Is Journalism School Really Worth It? Slate Editors Debate.

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July 29 2014 9:25 AM
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The Great J-School Debate

Four Slate-sters (and journalism school grads) dish on the pros and cons of going to journalism school.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Brett Jordan/Flickr Creative Commons

Jennifer Lai, Slate Plus: Chad, Chris, Dee, and Bryan—all four of you have gone to journalism school. So I’d like to ask you the same question that many aspiring journalists (including you, at some point!) have asked themselves: Is journalism school worth it? There are many pros: J-school gives students an ethical framework for journalism and allows students to practice reporting and writing in a “safe space”—plus you get connections and internships. Cons: It’s often very expensive. And is it really necessary? Total enrollment in the nation’s journalism schools has also dropped in recent years. So what do you think—do journalists today really need a journalism degree?

Chad Lorenz, news editor: I think a journalism education can be valuable depending on the exact kind of journalism you end up doing—I can’t imagine thinking it was pointless. But you can certainly develop strong writing skills and get a job at a magazine like Slate without a journalism degree.

Dee Lockett, editorial assistant: I read that same study earlier today, and it got me wondering if maybe younger people are starting to realize that you don’t necessarily need a formal education to enter media. I got my master’s at Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School. I did a bunch of writing internships and freelancing along the way before I landed at Slate this year. For me, J-school was a great way to network with those in the industry and build my portfolio. But I didn’t need J-school to accomplish either of those things, I think.

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Lorenz: I went to the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, which had a news-editorial department. My experience was that it was great at teaching fundamentals—the nuts and bolts of news reporting and writing and editing, as well as the basics of newspaper design, typography, and photography. Nebraska was unusual in that way, because it was aimed at turning out well-rounded journalists who could then take jobs at small newspapers around the state and around the Midwest where you might end up doing all of those jobs: You might both report a story and shoot the photos. You might be a copy editor and a page designer. So the variety of the skill set was important. That well-roundedness has come in handy in the jobs I’ve had, because I’ve usually been a utility-type editor. Today that preparation expands into Web design, video journalism, podcasting, etc.

Lockett: For our summer boot camp, we were enrolled in two classes: graphic design and newswriting. It was very much about the basics of journalism—we were even quizzed on AP style and the general news. I think the endpoint was to churn out versatile journalists, but sometimes that’s not what’ll keep you going in this industry. I personally think it’s more valuable to be an expert in a particular niche that interests you rather than know some bits about political reporting, video editing, Photoshop, etc.

Chris Kirk, interactives editor: I got my degree from Northwestern University and I agree with Dee. If you’re going to spend years studying, make it something a little more important and complex than AP style. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a journalism degree is completely useless, but I struggle to think of a degree that is less practical.

Lorenz: I can see someone who wants to just be a really good writer—let’s say a tech writer or economics writer—being OK without a formal J-school education, and instead maybe a degree in computer science or economics or whatever.

Lockett: With that said, though, there’s no replacement for the access to resources that J-school allows you. At least in terms of technology and even professors who are just damn good editors and willing to become your mentor if you build that kind of relationship with them.

Lorenz: Also, at my J-school and others I’ve heard about, they do teach a kind of toughness I’m not sure other academic programs push (aside from law and medicine, obviously). The whole thing about “never ever get anything wrong”—not a fact, not a style rule, not a deadline, not an editorial judgment. You learn right off the bat that there’s little room for error, and the teachers expect a lot. Like a real-world editor would.

Kirk: I think of the résumés I’ve seen of people who have just graduated. What do they put in their skill section? “AP style” is not much of a skill. “Social media” just makes me cringe. The way I see it, J-school doesn’t offer much in the way of actual, concrete skills that you couldn’t simply get through an internship (which you don’t pay $100,000-plus for). About 90 percent of whatever journalistic skill I have I acquired through the college newspaper, through constant trial and error and real reporting, not through classes.

Lorenz: That surprises me, Chris. I’d hate to walk into a newspaper or magazine internship without concrete fundamentals like how to edit or how to do a news interview. They would eat me alive! Internships are great for honing skills, but a lot of them don’t expect to actually teach you skills.

Kirk: I would say you could easily learn how to interview people by working for your college newspaper first.

Lorenz: That is true about the college newspaper (many of which do not require you to be a journalism student). I would say half of my journalism education came from the student news, plus it was an unparalleled opportunity to practice. The J-school education is incomplete without college newspaper work (or magazine or radio station or whatever).

J. Bryan Lowder, assistant editor: I’ve had this discussion countless times over the years, and I find that people’s opinions often divide along the issue of “practicality.” I want to inveigh against practicality, just a little. I was a double major in music and English at Columbia, and then I went to NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, which is part of the journalism school, but sort of a blessed island within it where AP style and reporting are less important than writerly style and learning your place within the cultural conversation. Essentially, I spent three semesters reading people like Sontag and Kael and Benjamin and working on different fundamentals, like the construction of a first-person persona and the art of the polemical takedown. (That last skill has proved very useful here at Slate.)

