Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is J-School Worth It? (The Answer May Surprise You)

The most recurring question asked of me in the last month since I graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is simply: "Was it worth it?"

It's a great question to ask, because there are so many conflicting statements out there, especially on the Web.

For example:

Will j-school eat your brain? ("J-school ate my brain," Michael Lewis, The New Republic, July 1993)

Will j-school become a necessary credential for a job? ("Can j-school be saved?" Jack Shafer, Slate, Oct. 7, 2002)

Is j-school a cakewalk? ("The trouble with j-school," John Buchel)

Will j-school destroy your finances? ("The $19,000 press pass -- a former journalism school dean asks, is it worth it?" Carolyn Lewis, Washington Monthly, May 1986)

Is j-school full of Woodward and Bernstein hopefuls? ("Deep Throat, J-school, and Newsroom Religion," Jay Rosen, PressThink, June 5, 2005)

Will j-school ruin unrealistic expectations? ("Off the fence," Katia Bachko, Mediabistro J-School Confidential, Aug. 3, 2007)

Is it only for grads and not undergrads? ("Do you need a graduate degree in journalism?" Walden Siew, JournalismJobs.com)

Is it for the science of trade or the theory of media? ("The j-school debate," William A. Babcock, Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 1, 2002)

Is j-school choosing the establishment? ("An open letter to j-school grads," Greg Lindsay, Mediabistro, May 24, 2005)

Is it, quite simply, inane 'journalismism'? ("J-school scandal is inane as j-school itself," Hamilton Nolan, Gawker, Feb. 21, 2008)

Is there a payoff at the end of it? ("Is j-school worth it?" Kevin Whitelaw, U.S. News & World Report, Mar. 10, 1996)

Should it even exist? ("Should j-school even exist?" Andrew Nusca, The Editorialiste, Oct. 3, 2006)

Which j-school is the right one? ("Searching for the perfect j-school," Brent Cunningham, Columbia Journalism Review, 2002)

Is it all a myth? ("Getting it wrong for 16 years (at least)," Reese Cleghorn, American Journalism Review, June 1993)

And of course, is it worth it? ("Is journalism school worth it?" Rachel Deahl, About.com Media Careers)

OK, ok, so you get the point. With each question, you can really see the fever pitch of this discussion.

The reason I chose to put all those links above is to illustrate just how conflicted the whole conversation is -- and how diverse the opinions can be, be it from j-school grads or journalists without degrees or people wholly unaffiliated with journalism altogether.

Compounding the problem is a lack of a reference point -- there isn't even a centralized list of journalism programs and schools in the United States (despite Editor & Publisher's best efforts), much less an explanation for which programs are for communications, which are for bootstrap newspaper reporting and which are Web-ready. Hell, there aren't even rankings anymore -- nothing to tell you what makes Columbia, Medill, Missouri or Berkley any different from E.W. Scripps, NYU, CUNY, Syracuse, Texas, or Arizona.

But I digress. So is it worth it?

It's a personal decision, of course, but for me, it's been worth it. And I say this coming from the point of someone who owns not only one, but two journalism degrees -- one as an undergraduate, and another as a graduate.

So what's the deal? Why did I go to j-school -- after I went to j-school?

Allow me to use a food metaphor.

An undergraduate experience of journalism is like eating a piece of cake. You learn that cake tastes good, sweet -- it helps you decide that yes, you like cake -- maybe even more than you like any other desserts. But you haven't tasted all the different kinds of cake in the world, and no one's forcing you, so you'll spend much of your undergraduate experience eating all sorts of other tasty desserts -- cookies, ice cream, popsicles, whatever -- some for the first time, some not.

As an undergraduate, you probably spent 25 percent or less of your time practicing journalism. You're too busy growing up, learning about other things like Plato and statistics and Proust, to really have done journalism all day long. That's the point -- liberal arts, are, well, liberal in your experience. I didn't choose my undergraduate university for journalism -- I chose it for its large offerings and its location, which I think is more important than anything. I only discovered journalism later. By the end, you might think, "hey, I can be a journalist when I graduate," but most you probably of aren't thinking that with conviction. A real job will probably affirm that for you, which I can attest to after seeing some of my friends flourish and some reevaluate their direction post-graduation.

The graduate experience of journalism is like going to a cake tasting with hundreds of flavors of cake. You get to try all different kinds of cake -- chocolate, pineapple, red velvet, carrot, and hey, they might even teach you how to bake one -- and you're eating cake all the time, every day. You probably chose graduate j-school because either you really, really like cake, or you used to really, really like cookies until you had to eat them full-time (in which case you thought, "hey, I think I could eat cake full-time," and defected).

Graduate j-school is journalism, all day, every day. All of your classes are journalism, and you're surrounded by other journalism people who are moving down that same highway. They might be broadcast, they might be print, they might be new media -- but they're all thinking, "I like journalism," certainly enough to pay beaucoup bucks for it.

I went to journalism school to have the experience of being surrounded by these people. As an undergrad, I didn't have that same sense of community, that same feeling that we're all in it together (not all schools are this way -- I just happen to have gone to a school that thrives on individuality). Yes, it's nice to have an advanced degree to be recognized, to put "master's" on the old resume, to have a venerable institution's name on my wall. There is no one who can deny the appeal of that, if only a little. But I went because of the people.

At first, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense -- why would I go for the people? I already had clips and internships under my belt from undergrad. But I went so that this environment could push me to do the things I didn't have time to do as an undergrad -- and foresaw not having the time to do as a professional.

J-school bought me time. In my case, it bought me exactly one year to write, record, design and edit the longest, most thoroughly-reported, most multimedia-infused stories I could.

