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Yeah, Forget J-School. You'll Learn on The Job. What Job?

In business, Media on July 15, 2009 at 4:14 pm
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Journalism school, says freelancer Richard Sine in today’s Huffington Post, is an expensive waste of time.

“You can pick up most media skills on the job, or with a few hours of instruction. If you screw up, nobody dies, and nothing collapses. This is why so many — perhaps most — journalism pros have built successful careers without touching J-school, and why many of them considered a J-degree a dubious credential even in the field’s heyday,” he argues.

I agree with some of what he says in the piece, but then I never went to J-school, like many of my co-horts. We studied English or history or politics or economics and went straight into writing for a living, whether staff or freelance, confident we’d made a cool, fun, challenging career choice. We would, as Sine points out, learn on the job, and we did.

That’s because there was a job.

We walked into a newsroom (God, I miss newsrooms!) down long hallways filled with eight-foot-high front pages and framed Pulitzers won by people sitting behind us or across the room and thought, holy shit, they really expect me to do this. But we also knew, from that first stomach-churning day, that with the job came an apprenticeship of sorts that’s harder and harder to find these days, access to our senior colleagues’ accumulated experience, wisdom and advice — not to mention an in-house attorney or two to make sure we didn’t hang our bosses’, and our own, bums out to dry.

I found out the hard way, on deadline, that you actually could slander a convicted criminal. Who knew? The lawyer at the Globe and Mail, then my employer, thank God. If I’d attended J-school, I’d have known that. But, like some of us, I got a staff job, then another, then another, based on my freelance writing and reporting, not recommendations from professors.

I agree with Sine that forking over $70,000 to attend Columbia J-school these days is an odd use of limited funds when many newspapers can’t shrink their newshole and staffs quickly enough. I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t have to, and that’s the problem. I was lucky enough to: 1) get a great newspaper job 2) get two more great newspaper jobs 3) learn from some terrific editors at those papers 4) learn on the job, and not in the safety of a classroom, how to do journalism the way it’s supposed to be done. I do not mean printed on dead trees! I mean sourced, accurate, checkable, in on deadline, with context and history and, one hopes, a bit of wit when appropriate. I knew there were a hundred people dyng for my job and, if I screw up, they’d get it and I’d be gone.

And Sine’s easy sneer that “nothing collapses” is cynical and untrue.

Plenty collapses when we read stories and assume (do we still?) they are based in fact — when they are not. If you don’t go to J-school and you can’t get a job and you can’t find a smart, tough, terrifying editor who will make damn sure you understand that when I ask for a story I do not mean some entertaining fiction, how will you learn?

If you skip J-school, who’s going to teach you how to do it well? To laugh at, then spike, your crappy, boring, stupid story? Or make you rewrite it three or four or six times? How will you know, really, it’s not cool to call up and quote all your friends? Or borrow from someone else’s work and “forget” to credit them? Or rewrite a press release and add, OK, one whole source (hmmm, maybe their PR person?) and call that reporting?

I started writing, and getting paid for writing, while I was a freshman in college. I was lucky enough to find an editor at a national women’s magazine in Toronto who gave me a challenging paid feature assignment from the very start — follow a team of young athletes to Michigan and write about them and their game. I’d never written a magazine piece. I’d never covered sports. I’d never interviewed a bunch of teens. I’d never traveled for a story. The editor handed back my manuscript covered with red circles. She’d circled the word “is” on every page. It looked like my damn story had the measles! But she taught me to use specific verbs in the active tense. I didn’t have to sit in a classroom and spend two years and a lot of money because she gave me the time and attention to teach me how to do it properly and still collect my check and get another assignment.

Would that happen to a hungry, young ambitious journo today? Yeah, right. For one thing, you’re getting elbowed out of the way to even the smallest, crappiest assignments by old farts like me as even our best markets disappear and editors refuse to return calls.

Some of the very best newspaper and magazine editors, the ones who taught me the craft as I went along, these days have: 1) no job 2) no budget if they still have a job, 2) no space 3) no time to tutor or even talk to their writers, certainly the freelance ones learning on the fly.

So, yeah, forget J-school. You’ll figure it out somehow.

