Why NYT’s Theodore Kim ticked off a squillion journalism folks with his list of Amazing Journalism Schools and why you shouldn’t care about it at all

Theodore Kim, the director of fellowships and internships at the NYT, recently posted what he called a “super unscientific opinion on which U.S. schools churn out the most consistently productive candidates.” This list came in several tweets and tiers:

Best (no order): Columbia, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, Yale

Honorable Mentions Tier 1 (no order): Missouri, Harvard, Florida, USC, Duke, Stanford

Honorable Mentions, Tier 2 (no order): Howard, Texas, Maryland, UPenn, Cornell, UNC, Syracuse, Illinois, Arizona State, Colorado State, Florida A&M, NYU, Miami of Ohio, Western Kentucky, UC San Diego

I also forgot to mention the Newmark School (formerly CUNY), which is definitely in the mix…

Kim’s list set off the kind of social media rage usually only seen at a New England Patriots’ fan site when someone notes that Eli Manning beat Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl and is thus a superior quarterback.

Most of the responses kind of fell into two basic areas: Outrage that the respondent’s school wasn’t included on the list/was listed too low or that the list itself read like a rich kid’s guide to picking out schools. Katy Culver, an assistant professor at UW-Madison and a Teachapalooza instructor, took a different angle, examining this as an ethics issue, noting in part:

Journalism needs to do far more to diversify the people who produce it if it’s going to have any fighting chance at representing us accurately and in the rich contexts in which we live. Bias in favor of students at elite schools only compounds the lack of diversity.

Others pushed back at this in an even more pointed way: If you’re the guy picking interns and you lay out a list like this, it really comes across like you have a bias toward Schools A, B and C and maybe against those X, Y and Z Colleges. To his credit, Kim didn’t claim he was hacked by the Russians or that someone spiked his Diet Coke or something when he wrote the original list:


While you decide whether it’s worth it or not to scour Kim’s list in search of your school, consider a few thoughts:

  • Lists Like This Are Just Stupid: Look, I get it. Lists can seem like a fun idea and they often get a lot of traction. This is why Jonah Peretti and the Buzzfeed crew have enough money to buy half of the planet at this point. It’s also why we can waste half of our day arguing about who was a greater “clutch” quarterback or which “Star Wars” movie was the best/worst. In the end, however, these things lack value and come from no serious vantage point. If you want the best look at how stupid this is, consider a classic clip from “The Newsroom:
  • Your Degree Doesn’t Make You: In going down the rabbit hole that was Kim’s tweets and the backlash that followed, I found support for the argument I’ve been making for years now: It doesn’t matter where you go to school. If you want something badly enough and you work hard enough, you’ll get something great out of your time as a journalists.One of the things that came up when I left Mizzou and went to Ball State was the students at my new university wanted to know if they were as good as those at my old university. “Do we measure up to the Mizzou kids?” one newsroom student asked me. The answer I gave him was the same that I give the kids at UWO, who ask if they’re as good as the kids at Ball State:

    The degree from one of these places is shiny. It looks good and it can open some doors. However, the dumbest kid I ever taught at (Aspiration School X) isn’t automatically better than the smartest kid I ever taught at (Downtrodden School Y). Those Lord Almighty Schools of Journalism Brilliance and Deity don’t hand you a brain when you graduate that has all the answers in it. In fact, I find that a lot of students who rely on the idea that graduating from one of those Holy Grail Universities to solve all their problems tend to do horribly once they graduate.

    Maybe this is a better example of how this doesn’t matter at all. Check out this photo of two dudes from the same state who graduated from college at about the same time:


    The guy on the left is me. I grew up in the largest city in Wisconsin, attended the flagship university in the state and got a journalism degree from the oldest journalism program in the country. I also got a master’s from there and a Ph.D. from Mizzou, which will argue with anyone that it is the greatest J-school in the country. I worked on a night desk at the Wisconsin State Journal and eventually went into teaching.

    The guy on the right went to UW-Oshkosh, occasionally derisively called “UW-Zero,” and got a degree in poli sci and journalism. (UWO is in nobody’s top anything and its so far off Kim’s list that he probably couldn’t find it with a search light and a posse.) This guy worked as a sports writer at the Oshkosh Northwestern for a while and could have stayed in his hometown forever.

    Instead, he scored a job working at the Washington Post. That’s impressive but what’s even more impressive is that Jim VandeHei quit the Post and co-founded two of the most important political journalism organizations in the past 50 years: Politico and Axios.

    Axios, his current gig, has a readership in the millions while I’m writing a blog with literally tens of readers (and I’d like to thank you all for getting me up to that number). He drew in millions of dollars of investment capital for the Axios launch and it is so successful, Axios has a video news program on HBO as well. I bogart video clips from YouTube that feature programs that once ran on HBO.

    The point is, if you looked at both of us on paper in the mid-1990s, you’d never guess who would go on which path and the degree of success the guy from a “branch school” would have achieved. And I know he’s not the only success story like that out there. And you might be the next one.


  • There Are Always Folks Like This. Your Job Is To Prove Them Wrong: The thing that bugged me the most about Kim’s list wasn’t that he published it or that he ranked certain schools in certain ways. What bugged me was that this wasn’t the first time I’d see this kind of attitude and I know it won’t be the last. Here’s a story I shared with some friends after this broke:
    I had a student who was an editor for me at UWO. Smart kid, decent grades, hell of a good student media practitioner. I took her with me to a college journalism convention where a variety of people were doing internship recruiting. She had an interest in PROGRAM X, and I happened to know the recruiter, so I asked how she did in the meet and greet etc.
    She’s fine, he explained, but she’s not going to get in. When I asked why, he said, “We don’t take people from branch schools.” He then elaborated that they only really take people from ELITE SCHOOL X (one of those listed on Kim’s top of the pops), ELITE SCHOOL Y (a good tier one on Kim’s list) and people from GEOGRAPHIC AREA X. His rationale was that the kids there were just “better” (although he couldn’t quantify that for me) or if the kid was a disaster, they could say, “How could we know? The kid went to X or Y!” (the geographic area was because they could get kids there and ship them out for bus fare, basically.)

    The silver lining was that I told my student to apply anyway, she did, she got in and she got a hell of a good scholarship, a hell of a good internship and a hell of good media life out of it. The reason? It was her sole goal to prove this person wrong and show she was just as good as anyone else.

    I know I tend to get a little too “rah rah” on this blog some times, but it’s only because I see so many students on a weekly basis who feel they can’t succeed. It’s like the world is filled with better, smarter, faster and richer kids than them and it’s only by a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes that they managed to get this far.  The truth is, gumption, grit and a general sense that you CAN do it often separates those folks who get where they want to go from those who don’t.

    The best form of revenge for being told that you aren’t of the proper ilk is to go out and find a way to have an amazing fulfilling life. It also feels pretty good to flat-out crush these folks at their own game and become awesome.


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