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Any list of "top programs" is going to be horribly outdated (and usually only exposed by graduates of said programs). Those programs were some of the best for years, but many of them rested on their laurels and have outdated curriculums.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(students work on different projects with differing skills each term) or CUNY's entrepreneurial program over Columbia's outdated curriculum any day of the week.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 NewAssignment.net. 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.
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.