  1. If I had to do it all over again (college) I think I’d get a degree in pharmaceutical communications and never look back.

  2. Great post. I didn’t go to J-School because I was fortunate enough to land an intership right out of college that turned into a staff job. (But, even back then(circa 2002) it was getting fairly rare for interns to get hired–by 2004, the new batch of interns would get the “don’t expect a job” speech.)

    I think Sine’s “nobody dies, nothing collapses” thing misses the boat. It depends on what kind of journalism you’re doing. There are all sorts of ethical issues that can come up in situations where the decisions you make about what you write and report can have very real effects on people’s lives(sometimes very damaging effects.) I’m thinking of foreign reporting in particular: there are a few places that if you use a person’s name, their life or family could be put in danger. Or, domestically, if you’re writing about a small company, and it’s a negative piece, you could put somebody out of business. Reporting isn’t brain surgery, but it’s something that takes more than an afternoon to understand. And as the industry is moving away from actual reporting and more to hydroponically grown bloggers, I wonder how easy it will be to pick up the journalism skills needed…

  3. Michael, your point is a good one. More than 10 years ago, I created and taught an NYU class on legal and ethical issues in journalism, that’s still on the books for their continuing ed. classes. Freelance work, even domestically, has offered me several occasions where I could have indeed ruined someone’s work, reputation, relationship and, even endangered their life. I know what a responsibility it is, and that’s partly because I’ve worked alongside people who showed me how to do it well but decently.

    I know why people love to tell stories, as do we. But I’m adamant that story-telling/reporting have some sort of structure and ethos to it other than whatever sells fastest to the most people.

  4. What journalism lacks today is intellectual rigor. Which is just a fancy way of saying that stripped of all the Woodward & Bernstein glamor, writing a good news story isn’t that different from writing a good history essay or scientific paper. J-school can’t teach you to be intellectually curious, to love the truth, to look at your own story and ask yourself, “Did what I write make logical sense?”

    I think you either have these qualities or you don’t, and a lot of journalists don’t. Exacerbating the problem is the lack of editing today. One thing I hate about blogging is the lack of editors. I don’t like my work being torn apart anymore than the next writer, but I miss that second pair of eyes with a fresh perspective.

    Never went to J-school, and never felt the lack. The best reporters I knew didn’t go there. I have an MA in political science, which is a BS major (at least as far as the hard sciences are concerned). I was in grad school when I got my first newspaper job, and I was amazed at how applicable those liberal arts skills – obtaining, examining and synthesizing information – applied to journalism.

  5. A good editor is a huge factor in your ability to learn to improve — how else can we? Reading others’ work that we admire is good, and I do that as I imagine you do, but terrific editors see the factual and intellectual holes yet to be plugged in a piece. It’s rare now, even in print, to find an editor who really wants to make a piece fantastic, rather than readable.

    I’d liken a great editor to an athletic coach; you have to bring them some raw talent and aptitude but their demands and vision can push you to excellence.

    • A sign of the times is the decline of copyediting. My wife grew up with the Washington Post, and she’s shocked at the number of typos she sees. Not to mention proofreading for books, which is long gone. Organizations that can’t be bothered to check spelling can’t be bothered to teach journalism.

  6. I once took a journalism class, some teacher thought it a good idea and actually it was.

    Not that I ever became a journalist but the teacher was tough and fair and screamed at me a great deal but out of it all I became a better reader of the news. To me there are lots of influential bloggers who could do with a class.

    The lessons learned were simple but stuck with me There is value in craft. Journalism isn’t creative writing no matter how creative you are. Mark Twain was a shitty journalist. Concise writing is difficult, putting an entire story in the first paragraph and make it interesting takes some practice. Organizing facts and thoughts for a story that airs in five minutes requires discipline. Checking your sources over and over and fact checking is not a luxury. Learn grammer and spelling, it helps. (my personal failing) Stories matter and the forth estate is vital in a democracy. And lastly anyone who doesn’t understand these simple insights is in PR.

  7. Well, the assumption is that by the time you’re working at a major national like the WashPost, generally 8-10 years into your career, you know how to spell. But maybe not.

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