Reform journalism school. Or torch it?

Media criticism.
Oct. 7 2002 7:39 AM

Can J-School Be Saved?

Professional advice for Columbia University.

(Continued from Page 1)

Now, a colleague of mine who went to Harvard (a curly-headed fellow occupying the office next to mine) dismisses a J-school degree as a complete waste because it constitutes credentialism of the worst sort. But not all aspiring journalists know—as my curly-headed colleague did—that the first place one should go to punch his journalistic card straight out of college is the New Republic, whose internship can trampoline you to a great job. Or they don't know about that prestigious Washington Post summer internship for undergrads, which converts into a full-time job at a regional paper (or even at the Post) for many of its alumni. Or they might not know that it helps your journalistic career immensely to have a mother who knows somebody at the Los Angeles Times. Or that a two-year stint (a couple of years out of college) at starvation wages as an editor ($14K) at the Washington Monthly will grease the ride for a career at the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or other fab venues. Or, they might not know, as Slate's summer intern Dan Rosenheck did, that if you covered the war in Bosnia at the age of 13 through a youth journalist program and followed that hardboiled experience with internships at the New York Observer as a teenager, that Slate might be willing to employ you for a couple of months between your sophomore and junior years at Harvard and thus help you build your résumé for your adult future.

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People like my colleague—oh, let's call him Tim Noah—find it easy to dismiss credentialism when they already possess the ultimate door-opening credential of a Harvard degree or an interchangable one from Yale, Stanford, or Princeton. Ensconced at newsrooms, people like Noah tend to reinforce the values of the existing Ivy elites, assigning stories about crumbling 401(k) plans, corporate downsizing, and all the consumer candy covered in the Wall Street Journal's "Personal Journal." J-school graduate students, many of whom did not attend a Top-10 university, put a countervailing pressure on the elites by assigning more proletarian pieces about poverty, crime, and arena football.

On the assumption that Bollinger wants Columbia to continue producing working journalists and not just professors and media theorists, he should come clean about the limitations of J-school with this truth-in-education disclaimer in Columbia's graduate school of journalism catalog: You can get as good a journalism education via an internship or byworking a year on a small-town daily as you can with a graduate degree. Why spend $10K to have somebody lecture about journalism to you when you can learn more at a journalism job paying $18K a year? But if you aren't absolutely sure whether or not you want to be a journalist, J-school might be the place for you. It's never actually harmed anybody. Or, if you're stalled at the Waco Tribune-Herald and you want a résumé-inflating boost, please consider J-school.

Next, Bollinger should follow the example of the Missouri School of Journalism, which enjoys the faint praise of being my favorite J-school, and establish real-world publications for its students to work on. A graduate school of journalism without a real publication is like a graduate school of cycling without any bikes. The Missouri School of Journalism publishes Columbia, Mo.'s morning newspaper, the Missourian, and runs the news sides of an FM radio station and the city's NBC-TV affiliate. At the Missourian, teachers hold the top editing slots, but students do everything else, recognizing the time-honored fact that somebody in his early 20s is fully capable of working at a small-town daily, and many of them are capable of things greater.

Suellentrop, who attended Missouri, describes his time on the Missourian as all-consuming and the best part of his school experience. He says student journalists should learn that if they make mistakes the punishment isn't a C, but a lawsuit or the loss of a job. Suellentrop covered a Senate race. Easterbrook's clueless professors, on the other hand, contrived an assignment in which they dispatched him to cover the Winnetka, Ill., school district—in August! Suellentrop also speaks glowingly about the media-law course he took at Missouri. Reporters can never know too much about libel and defamation law.

Non-journalists don't know that the greatest single impediment to becoming a reporter is overcoming the basic human aversion to getting in strangers' faces and asking nosey questions. With the exception of a few psychopaths, nobody in the business ever triumphs over this aversion. You need the practice, practice, practice that only a real publication can provide.

Oddly, many universities that offer graduate journalism degrees have daily newspapers, but as in the case of the University of California at Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Cal, the newspaper is divorced not only from the J-school but the university. Better to write and edit for the Daily Cal as an undergraduate and neglect your formal studies than fritter time away at J-school. This is essentially what former Slate intern Rosenheck, the Harvard undergraduate, is doing. Because he spends most of his time working on the Harvard Crimson, his class attendance is spotty. How's he going to earn enough credits to graduate? "Grade inflation," he says. (While we're on the subject of time, no J-school program should exceed one calendar year. Medill and Columbia last only one year; Berkeley and Missouri, a brain-numbing two. Craddock, the Cal grad, agrees.)

Suellentrop, Easterbrook, and Craddock all wish their programs had assigned a journalistic canon for reading. Suellentrop remembers that his undergrad professors at Tulane once assigned 43 books in a single semester, but his grad professors let him skate on reading. Jeffery, who took Columbia's "magazine concentration," says professors assigned a lot of H.L. Mencken and Tom Wolfe, as well as Michael Herr and Ida Tarbell. "One professor liked Gay Talese's Sinatra profile and photocopied it for us," says Craddock. Each panelist offered 10 canonical or recommended books for students, which I've posted on this page, along with my own list.

Doing my canon-assigning friends one better, I'd also require all J-students to sit in a hard chair and keyboard (into a typewriter, not a computer, so they can't copy) several of the longer classic works of journalism so that 1) they learn what the rhythms of great journalism are and 2) they learn what backbreaking work journalism can be. Playing the complete sheet music to John Hersey's Hiroshima, Ben Hecht's 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, or Lawrence Wright's Remembering Satan would make any writer more lyrical.

All departments of journalism should divest themselves of advertising and public-relations tracks for the obvious reasons of cross-contamination. In general, PR people are journalists' enemies, except when they work for your publication, when they're enemies in specific.

At Suellentrop's suggestion, I'd require a grounding in mathematical literacy (statistics, polling science). "At Missouri, that's handled in a course called 'Research Methods' or something like that," says Suellentrop. I agree: A little bit of knowledge can be a useful thing. On that note, I'd run a boot camp for reporters and editors inside the student newsroom, teaching the basics of reporting and libel law.