This week’s 4 arguments against j-school

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Roger Ailes told journalism students at the University of North Carolina “I think you ought to change your major” this past spring, and while that may be a bit apocalyptic, traditional journalism education is coming ever more under scrutiny. Emory University announced last week it would shutter its journalism program, because it was “pre-professional,” according to one account, and a lousy fit with the school’s other areas of excellence. CUNY prof and media gadfly Jeff Jarvis has recommended some changes to journalism education, as has Poynter’s Howard Finberg.

There’s agitation outside the academy as well:

• Atlantic Digital Editor Bob Cohn says when it comes to hiring, he’s come to realize “everyone is an editor in chief” now:

What we’re looking for, I’ve come to realize, is people who can do a bit of everything: report and write stories; write headlines and deks; select and crop photos; fact check and copy edit the work of others; make charts and graphs; oversee social media; manage outside writers. (And hey, can you do some coding?)

Other traits Cohn looks for? Being able to frame stories in interesting ways. Being quick. Having what Atlantic Wire Editor Gabriel Snyder calls “keyboard presence.” And not necessarily a journalism degree:

In pursuit of journalists with these new skills, we’ve found that it can pay to look in unlikely places. Alan Taylor, who oversees The Atlantic’s crowd-pleasing “In Focus” photo blog, was a web developer at the Boston Globe when he started assembling image galleries on the side. James Hamblin, The Atlantic’s new health editor, is a medical doctor who came straight out of residency in radiology to join us as a full-time editor and writer. Neither Alan nor Jim came to us with anything close to a traditional journalism background. But they have the right sensibilities–and the skills to succeed in a new age.

• Lilly O’Donnell’s Huffington Post bio identifies her as a “Recent Graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism”; she doesn’t feel like she got her money’s worth:

As much as adding $60,000 to the $30,000 I already owed from undergrad made me nauseous, I took everyone’s word for the fact that it was worth it, that this was my future we were talking about; that no price should stand in the way of education. …

In 1990, the average student loan debt in this country was $8,200. By 2010, that figure had more than tripled, to $25,250 according to a report by the Institute for College Access & Success. And only half of the people who graduated college in the last five years are employed full-time, according to a recent Rutgers University study. So with the buy-in ever increasing and not enough jobs to go around on the other end, higher education is looking less like an investment and more like a pyramid scheme.

• Bill Cotterell spent four decades covering Florida politics before retiring this spring; he says “I’d estimate that the majority of really top reporters I’ve worked with over the years either didn’t have a journalism degree, or overcame it.” Journalistic training, he says, “is a lot like driver’s ed. Once you learn the basics, it’s pretty much trial and error.

It’s not that we don’t need more J-school grads today, though we don’t. It’s that we need more reporters with knowledge of economics, politics, science, business, history and the liberal arts. And they need to love reading.

• Felix Salmon goes deeper on that point, alongside a kicky takedown of journalistic fundamentalism (saying investigative journalism is the heart of journalism is “extremely elitist, germane only for a handful of big daily newspapers”). Knowing how to write well is good, Salmon argues, but knowing how to read well is better. It’s not exactly an argument against j-school, but it’s not one that smiles on journalistic orthodoxy, either:

Think about it this way: reading is to writing as listening is to  talking — and someone who talks without listening is both a boor and a bore. If you can’t read, I don’t want you in my newsroom. Because you aren’t taking part in the conversation which is all around you. …

But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.

Felix, there shouldn’t be a hyphen after “artfully.” (I learned that on the job.)

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  • Anonymous

    Mr. Beaujon:
    I feel you mischaracerize Ms. O’Donnell’s story.
    Nowhere does she say that she didn’t get her money’s worth, which, in the narrative you’ve constructed means that journalism school wasn’t worth it. She mostly talks about how she was pressured into being shackled to loans without thinking twice.

    She specifically says:
    “This is not to say that Americans should stop striving toward a good education… But I can, as someone in the middle of a head-on collision with reality, urge others to take a little more time to consider what they’re really signing up for when they take those loans… By all means, go to college. But do it as cheaply as you can. If a prestigious name on your diploma is important to you, consider at least starting out at a state school, and then transferring somewhere more impressive (read: expensive).”

    But that wouldn’t fit in with Mr. Beaujon’s headline, so it can’t be included.
    Again, the need to create a narrative trumps journalistic principles and ethics.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Beaujon
    Please notice the phrase “small-business representative”
    It is another compound adjective.
    The hyphen is appropriate.
    The person was not a “small representative” nor simply a “business representative” but a “small-business representative”. It is the words “small” and “business” together that are the modifier, and so must be hyphenated to connect them into one adjective.

