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.)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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