I went to Columbia as a "new media" major, because for me, filing stories digitally, taking pictures and posting them online is the norm. It's my "print" track, so to speak. My time at graduate j-school allowed me to spend six straight months -- save for classes, that's the truth -- sitting in front of my computer and learning Adobe Dreamweaver, Flash, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Soundslides, Audacity, how to shoot in HD-DV, how to shoot with a digital SLR, the techniques behind all that and most importantly, when (if at all) to use it, and how.

And that's something that I simply would not have had time to do as a full-time employee straight from undergrad.

Now, most of you aren't going to go down the new media road, but the lessons are the same. If there are things you want to do journalistically that you haven't had time to do elsewhere -- write a 3,000-word magazine feature, or craft a book proposal, or spend time practicing at pitching freelance pieces -- j-school is that safety net. It's a safety net made of your tuition dollars, of course, but the way I look at it, those tends of thousands of dollars are you buying yourself time to learn what you didn't know before.

Journalism school might teach you a little, but those who succeed in it are the ones that teach themselves even more. In other words: what you directly learn from classes is 33 percent of your journalism education.

The other 66 percent is getting a freelance pitch accepted or rejected, working all night against deadline, blowing a deadline, misquoting a source, quoting a source correctly and having that person remain unhappy with what they said, blowing past a word limit, being assigned the task of editing your own story, working with another reporter as green as you are on an assignment, and so on. J-school is one or two years of you buying yourself the time to do all of this. You're effectively putting a price tag on that experience, and last time I checked, it can run as high as $65,000.

Of course, this is why j-schools naysayers have such a strong argument: after all, much of this can be done in the real world, of course, as an employee at a paper or magazine. They call it "learning the ropes." And they're right. That's why you start at a smaller-sized, less-reputable paper with less education -- you can take risks there, and the stock market won't fall because you accidentally misquoted that Wall Street analyst on JPMorgan's earnings because you couldn't read your handwriting in your Moleskine.

But that's why you've been assigned to cover the community board anyway.

What j-school does is partially re-enacts that atmosphere, with added time for discussion and feedback and experimentation and with less threat of a libel lawsuit and career-damaging missteps. So instead of being locked onto the crime beat, you get to report on crime, science, race relations, politics, business, fashion, art, education and so forth. Plus you learn some journalism history, you discuss ethics, surrounded by peers in the same mindset and instructors and mentors with seasoned wisdom, and you think about what the hell the whole thing means besides the aforementioned $65,000.

So is j-school worth 65 grand? I honestly don't think very much is worth 65 grand anyway. A Mercedes isn't worth 65 grand, nice as it is. So is j-school worth it -- "it" being "worth going"?

Yes. If you have the conviction to challenge yourself and learn from the personal experiences that result from that, then yes, I'd say so -- whether you end up a journalist or not.

Will it guarantee you a job? Nothing can. (And as more and more people go to journalism school -- thus guiding it toward that prerequisite credential Jack Shafer is afraid of -- it will mean less and less on the surface, as a line on your resume.) But the same kind of drive that gets you through it is the same kind of drive that gets you the job.

Of course, with personal drive like that, the naysayers would simply say that you don't need j-school in the first place. And they've got a point. But didn't you say you wanted to go to j-school?

Then why should it matter?


Jason said...

Thanks so much for this post. As someone who is about to attend Medill, and has read much of the ambivalent "noise" concerning whether or not j-school is "worth it," your post encourages me and makes me very excited to head off for a year of worthwhile education and experiences. I can't express how much your affirmation means to me personally.

Doug Mitchell said...

Hey there....
Made sure I read this as a j-school grad.
25 years later I ask, "So, if not j-school WHO is going to teach journalism?" It does need to be learned. Journalism is not innate.
I work inside a media company. I'm labeled a "trainer." But really, I'm an experienced coach, teacher and guide. I'm the guy they call when they are lost and confused. Or they send me wedding invitations and birth announcements.
I have 14 years of teaching from within a media company. I've met some truly amazing people including writer of this blog.
Still, I find myself explaning such concepts as ART, logic, practical application, skepticism, fact-checking, writing for the ear/clarity and don't believe it because you found it in seconds on a search engine. Oh, and e-mail is NOT a substitute for actual conversation and is really not private.
Still, I have a great job and I suspect my fellow teachers would say the same. But, I'm not a j-school. I'm in a company that decided to openly invest in it's future.
I went to j-school. I meet and work with many others who have or are in j-school.
Bottom line: If you do not have any formal journalism training/experience, you should go. If you aggressively took advantage of every media offering your school had and then interned more than a few times, you don't need it. You just need to network.
Noise? Please. Healthy skepticism? Absolutely.

Lionel Jr said...

This is a great post. I found this very encouraging to my career move. I am not going to j-school but am continuing my education in fine arts, which has some relation if not more than some. By the way, the cake analogy was PERFECT!

Simone said...

Wonderfully said. And I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Mitchell's final sentiment.

As someone who has no formal journalism training, I do feel that my decision to attend Columbia this fall is a good one. Your point about simply having the time is critical. As a fiction writer-turned-journalist, I've done most of my learning alone (and slightly late in the game), and any of the freelancing I've done is on top of an exhausting, full-time job. Thus, my progress is more of an inching forward than anything.

The massive loans suck, and I hemmed and hawed before deciding yes. But with Obama's new IBR repayment plan, my monthly bill will be the same as it is now, and my loans my likely be forgiven before I even pay off my undergrad. That is incredibly encouraging.

And of course, there are always grants.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post. As someone who is about to attend Medill

Anonymous said...

I would love to hear an argument from someone who thinks $65,000 (more than my parents earn in a year) is worth something.