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.

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.

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.

Many J-school courses border on the remedial. Easterbrook remembers his one year at Medill as "one year of practice in writing simple declarative sentences." Beyond the remedial, all journalists should familiarize themselves with media ethics, the philosophy of journalism, and the history of journalism, but what say the professors to my observation that the very best, most ethical, most philosophically and historically minded journalists I know have no formal training in these subjects? You become a journalist the same way you become a surgeon—you probe, you extemporize, you cut, and you paste.

I'd core the core curriculum, such as the Missouri Schools', reducing it to the most basic of basics and fire (or reassign to the student publication) most of the faculty. Invite students to take ethics courses in the philosophy department, rather than take the Philosophy of Journalism gut in the J-school, and to bone up on their writing skills in undergraduate composition classes if they must. Better that a J-school student take a demanding history of science class or audit a French class or take an Econ class in the economics department. In fact, I'd encourage J-school students to overload with courses outside their department, partly because those classes are more demanding, but mostly because it builds a journalist's character to skip classes and work on the school publication instead.

The greatest danger posed by Bollinger's Columbia rejigging is not that it might fail but that it might succeed. I fear that his New Improved Columbia Graduate School of Journalism will be an overly academic program, and that other schools, ever impressed by the Ivys, might imitate it. I fear the day that the J-school credential assumes such an aura that it becomes a prerequisite for a newspaper job, the way the B.A. credential has. Journalism depends on uncredentialed losers, outsiders, dilettantes, frustrated lawyers, unabashed alcoholics—and, yes, creative psychopaths—to keep its blood red. So, I wish Bollinger success. But not too much.

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