The special report from Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Do we need J-schools?,” landed in almost every social media feed and email chain I saw this week, to the point that I felt like this in terms of having to read it:
After reading it, my reaction was pretty much the same as Regan’s in “The Exorcist,” as I sat here screaming, “IT BURNS!!! IT BURNS!!!!”
Almost any absolutist position that comes from two talking heads trying to prove a superior position will contain all the valid logic of an overtired toddler who is losing his mind at Walmart. This exchange of ideas, set out to question some of your most important life choices to this point, is only slightly better than that, even as it has several massive flaws.
Today, we’re going to unpack three basic problems with “Do we need J-schools?” The next post will you some general hope and advice as you wonder if you just flushed your entire education down the toilet.
Problem 1: Consider the sources
Good reporting requires journalists to consider the source of the information and take that into account when deciding how much credibility to lend it. In short, if you ask a vacuum salesman if you need a vacuum, you pretty much know what kind of answer you are going to get.
The pro J-school piece came from Bill Grueskin, the current dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He has a background in newspapers and media that is quite impressive:
He worked as a reporter and editor in Baltimore and Tampa before moving to The Miami Herald where he eventually became city editor. On his first day in that post, Hurricane Andrew hit Dade County, and the Herald’s coverage of the storm won the Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service.
Grueskin joined The Wall Street Journal in 1995, editing Page One features and projects. In June 2001, he became managing editor of WSJ.com (link is external) and oversaw the staff during and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, next to WSJ’s offices. While at WSJ.com, the number of subscribers doubled to more than one million, and the site introduced blogs, interactive graphics and video.
In 2007, he was named WSJ’s deputy managing editor, overseeing 14 domestic news bureaus, and combining print and online editing desks.
In June 2014, he was named an executive editor at Bloomberg, overseeing efforts to train the global news staff to reach broader audiences across digital platforms.
He also has an educational background that is dressed to impress:
Grueskin has a B.A. in classics from Stanford University and an M.A. in international economics and U.S. foreign policy from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.
Felix Salmon, who proposed the abolition of J-school, also has an impressive array of media work to his name:
The American Statistical Association presented Salmon with the 2010 Excellence in Statistical Reporting Award “for his body of work, which exemplifies the highest standards of scientific reporting. His insightful use of statistics as a tool to understanding the world of business and economics, areas that are critical in today’s economy, sets a new standard in statistical investigative reporting.”
Salmon published an article in Wired magazine on 27 December 2010 explaining high-frequency trading on Wall Street. This was followed by an interview on NPR; the program aired on 13 January 2011.
Since May 10, 2014, Salmon has been the host of Slate magazine’s weekly Slate Money podcast along with regular Slate financial columnist Jordan Weissmann and financial blogger Cathy O’Neil, who left the program in 2017 and was replaced by Anna Szymanski, a former emerging markets risk analyst.
In 2016, Salmon’s salary at Fusion was reported to be $400,000. He left Fusion in January 2018.
And again, his education is something to behold:
Salmon has an MA in art history from the University of Glasgow along with an Honours background in mathematics.
Y’know, just two regular dudes who walked the standard path through life…
Not every student who enters a J-school does so with the expectation of this kind of resume being the result. (Truth be told, Salmon’s salary dwarfs mine, although I doubt he owns this T-shirt, which I do, so I guess you can say we’re even.) There are plenty of students I teach who want a degree so they can go back and run the local paper in their home town or work somewhere other than the factory or farm that all previous generations of their family have worked. One of my favorite former colleagues spent much of his newspaper career doing science and environment writing in Wisconsin. He once charged a couple dozen night crawlers to his expense account because he had to go fishing with a source as part of a story.
If this pro/con argument contained one source who interviewed a town mayor who doubles as an Elvis impersonator or once told a coroner to go cuddle up with his buddies in the freezer, I’ll cede the elitism argument. In the mean time, the fight these two aristocrats engage in reminds me of this:
Problem 2: Generalizing from a ridiculous exemplar
One of the main arguments here revolves around the cost of school, a concern every student I know has when it comes to college. Many of my students work two or three jobs just to make rent, never mind covering tuition or beer money. Salmon touches on this here:
J-school attendees might get a benefit from their journalism degree, but it comes at an eye-watering cost. The price tag of the Columbia Journalism School, for instance, is $105,820 for a 10-month program, $147,418 for a 12-month program, or $108,464 per year for a two-year program. That’s a $216,928 graduate degree, on top of all the costs associated with gaining the undergraduate prerequisites.
