was in college. Now, everyone with a cell-camera phone is an "instant" photo journalist, and anyone with a computer can be a "writer" on a number of websites that all pay per hit, barely enough to pay for a postage stamp!

With the number of print papers failing, trying to make a living as a journalist is next to impossible. The "talking heads" on cable TV never went to J-school (see my blog entry on Walter Cronkite). If I were 21 today, I would probably go to law school, instead of waiting 30 years to do it. That's the one career that is pretty much technologically safe...for now.
There are a lot of good ideas in this post, and I'm conflicted about J-school, too, never having gone, but having benefited from one.

I went to Illinois, which has a very good J school which I didn't attend, but half my friends did, and it was the reason we had a great newspaper, The Daily Illini, which is where I learned most of what I know in 3.5 years (then I dropped out of school for awhile).

There would have been no DI without the school, and few of those great aspiring journos to work there. I took one journ class and learned so much less than at the paper, I never had the urge to take more. But they were all intertwined.

I think King really clarified a lot of things, which got somewhat fuzzy in the post about the trade school aspects vs. liberal arts.

And I also agree with King that "the fundamentals of thinking like a reporter are the same [regardless of medium]: Curiosity, observation, reasoning, persistence and so on."

I'm not sure a classroom is the best place to learn them, though.

I violently disagree with this: "If you're thinking about getting a second J-degree to make yourself a better writer, skip it. Reporting is the heart of journalism, not writing."

God. I think that's why newspapers and TV news are dying: horrible writing. Since at least Homer, human beings have craved great stories and great storytelling. Good journalists tell great stories. Shitty journos tell crappy boring ones that people don't want to read.

Writing and reporting are BOTH at the heart of journalism. I actually think the reporting part is a lot easier to master, and really good writing is harder, and too many reporters take the easy way out and just rely on their reporting, and turn out crap no one wants to read.

I strongly agree with the last line of this post. And readers want to read good stories.

I've tossed around the whole is J-school really just a trade school idea before myself:

I'm not advocating that journalists learn trade skills or non-academic skills in college (like taking a course on how to use Twitter). Rather, I'm saying that you need to study under professors who understand the intersection of technology and journalism (if you feel the need to study journalism that is). I do think it is relevant to take a class that studies how technologies like Twitter are changing information dissemination, but that's much different than a "Twitter 101" course.

I'd want to study under someone who understands the Web and how it has changed our lives forever. I'd want to study under someone who realizes that mobile technologies are empowering many non-journalists to report. I think it's important to A) understand the media landscape (I believe many professors do not) and B) understand how these technologies are changing our lives.

The fact is that what journalism is has changed. Journalism can be produced with a cell phone by anyone. Journalists need to understand how to add value to citizen journalism. Now, I don't think citizens can replace all professional journalism (or even most), but it's important for students to understand that things have changed.

I agree that J-school is at its best when it is teaching academic skills. J-school made me a much better researcher and writer. Those are skills that are transcendent.

J-school is at its worst when you have classes that teach you how to use specific programs like Quark. That's not university-level stuff. Those kinds of "classes" could be certificate programs or after-hours courses. Better yet, working for a campus publication can teach those more technical skills.

I also majored in political science, and that was a much more academic and traditional liberal arts major. I think J-school needs to focus on the academic aspects of a university education and find other ways to teach technical skills. Business students at my school, for instance, had to take classes after hours on Excel and other similar programs. They weren't for credit, but students had to show proficiency in those programs.

A good J-school education should prepare students for many careers, not just working for newspapers or TV stations.

One point I disagree with you on is programming. That's not trade school if done correctly. Many journalists could benefit from learning the basic tenets of computer science. In fact, I believe every student growing up should take at least a few computer science courses. What's more valuable? Taking a few semesters of French or a few semesters of computer science?

I don't think there is much corollary between good story telling and good writing. Good story telling can happen in a variety of mediums. I also believe that most people read or view the news for news, not for good stories.

That's why databases, statistics and bullet-point content are so popular. Also, people are beginning to really enjoy following reporters' Twitter feeds. Facts and information are at the heart of good journalism.

