Reform journalism school. Or torch it?

Reform journalism school. Or torch it?

Reform journalism school. Or torch it?

Media criticism.
Oct. 7 2002 7:39 AM

Can J-School Be Saved?

Professional advice for Columbia University.

[Correction, appended Oct. 8: Clara Jeffery attended MedillJournalismSchool, not the ColumbiaGraduateSchool of Journalism.]


In his memoiresque The Wayward Pressman, A.J. Liebling assessed his time as a student at Columbia University's journalism school with a chapter titled "How To Learn Nothing." According to Liebling, Columbia's Pulitzer School, as the J-school was called in the early '20s, possessed "all the intellectual status of a training school for future employees of the A&P." Liebling survived the program to become journalism's premier press critic and patron saint.

I doubt that Columbia University President Lee Bollinger was paging through The Wayward Pressman this summer when he canceled his search for a new dean of the graduate school of journalism and ordered instead a complete rethink of the school's mission by an all-star panel of journalists, academicians, and others (Ken Auletta, Gwen Ifill, Bob Woodward, Karen Elliot House, Anna Quindlen, Alan Brinkley—see the complete list). But I wager that Bollinger's J-school instincts—that the institution demands renovation or demolition—parallel Liebling's.

As one who never considered J-school—graduate or undergrad—and who knows zip about J-school and its pedagogical worthiness aside from a gut sense from speaking before its students and hiring its graduates, I'm neither fer J-school nor agin it. According to a 1996 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey, 54 percent of all newspaper newsroom employees hold an undergraduate degree in journalism or communication. Perhaps the education these journalists received was essential. But I doubt it. (I wonder how much—if any—journalism education those "communication" graduates got.)I'm convinced that if all the programs in journalism—undergrad and graduate—disappeared tomorrow, America's newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters wouldn't miss a beat of the news cycle. Our culture produces news junkies, English majors, aspiring novelists, sports nuts, failed lawyers, and student journalists in such profusion that we'll never run out of the green material from which to build excellent reporters and editors.

But how about a graduate degree in journalism, which is the subject of Bollinger's task force and this piece? The ASNE survey found that only 10 percent of newsroom employees hold J-school graduate degrees, and I defy any member of the professoriate to identify a journalist's credentials by the quality of his work. When I read the résumé line "Master's Degree in Journalism, University of California at Berkeley," all it tells me is that the holder had an interest in journalism and spent the money to prove it. In fact, a J-school degree means so little to me that I don't hold it against its holder. In the 17 years that I hired and fired, none of the J-school graduates who worked for me did better work than the many English majors I've employed. I'd rather hire somebody who wrote a brilliant senior thesis on Chaucer than a J-school M.A. who's mastered the art of computer-assisted reporting. If you can crack Chaucer, you've got a chance at decoding city hall. If you're a computer-assisted reporting wizard, maybe you can reformat my hard drive.

The biggest losers in J-school abolition, of course, would be (in order) the janitors who maintain the physical plants, the faculties, and the Annenbergs and Gannetts who've purchased naming rights to the buildings. Some wonderful people teach journalism, but let's acknowledge that most J-schools stock their faculties with aging journalists who bailed from the news business because they 1) got lazy or 2) wanted another gig after missing their paper's assistant-managing-editor track or 3) burned out and sought a place to relight or 4) fell in love with the academic life. Let's also acknowledge that if J-schools shanghaied, say Patrick Tyler, Margaret Talbot, and David Remnick into service they wouldn't do that much better of a job than the current time-servers.

So, if J-schools are of only marginal value to the publications they allegedly serve, why not torch Columbia and the other hundred-plus degree-awarding journalism programs and have done with it? I fully expected such a verdict from four successful journalist friends, all of whom did time at the nation's top journalism graduate schools, when I put the question to them. All of them did malign much of their coursework as lightweight and denigrate some of their former professors as time-servers—or worse. But none regret attending J-school or wish they'd spent the $10,000 or more the degree cost them on something else.

My illustrious panel included Gregg Easterbrook, Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism ('77), who currently works at the New Republic; Clara Jeffery, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism ('93), deputy editor of Mother Jones; Ashley Craddock, University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism ('93), who worked at Wired News and In These Times, and has written features for Mother Jones and made documentary films; and Slate's own Chris Suellentrop, the Missouri School of Journalism (who would have graduated in '99 had he completed his master's project ... note to Chris: Get the lead out!).

All four had the inchoate desire to work in journalism when they applied to graduate school but felt clueless about how to get a serious job in journalism. They needed a credential to give them courage to enter the workplace, and I don't hold that against them. Even the egomaniac Liebling felt the need for a credential when the profession was practically blue-collar. The simplest justification for J-school resides here. It allows you the opportunity to explore your interest in journalism under the guise of attending school. "[School] forced me to settle down and consider the practicalities of getting a steady job," says Easterbrook. J-school can also be a helluva placement bureau for your first job: Almost all J-schools place their students in internships, where one acquires experience and job contacts. All four members of my J-school panel parlayed their curiosity into credentials (well, except Suellentrop) and then into substantial journalism jobs (Easterbrook's first gig was Waste Age magazine). J-school socializes its graduates, educating them about the mores and folkways of journalism and how to dance the newsroom dance.

Knowing what they know now, the members of my panel probably could have skipped the J-school, saved the megabucks spent on tuition, and snared a real job without any help. But they didn't know what they know now, and there's the difference.