Does Going to Journalism School Make Any Sense Today?

2016-04-01_journalism-edu-ani2

In third grade, Anayka Pomare began doing morning announcements on her school’s PA system. Then, the school bought a camera; Pomare became an on-air personality, too. In middle school, she signed up for a media program and kept doing the morning news routine. Pomare’s career was already decided: broadcast journalism was her future.

As an undergraduate, Pomare went to Howard University in Washington DC. One of her journalism professors had attended Columbia. “She talked about it every day. I was so annoyed, I did not want to go to Columbia,” says Pomare, who is now, in fact, in her second and final semester at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Pomare’s professor had been relentless. “You’d be great for the program. You should apply.” Pomare recalled her professors saying. Finally she caved and applied. She had already gotten accepted into J-school in London, where she wanted to study fashion journalism when Columbia called her.

“They told me they started giving out their decisions, and asked why I hadn’t taken the writing test,” says Pomare. “First, because you’re too expensive,” she said. And anyway, the testing center was too far away. “We’ll see what we can do about the money,” said Columbia. Plus, “We found a testing center in DC for you so you can take it there this weekend.”

The next time Pomare heard from Columbia, she’d gotten in with a scholarship.

Pomare will graduate from Columbia in May. As she scrambles to complete two (yes, two) theses in photography and print, I asked how she felt about the experience now. Had her gut been wrong?

“I would say I didn’t feel like that until I actually started,” she said. “We’d have all these speakers come who didn’t go to J-school and ask, ‘Are you stupid? You don’t need Columbia to do journalism!’ and that made me think, why am I in J-school now?’”

But it wasn’t all bad; after all, she was learning a lot of new things she’d never learned before.

“It’s more about—not even really pertaining to journalism—more just life,” says Pomare. “You don’t give up in journalism. At Columbia, that’s the biggest lesson. I’ve had so many stories that have caved in on me, and so many sources that have bailed, and my professors are like, ‘No, you need to find another angle. You can get a story out of it.’”

But there was more than that, actually. Pomare used to be scared of long form; after her Columbia Journalism Review course, she realized she liked it. And her goal is no longer to be in fashion journalism, but to be an entertainment reporter.

“I feel like Columbia has molded my future career more than I thought it would,” Pomare summarizes.

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In my office, I am the only person with a graduate degree from J-school. I attended New York University’s Arthur L Carter’s Journalism Institute from 2010 to 2012. Admittedly, it was a weird time to go. Yes, people were writing on the Internet, but many new business models seemed at best shaky. “Pay wall” was a frightening word. Maybe very generous philanthropists would have to bear the responsibility of funding the future of media? But those people didn’t grow on trees.

When I started the application process in 2009, general opinion was: if I got in, maybe I shouldn’t go. That was a ton of money to invest in an industry that might be actively dying. When I did go, my professors didn’t pretend they could see the future, and reassure us. The height of their own careers sounded to us—their jealous students—like the acme of all journalistic times, that of the well-funded foreign bureau, and $4 per word at Vogue. “Guys,” they leveled with us, as we looked at them, nearly already defeated, “we don’t know what the future looks like.”

Not exactly heartening, but I provided my own justifications for being there. I didn’t know what a nutgraf was; I had no idea how to report, or interview, or write an actual journalism story. Also, I had zero interest in doing anything else. If I weren’t a journalist, I pictured myself indefinitely staring at a wall in my room. And then—likely the most significant piece of the puzzle—my grandma gave me the money to pay for my education. There it is; there is no other way around it. If that were not true, the decision to attend, I think, would have been tortured. Most students do not have that gift, or even receive scholarships. And it costs al lot. CUNY made an eye-opening Tuition Comparison Chart among the country’s J-schools: Northwestern University tops it off at $57,000 per year, while the University of Missouri is at the bottom, checks in at $6,568 in-state per year. Seven of the schools’ annual tuition costs are above $30,000, including NYU.

Ultimately, I graduated—and I did learn to do do those things I could not handle, or understand before. But I didn’t get my first full-time writing job (this one) until three years later. I was picky, for sure, but that’s how it went. In between, freelancing and restaurant-work paid the bills, and made me… very tired.

My initial contact with this company did end up being through an NYU classmate. And though I felt solid about the reporting skills I’d picked up at school, I certainly didn’t spend much time there integrating anything I wrote into social media, nor a split second monitoring and reacting to Google Analytics, which is what I spend a significant chunk of my time thinking about and doing now. Are J-schools adapting to this reality?