Kirk: A traditional journalism degree offers you two things: skills that you can get for free from your college newspaper or from an internship, and legitimization that you don’t actually need—as we’ve already discussed, many people excel in journalism despite lacking a journalism degree. Our own former editor David Plotz has a degree in political economy. Dean Baquet was an English major dropout.

Lorenz: The thing about journalists like David Plotz and Dean Baquet and so many other amazing journalists who had no journalism education is that they are simply remarkable individuals—they just as likely would have succeeded at running a business or teaching or writing poetry or any of the other things that can also be taught in a college. Some of us don’t start out with that DNA, so the college gives us a little help.

Kirk: But there are plenty of people who aren’t executive editors who are doing just fine without journalism degrees, at least at Slate. Katy Waldman. Amanda Hess. Aisha Harris.

Lorenz: Right—all wonderful writers, with vast stores of natural talent. Like I said, you can be an amazing magazine writer at a place like Slate with a non-journalism education; in fact it probably helps at Slate to have knowledge in other areas. For other folks and in other jobs and at other publications, an education in the writing and editing fundamentals helps get you started.

Kirk: If you want to be that shoe-leather reporter covering city hall, then, yes, a journalism degree is more helpful than it would be otherwise. But is it still a sensible choice? Those jobs are dwindling, and, from what I hear, they’re not as much fun as Hollywood makes them look. What happens when you’ve had enough grunt work, and you want out? What happens when the $44K salary (mean for reporters nationwide) isn’t enough for you?

Lowder: Agreed, and maybe shoe-leather isn’t something school is very good at teaching anyway. The dogged-reporter thing has always struck me as a matter of constitution more than learned skills. The great ones I know tend to be naturally very curious about other humans and less interested in advancing a position. It’s an approach I respect greatly, even if it’s not mine.

Lorenz: I don’t think the city hall beat or another traditional news job is the only position you can get with a journalism degree. But if you are an average person and want a job in journalism, I think you still stand a better overall chance of getting that job with a journalism degree than you do with another degree. Can you still get a job in journalism if you have an economics degree or English degree? Sure—but you need to be a much-better-than-average writer and much-smarter-than-average thinker to get the job (and of course it helps if that degree comes from a great school like Yale or Harvard or Brown). A large portion of economics majors and English majors won’t make that cut.

Kirk: That’s true. But it’s worrisome to see above-average journalism majors struggle to get those jobs. I guess I’m a cynic. But if I wanted to try old-school journalism, I’d rather do it with a backup plan. And a journalism degree just doesn’t give you much of a backup plan.

Lockett: One issue I’d like to bring up here is the absurdly high tuition for these schools. It seems part of the problem is that students seeking a more specialized (and, perhaps, better) formal journalism education are expected to pay more, which is a real blow to diversity in media. For me, cost is one of the biggest reasons I dissuade some friends from applying to J-school (unless they can find sufficient funding). Is it for anyone else?

Lowder: It’s true that the costs can be prohibitive, and I don’t have a solution for that. I mean, I took out loans like most people I know. But I figure journalism, as a form of writing for a living, is a profession that everyone should eye cautiously before diving in, whether through school or just off the street. I’m not sure I would major in it as an undergrad (something broader might be better), and considering it as a professional-school investment really depends on your personal situation and how many other options you might have.

Kirk: I’ve just watched peers vastly more talented than I ever was at old-school journalism struggle to get decent jobs, and it’s alarming. What are these people going to do, especially the ones who are saddled with like $160,000 of student debt? (That’s around four years of Northwestern tuition, which I know is exceptionally expensive, so maybe that’s unfair.)

Lorenz: I wonder if the answer to the tuition question is to recognize that some J-schools are overpriced (just as some med schools, business schools, and law schools are), and to look for bargains. I get the sense the bargains are at the state schools like ASU and KU and Mizzou. Maybe NYU’s is multitudes better than these programs, but if the price is out of reach for a high school senior, the bargain options are still there and probably worthwhile.

Lowder: It’s true that there are bargains out there, but I’m not sure J-school is actually worth it to “just get the degree.” That’s certainly not true of law school anyway—if you can’t get into a highly ranked institution, you ought to think twice about going at all.

I’m not sure if that holds in our world, but I do think if you’re considering J-school, you’d better love not only the idea of journalism, but have a great passion for the specific program and professors you’d be working with, as well as a pretty clear understanding of the kind of writing you’d like to do and whether there is appetite for it—otherwise you risk regret. Personally speaking, if I hadn’t gotten into CRC, I wouldn’t have done J-school at all.

Kirk: I know it’s not all about the money. If you’re considering a career in journalism, let’s face it: You don’t aspire to be rich. You instead pursue work that is both meaningful to the world and fulfilling to you. The problem is, even if you get a job in journalism, that’s no guarantee. Even the most talented people can get stuck working relentless hours, for abysmal pay, crafting click bait or churning out substantive news copy that nobody reads.

You might be in love with the idea of journalism now, but you might not be in love with it forever. Instead find a topic to write about, and learn about that. Find free ways to be a great writer—write for campus publications, take internships. If writing doesn’t pan out, you’ll at least be an expert in something.