By Christopher B. Daly
In its spring/summer issue for 2018, the Columbia Journalism Review ran an odd attack on, of all things, journalism education. It was written by Felix Salmon, a journalist whose work I admire. But in this case, almost every sentence he wrote was outdated, tendentious, or flat-out wrong.
Here’s his piece in regular text and my comments in all caps bold.
By Felix Salmon
When it comes to journalism school, there are two questions. The first is the tough one, and was asked and answered by Michael Lewis in a blistering (and very funny) takedown in The New Republic in 1993: Is it all bullshit? The answer then was a clear yes.
THIS SEEMS GLIB, ESPECIALLY COMING FROM SOMEONE WHO NEVER WENT TO ONE.
In the 25 years since Lewis wrote his article, the occupation of journalism has become more precarious than ever: Joseph Pulitzer’s plan to “raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession” rings hollow in an age of Chartbeat, post quotas, and pay-per-pageview. If you meet a theologian today, or a lawyer, or a doctor, it’s reasonable to assume they have studied deeply and learned a lot in order to do their job. That’s not the case with journalism, nor should it be;
ARE YOU MAKING THE CASE FOR IGNORANCE HERE?
even J-school’s staunchest defenders don’t consider a journalism degree to be a necessary prerequisite for anybody entering the field.
GRANTED, A DEGREE IS NEITHER NECESSARY NOR SUFFICIENT. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE ALL WORTHLESS FOR ALL PEOPLE. FOR SOME STUDENTS, THEY ARE A LIFELINE.
Thus have the contours of the debate stood for at least a quarter century. ACTUALLY, THIS DEBATE HIS NOT CHANGED MUCH SINCE 1904. AS I WRITE IN MY BOOK “COVERING AMERICA,” JOSEPH PULITZER AND HORACE WHITE DEBATED WHETHER A NEWS REPORTER EVEN NEEDED TO ATTEND COLLEGE. (WHITE SAID NO, PULITZER YES)
Students at the Columbia Journalism School work at the “copy desk.”
On one side, we find people who think a journalism degree can be a useful way to learn skills that come in handy while editing and reporting; on the other, more perspicacious types look around, see that many of the greatest journalists have no such degree, and can find no evidence that a J-school education correlates in any way with better work.
THE FACT THAT “MANY OF THE GREATEST JOURNALISTS” OF THE PAST – OR EVEN OF THE PRESENT – DID NOT GET JOURNALISM DEGREES HAS NO BEARING ON WHETHER CURRENT STUDENTS WILL NEED THOSE DEGREES IN THE FUTURE. THINGS CHANGE.
IN MY OWN CASE, I STUDIED HISTORY IN COLLEGE IN THE 1970S AND WORKED ON THE COLLEGE PAPER. I GOT SUMMER JOBS AT SUBURBAN NEWSPAPERS, WHERE I WAS PAID. (AND PAID THE UNION WAGE, TOO!)
Perhaps it is worth asking a more pointed question: Should J-school even exist?
For anybody on Lewis’s side of the original question, the answer is easy. If J-school is indeed bullshit, if it adds no value to the world, if it has signally failed in more than a century of existence to raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession
JOURNALISM IS QUITE A BIT CLOSER TO A LEARNED PROFESSION THAN IT WAS A CENTURY AGO —well, then, it has no real ability to justify its existence, and the world would be better off without it. But the fact is that everybody should concede that the world would be better off without J-school, no matter how noble they consider Pulitzer’s original undertaking.
Indeed, the more useful J-school is, the more urgent and important its abolition becomes. A useless J-school is a waste of time and money for those who go there, offset by the benefit that accrues to teachers and other recipients of the students’ tuition. The net effect is negative, but the only people suffering real harm are the students. What’s more, it’s easy to avoid that harm: Don’t go to J-school. But what if the J-school defenders are right? What if J-school students really do end up with a significant advantage over those who don’t share their credentials? In that case, even more people are harmed.
J-school attendees might get a benefit from their journalism degree, but it comes at an eye-watering cost. The price tag of the Columbia Journalism School, for instance, is $105,820 for a 10-month program, $147,418 for a 12-month program, or $108,464 per year for a two-year program. That’s a $216,928 graduate degree, on top of all the costs associated with gaining the undergraduate prerequisites. (Columbia, it seems important to say, is also the publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, the publication you’re now reading.)
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: MOST SCHOOLS COST LESS, AND NEARLY ALL REDUCE THAT “STICKER PRICE” WITH SCHOLARSHIPS. SO, THIS IS AN ALARMIST FIGURE. TUITION IS STILL TOO HIGH, GRANTED. BUT IT IS NOT THAT HIGH.