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to Perri Klass, Director of NYU’s Journalism Institute, who doubles as a pediatrician and fiction writer, to see what the student body looks like today.

“Generally speaking, we are optimistic with our current numbers,” Klass told me over the phone. “There was some concern a few years ago that there were fewer applicants, but that’s actually been getting better.”

The journalism school’s primary concern, says Klass, is to provide students—who she identifies as passionate and highly-motivated story-tellers—with the technology and tools to make them successful. “How can I enhance it, and take my stories out on as many different platforms as will serve my needs?”

But one fact about that endeavor, given that the distribution channels of journalism exist predominantly online, is undeniable. “There are ways in which we are part of a working experiment in progress,” says Klass.

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“Of course you don’t need a degree to be a journalist,” says associate professor Jay Rosen, who studies the media at New York University, is a press critic, and leads Studio 20, whose aim is to support media companies with tech-based innovations. “And I support that—it protects the First Amendment. Everybody who didn’t go to journalism school thinks, wtf, why would anyone go to graduate journalism school, and they write snotty articles about how worthless that is.”

Rosen particularly appreciates that J-school is unessential because it diversifies the profession; and also because “we don’t have a mysterious body of knowledge, like the knowledge of medicine, because journalism isn’t like that—it’s a communication skill.”

But he is a journalism professor, after all. And there are plenty of good reasons to attend, he says. Many people cannot break into the field alone—whether due to a lack of connections, skill, drive, Ivy League degree, or other cultural advantages, generally speaking. “Especially in New York, one of the big services we give people is an entry point into a world very different from where they are coming from,” says Rosen.

On some level, each of those points could hold for an advanced degree in any field. But his next point does not. “There is no other profession where the practitioners of it jeer at the academic study of it,” says Rosen. But, he adds, “I also think that our institution, the American J-school, got very complacent in a lot of ways.”

In the early 1900s, the first journalism schools in America, Rosen tells me, began as an agreement between universities and newspapers: “Send us people we can plug into our production team, and start writing stories tomorrow,” were the papers demands. Basically, said Rosen, that meant anyone who understood the First Amendment and could pass some basic ethics training. And that turned out to be a great deal for all parties.

Students liked it because it was practical—a job waited for them the second they graduated. (“I hear that over and over again from students,” said Rosen. “‘I want it to be practical.’ We’re not going to teach you any theory class here. There is no such thing.”) Newspapers also liked this arrangement because it off-loaded their training costs. Finally, universities liked it for two reasons: It’s great when graduates get jobs, and J-school is an effective way to negotiate with the key power brokers in town, says Rosen—i.e., people in the media.

“That’s what Prize culture at Columbia is about,” he says, referencing, of course, the Pulitzer Prize, which is administered by Columbia University. “It allows them to keep great relations with the New York Times, and that’s great for Columbia.” And it’s fantastic for the Times, which, says Rosen, loves to win Pulitzers. (Attempts to interview three high-level faculty at Columbia left me empty-handed.)

Everyone was very happy with this peach of a system, said Rosen—until, the Internet arrived. All of the sudden, journalists had brand new demands placed upon them. They needed to innovate, and catch up with technology. Not only did J-schools and newspapers lose their market share in business models, says Rosen, they lost their cultural stronghold.

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Over at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, Associate Dean and professor Andrew Mendelson takes one thing very seriously: making sure students are not telling the obvious stories, but rather the ones that come from under-represented communities. “You should never run out of stories,” says Mendelson, who, this year, welcomed CUNY’s largest journalism class ever (150 students program wide). “If it’s a slow news day, you’re not looking hard enough.”

To aid that goal, the school assigns students with “strategically picked” neighborhoods—i.e., not the Williamsburgs or West Villages of New York City. “We’re trying to get students into under-reported neighborhoods, and get them there so they are building relationships on the ground with people in the community,” says Mendelson. They also have a social journalism program wherein reporting is practiced “from the bottom up”—discovering what issues concern the community by monitory social media and giving voice to the people who live there.

Of course, embedded in all of those efforts are “all the things that are part of the distribution process,” says Mendelson, namely, social media, technology. “That is not a separate thing, we do it along the way.”