Now, I think bad writing is a detriment, and no one wants to read that, but I'm not sure how going back to school for the same degree is really going to teach you to be a better writer. I would suggest practicing writing before getting a second journalism degree and then I would even consider studying a different major. Rhetoric, English or Creative Writing would do much more to broaden a journalists ability to write and tell good stories.
I retired early after begging the director of my highly ranked J-School to teach online entrepreneurship for free, only to be told no. Though she was often touted as encouraging new media, she instead wanted me to develop an online grammar/style class.

I continue to receive pushback from people who insist there aren't that many potential entrepreneurs out there. I insist there are more than they think and that they can hire their less creative classmates. Frankly, I would think that if you have tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a college degree and you also have a great idea for a new online publication, I would forget college and put some of that money into developing the online idea. One of my best and brightest students succeeded at getting the great job at the fashion mag in NYC. After a year on the job, she has instead moved home to start her own fitness and nutrition blog, with a weekly webcast. I'd put my money on her.

Periodically, I toy with the idea of starting the online equivalent of the Specs Howard School of Broadcasting. My hunch is that, done well, students would get more bang for their school bucks taking an exciting online entrepreneurs class than yet another self-congratulatory class by a newly unemployed newspaper reporter who wants to tell them how great it used to be . (Damn bloggers.)

"I don't think there is much corollary between good story telling and good writing."

I don't think I understand that statement. Good writing IS good storytelling. Of course you can also tell stories through pictures, etc., but the essence of good writing is good storytelling.

"I also believe that most people read or view the news for news, not for good stories."

I think that's simplistic and either/or--and runs directly counter to the trend toward infotainment, and all the attempts by news orgs to make their product more entertaining.

People want news, but they sure as hell don't want it dry, lame and boring. Of course they want it told well, in a way that grips them and keeps them interested. I think that almost goes without saying. And that's called good writing.

(And frankly, given the evidence of viewing/reading habits, I think people prefer good stories to good reporting, sad as that may be. Given the choice one only one, they would take the entertaining kind over the accurate kind. But they would prefer both. Why is both not an option?)

I agree with you that creative writing and other degrees like that may well be better suited to make journos better writers. To me, that's an indictment of journ schools, though. Why aren't they focusing more on the huge deficiency in their field?

I'm also an advocate, in general, of doing grad school long after undergrad. Education tends to be most effective spread throughout a career, rather than 16-20 years in a row and then nothing.

I also agree that writing more is essential to becoming a good writer--a necessary, but not sufficient element. If you keep making the same mistakes over and over, you're not necessarily growing as a writer/journo, and in fact, often just ingraining shitty writing.

God, I have seen so many reporters suffer from this. They work at papers that expect lame copy, there is no one working with them to improve it, and they spend 20 years cranking out that crap, to the point where it's almost impossible to train them to write well.

I think the solution you have proposed of just writing more has proven to have terrible results, in general.

I think what you're pointing to is the need for good editors. Today most editors are too busy to work with writers, but good editing used to be about helping make writers better and telling writers what they are doing wrong. I think you can get better at writing just by writing more if you have people willing to critique your work.

Unfortunately, I don't think that is happening much anymore.
I also want to add that J-school should help teach people how to write properly. Any J-school worth anything should have professors who tear your writing apart and question everything you do. Learning on the job is no longer a luxury, and publications simply don't have the time for multiple reads anymore. (My work went up unedited at BeatBlogging.Org. That's how things work these days.)

Heck, I had a writing intensive political science class (certain classes were denoted as writing intensive and required) where the professor would sit down and read over your paper with you. He pointed out every mistake and asked why you did certain things. Several professors of mine did the same thing. Isn't this a core part of a good liberal arts education?

The problem with assuming that more education leads to better writing is that many institutions don't stress good writing. Honestly, anyone who graduates from college should be a fairly proficient writer. While that's how things should be, it's not reality.

Also, I never understand people that majored in journalism but didn't work on the school newspaper. That's a great time to get experience in before the professional world.
Thanks!! What a great post, I like how specific it is. I've referenced it in a post on my website about the Future of Journalism as well as in my class discussion. (
Interesting post, thanks.
Yes it is a fair point being made I believe. J school can churn out some people who are all cut from the same cloth, so uniqueness needs to be worked on and concocted for both face to face and webinarwork.
A friend of mine is working as a journalist for a well-known newspaper and he never made J-school. He started with his own blog and he discovered his talent for writing, when I asked him why he is not making a journalism schools he replied that they got nothing to teach him and an masters degree in computer science would be more valuable.