  • Anonymous

    It would have been good to add some perspective on the subject rather than telling us what a bunch of people said.

    1. I personally see a confusion resulting from journalism being conflated with the media industry, the technology revolution, the tools of journalism and teaching methods.

    Journalism is always journalism.
    The principles of journalism are constant.
    As well the ethics.

    It is immaterial whether a journalist writes notes longhand, types it into their iPad, records it on their Galaxy 3s and transcribes later, or takes a video and uses that to create a story (assuming, for the moment, it will end up as a story in print). A journalist must create a truthful, complete, thorough and accurate picture of reality which empowers people to make informed decisions. The tools are there to be used; not to substitute for journalism.

    2. I agree, in general (and close to entirely) that journalism school should be part of a journalist’s training. I have two points.
    a. There are educators out there who seem to be able to talk abstractly and theoretically about journalism and sound good, but when it comes down to the “realities of journalism” they feel entitled to not follow the principles of ethics of journalism. As an example, Mr. Edward Schumacher-Matos, the current ombudsman at NPR, is a professor at Columbia School of Journalism. When a small-business representative was aired opposing the Affordable Care Act listeners complained that they were not told he headed a local chapter and was an unofficial representative for an organization that brought a lawsuit against the ACA. Mr. ESM fought for NON-disclosure of this connection. It wasn’t until someone at CSJ wrote a blog criticizing him that he backed off.
    Read the comments also to see how Mr. ESM bends over to defend his position.
    He also fought for non-disclosure when NPR aired puffed pieces of the products of corporate sponsors.
    By the way, his predecessor also taught journalism and also lectured critics on the “realities of journalism.”
    b. There are many people on the internet who do valuable work without having had a formal journalism education. I think it is because they take the principles and ethics of journalism seriously.
    By mentioning “a” and “b”, I do not mean to say that people should not go to journalism school. I mean that they should get a solid foundation in the basics of journalism before worrying about the tools of the trade or the realities of the media industry.

  • Anonymous

    “Felix, there shouldn’t be a hyphen after “artfully.” (I learned that on the job.)”

    I don’t know what the job was, but you learned something that is not correct.
    Salmon used the compound adjective “artfully-constructed” to modify the
    noun “lede”. The use of the hyphen is appropriate (and needed) in this
    case because it is the two words together that modify the noun.

    Or, as the wikipedia entry on the subject illustrates the difference:
    metal and white hot metal refer to subtly different things: in the
    first, white modifies hot which modifies metal – it is this layering of
    modification that calls for the hyphenation in order to clarify the
    meaning, that the metal mentioned is very hot. In the second example,
    however, white and hot separately modify the noun – if one were to be
    removed, the other’s relationship with the noun would be unchanged.”

    the phrase “artfully-constructed lede”, if either “artfully” or
    “constructed” were removed, the other’s relationship with “lede” would
    be changed.

    The hyphen would only be removed if each of the words
    individually can be used to modify the noun. One would never say “an
    artfully lede” since “artfully” is an adverb modifying the verb
    “constructed”. One would have to change the phrase to “artful lede”.

    could at least have confirmed your suspicions or thought about it a
    little bit before posting. Instead, you illustrate ignorance (as in not
    knowing what you claim you know). Again, your insistence on cleverness,
    cuteness and chimminess gets in the way of the journalism.

  • Hadassah Hannah

    What an interesting article! I still believe in journalism school, or at least journalism classes if they have a strong hands-on component as mine have. But I also know that folks without any college journalism education can and do become excellent reporters. And I also know of folks who graduated from top “J-schools” who managed NEVER to have actually done reporting. Finally, I want to amend slightly what one interviewee said. I would say that if you DON’T read (as opposed to “can’t”) constantly and easily and quickly and well and for pleasure, I can’t use you.

  • Sarah

    using the hyphen = chicago style!

  • Dan Berman

    How elitist to say that only a few big newspapers can do investigative journalism. I worked at 3 smaller papers in different areas of the county and at each was a part of investigative journalism. If this is only left to a few papers, local governments and businesses will exist in the shadows and we will all be poorer.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pro-journalism schools, but I wish schools would talk with more folks in the business when adjusting their curriculums. Part of the problem is that j-schools are run like businesses, and the courses that draw students aren’t necessarily the ones that will help them the most. For instance, I would love to see course offerings on “story structure” and “statistics,” but I can’t imagine students flocking to sign up for those.

  • Cj Hoyt

    Well, as a News Director who’s hired folks straight out of college or in their 2nd or 3rd job for the last 8 years, I know I’m much more likely to get a top performer from a top journalism school than from anywhere else. That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists from smaller programs or people who can be great journalists without a journalism degree, but I know who’s more prepared to step into the job and perform at a high level.