Similar to what Dean Perri Klass said at New York University, Mendelson says the biggest challenge for journalism schools today is not just to arm students with available tools for effective story-telling, it’s to keep tabs on the latest technologies available, to know how to use them, and teach students to do the same. “It’s incumbent on us to stay up on that,” says Mendelson. “It’s definitely a requirement to keep yourself nimble, and up to date, and ahead as much as possible—and it’s also a challenge.”

But to question the entire existence of journalism schools? That, says Mendelson, “is a false target; it’s about whether it’s a good education or a bad education,” he says, similar to any field of study. “There are good English programs and bad ones; there is nothing endemic to journalism education, except journalism changes as its tools have changed.”

Furthermore, the tendency to question its value is nothing historically different than before. “Every time there is turbulence in the field, those arguments come up again and again. You saw it with TV, and it came in when radio came in, and we’re seeing it with the Internet—they’re not new arguments, but they’re new shapes, depending on technology,” says Mendelson. “Sometimes it’s easy to look back and think, really? We’re still having this conversation?”

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Of course, it is far easier for the journalism-school-has-inherent-value message to come from people whose salaries rely on teaching it, than it does from those who paid for it and have come up somewhat empty-handed.

Stephen Steim, who went to Columbia J-School (not on scholarship) in 2010 said he is more than happy to “to be the curmudgeon-y voice” that expresses regret about it. Steim decided to attend Columbia to work on advocacy video journalism (and, indeed, is now the Creative Director at New Media Advocacy Project), but he does not credit Columbia for his current position. Prior to Columbia, he had already worked at Human Rights Watch in Chicago; it was then that he read an article by HRW’s Carroll Bogert that motivated him to study journalism. But in his video classes at Columbia, Steim felt he spent too much time doing things like waiting for a video to render; and while all the top-flight instructors boasted about the top-notch education he was getting, their TAs led the class, said Steim.

Ultimately, Steim said his favorite J-school experience had nothing to do with his intended focus (it was a class on book writing), and he was not connected to his current job through Columbia. So, what did it did get him? Debt that he fears he might be paying off until his toddler goes to college, and—that much more nebulous thing—Columbia’s ethereal prestige. “Having the degree helped give New Media Advocacy Project the sense that I could do the work while my portfolio of video journalism was still somewhat limited,” said Steim.

At Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, graduate Eric Kroh—now a senior reporter at Law360—has better feelings about the endeavor. His program was divided into quarters, only one of which was not spent in a news room. The actual hands-on experience of reporting—doing the thing he ultimately hoped to do—helped him immensely. But when it comes to the cost, things get trickier he says.

“‘I’m going to go to J-school and write for a newspaper’ might not make sense from a financial standpoint,” Kroh tells me. “There are fewer opportunities to have a middle class lifestyle unless you’re a known name, or work for certain publications that pay more, like trade publications,” he says. Nonetheless, Kroh especially values the connections he made while there. “I have a steady job and live in New York” says Kroh. “I don’t think that I’d be here if I didn’t go to journalism school.”

And now, Anayka Pomare—the once-reluctant Columbia student and now-imminent graduate—is about to make the same great leap into the professional unknown. And her ambitions are big: to own her own magazine and media company, “like Oprah’s O,” she say.

“When I go to career services, I feel like I’m talking to a wall. They don’t care what I have to say,” says Pomare. She believes she is ready for a job, despite the fact that career services is encouraging her to apply for another internship. “I didn’t come to graduate school to graduate again, and go straight into another internship,” says Pomare. “I need a salary and career.” (Her professors, on the other hand, have told her to try for editor positions, she says.)

Pomare has applied to three jobs so far. She’s given herself until April 11 to apply to eight in total. Her preferred position, straight out of Columbia, would be beauty editor at a place like Vanity Fair. And, she says, she recently met someone who worked there.

Was it through J-school connections? I ask.

“I don’t think it really had anything to do with J-school.” It was just drinks in the city, she says. Then she back-pedals a little. “But you know, sometimes the Columbia stamp is like, ‘I do want to help her out,’” she guesses of the Vanity Fair employee who took her resumé for review.

“It’s definitely for the name,” she said of Columbia’s appeal. “If you sit back and think about it, it’s annoying—I did all of this just to have a name on a resumé?” She laughs a little, though light-heartedly. “But yeah; it’s worth it.”

Illustration by Katie Narduzzo

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