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.