I know that things have changed a lot in the couple of decades since I finished my undergrad degree at a state school, but this is a ridiculous example. The approach here is akin to saying a car isn’t worth owning because look at the Lamborghini Veneno, Plenty of decent Honda Civics and Ford Focuses (Foci?) don’t require you to hock a kidney to make the payments. Also, these folks (including Alexandria Neeson, who wrote the middle-ground argument I’ve sidestepped in this discussion) are all debating the value of a graduate-level journalism degree as opposed to something a bit more on par with what most students pursue.
Journalism schools exist outside of the pantheon of the God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification at Columbia (or if you’re slumming it, Northwestern). I might be wrong here, but I doubt these two gents are thinking about this program at Madison Area Technical College or this one at Southwestern College Chula Vista or this one at at North Dakota State University or this one at California State University – Sacramento. These schools have strong programs and great student media programs as well.
Everything when it comes to spending should be a question of cost versus value, so unless Columbia University hands out whatever the journalistic equivalent is to Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, that price tag seems a bit high for whatever you get out of it. That said, you can get through a decent journalism program for a fraction of the cost and get a job that will lead to a decent life. You might have crushing debt forever, but that’s indicative of the state of education itself these days, not specifically journalism school.
A good friend of mine graduated from high school at the same time I did (1990s) and went off to a small, private school in Iowa while I stayed in Wisconsin and went to the state school. Her tuition was at least eight times what I was paying per semester and kept going up each year. She is still (at last check a few years back) paying off her musical education degree having never gotten a job in the field. She works office temp jobs and it’s not the fault of a journalism school.
Problem 3: An inaccurately presumed outcome
A key misconception present in both positions is the presumed outcome of journalism school. The authors argue from the assumption that students go there to become news folks (writers, reporters, etc.) and based on that outcome, the school is either a good idea or a bad idea. The problem with this assumption is that the skills journalism student garner can benefit them in a broad array of fields that have little or nothing to do with working for an editor who wants to know a police spokesperson’s middle initial.
Grueskin lists some of the key outcomes of J-school and many people would agree that these things are taught in this discipline and that they have value:
But a strong journalism program will help young reporters challenge their presumptions and prejudices, will encourage them to meet people and go to neighborhoods outside their comfort zone, and will force them to develop the resilience that journalists need, especially now.
The best programs will also enable students to develop the intellectual dexterity to deal with unending technological change, so journalism can emerge more interesting and more dynamic than ever before.
Salmon also makes similar points pertaining to these valuable skills, noting that they should be taught in the newsroom in kind of a socialization among learned professionals.
Both men miss the broader point: Not everyone who goes to J-school becomes (or wants to become) a news journalist. Even more, the skills they learn as students in a J-school have value to dozens of other fields that will allow them to get jobs and communicate effectively. (We’ve talked about the idea of transferable skills in the book and on the blog quite a bit. People now swing from job to job and field to field, taking skills with them.) Students with an interest in news, advertising, public relations, social media and more emerge from quality journalism programs and get snapped up by employers who see the skills they possess. These skills also come tangentially via journalism school, as many students in these programs are exposed to student media, where they really make their bones and hone their craft.
(I’m sure my alma mater wouldn’t like hearing this, but I considered my degree program secondary to my work at the student newspaper and school yearbook. I learned more at those two places than I learned in the classroom, where I was once required to read a book that the professor wrote about Ronald Reagan. A scintillating passage on Reagan’s early life included his library card number from his youth… Good grief.)
Case in point: A few years back, I had lunch with a former student who had gotten her degree, worked long hours in the student newsroom and gone off to a career in the federal government. She worked for NCIS as some sort of terrorism expert (she was never really allowed to explain it all to me) and she was really good at the job. She explained to me that if something was going on in one of her watch areas, it would be her and the president in a room somewhere talking about what happens next. I was amazed, but not nearly as amazed as what she told me next:
“I can’t thank you enough for everything you taught me,” she said. “Without you and those experiences at the newsroom, I’d never have this job.”
I thought that was ludicrous and I told her as much, but she explained that she meant every word. She said the experiences in journalism taught her how to talk to new people, how to not be afraid of situations, how to communicate clearly, how to cut through the BS people would sling and more. In other words, all of these things Grueskin listed as valuable for journalism students trying to get into newsrooms also had value to this kid who never once wrote a news story once she left college.
If the true purpose of journalism school (or journalism-based activities like student media, which I’ll hit on more next time) is to teach people valuable skills that will make them employable and valuable members of society, it works in a lot of ways. It might not be worth $216,928, but that’s a personal call. (It’s also a case of massive overcharging in my book. The only thing more ridiculous in my mind is the $4.25 I paid for a bottle of Diet Coke at a big city airport. Given my addiction to the beverage, I’d have to seriously choose between Diet Coke or a grad degree at that level.)
Just because the students don’t go where you think the should, it doesn’t follow that they didn’t get value out of their experiences.