There are also substantial opportunity costs. Once you’ve graduated from a four-year college, you’re eminently employable, and can enter the workforce immediately. If you delay your career by another year or two, you lose out on a significant amount of income as well as valuable professional experience. Even if you start working in journalism at minimum wage, after a year or two you’re still going to be richer, more experienced, more employable, and almost certainly more skilled than someone who’s spent that time getting a grad-school degree.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNG PERSON WHO GRADUATED WITH A DEGREE IN ENGLISH? THE WORLD IS HARDLY WAITING FOR THEM. MANY OF THEM TAKE STOCK IN THEIR LATE 20S AND DECIDE TO GET A MORE-PROFESSIONAL DEGREE, LIKE JOURNALISM. WE KICK-START MANY CAREERS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WHO WERE WAITING TABLES.
But what about the people who choose not to go to J-school? Here’s their problem: When you’re looking for that entry-level foot in the door, you’re going to be competing against applicants a year or two older than you who have just spent six figures getting themselves a Columbia degree. And if that credential is worth even marginally more than nothing, those candidates are going to be more attractive to employers, and more likely to get the job.
The result is a crowding-out effect, whereby job-hunting J-school graduates, having already caused themselves substantial financial harm, then go on to harm any aspiring journalistic employee who was smart enough not go to J-school.
What does that mean in practice? It means a much less diverse workforce, at a time when newsroom diversity has perhaps never been more important. If you’re poor, or working-class, or a rural person of color, or mobility-constrained, or a single mother struggling to bring up multiple children, or otherwise part of a group that has historically been underrepresented in newsrooms, is it possible for you to go to J-school? Sure. Is it likely? Not in the slightest. VALID POINT. THE WORST FEATURE ABOUT ALL OF AMERICAN HIGHER ED, NOT JUST JOURNALISM, IS THAT IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE.
Is it advisable? It is not. INVALID POINT. IF YOU WANTED TO GO AND YOU COULD GO, YOU DEFINITELY SHOULD.
Yet you’re exactly the kind of person news organizations should be spending more effort bringing into their ranks. Carl Bernstein never went to college; ANCIENT HISTORY
the journalistic profession needs more of his ilk, not fewer.
The best and simplest way to move toward that goal would be to abolish the graduate journalism degree entirely. That would help to level the playing field, while saving students billions of dollars in tuition. Better yet, it would bring the industry back to a model of on-the-job training. People wanting to enter the profession would get paid to learn the ropes.
BY WHOM??? I BENEFITED FROM THAT KIND OF ON-THE-JOB TRAINING, BUT THAT WAS 45 YEARS AGO! THE SMALL AND MEDIUM-SIZED PAPERS THAT USED TO OFFER THOSE KINDS OF JOBS ARE THE LEAST LIKELY AND LEAST ABLE TO OFFER THEM TODAY. NOT ONLY THAT, BUT OUR STUDENTS ARE OFTEN FILLING THE GAPS IN THOSE HOLLOWED-OUT LOCAL PAPERS. MOST J-SCHOOLS COMBINE CLASSROOM LEARNING WITH REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCE.
It’s more effective, it’s infinitely more real, and it focuses the mind: No one’s going to fire you from J-school if you misspell the mayor’s name in a headline.
Rather than putting money and effort into expensive trainee programs, news organizations no doubt will attempt to outsource their training to journalism schools, thereby getting someone else (anybody else!) to pay the cost.
THEY DID SO LONG AGO, AND THERE IS NO REASON TO THINK THEY WILL REVERSE THAT DECISION.
It’s a false economy, because a well-run trainee or internship program is not only cheaper than J-school, it’s also vastly more valuable.
NOT NECESSARILY. I LEARNED A LOT ON THE JOB, BUT I NEVER LEARNED ANYTHING ABOUT THE HISTORY, LAW, OR ETHICS OF OUR FIELD. BESIDES, WHERE ARE YOUNG PEOPLE SUPPOSED TO LEARN SKILLS LIKE ‘DATA JOURNALISM’ OR ‘DATA VISUALIZATION’? NOT FROM GRIZZLED VETERANS, BECAUSE MOST OF THEM DO NOT HAVE THESE SKILLS THEMSELVES. THAT’S WHY OUR STUDENTS ARE IN DEMAND FOR JOBS LIKE “MMJ” AND “MULTIMEDIA PRODUCER” AND “DATA INVESTIGATOR.”
So let’s abolish J-school, or at the very least turn it into a purely academic subject no one can mistake for vocational training. By doing so, we will force the training back into the newsrooms, where it belongs. WISHFUL THINKING.
THE FACT IS, WE NEED JOURNALISM EDUCATION NOW MORE THAN EVER.