To the future in reverse...
I thought the Taco Bell dog was funny.
Tomarken.com > Criticism > Journalism School/Shmornalism School (08-20-02)
E-Mail This Post/Page

Journalism School/Shmornalism School

Daniel Paul Beckmann, Moderator of Letters
08.20.02-Washington, DC

Yea, I’ve been complaining about journalism school since I got here. I always complain about things, which is why I thought I would make a good journalist.

Although Journalism Schools, or "J-schools" are not ranked, a prominent figure at what many consider America’s most prominent journalism school, Columbia-New York, wrote an editorial in the New York Times bringing up the validity of the Masters in the Science of Journalism degree.

External Link
Rethinking the Lessons of Journalism School By Michael Janeway

I applied to Columbia, I was put onto their waiting list. I found their admissions officers to be rude, offensive, and most particularly snooty at most every step of the application process. Any attempt to find out what they actually do substantively in their masters program was rudely denied. They offered no tours of their facilities, and the door to their bunker of a building on the New York’s Upper West Side was extremely hard to find and then especially hard to open.

I was eventually knocked off of their waiting list- It is well known throughout the world that Columbia likes to build the largest waiting lists in the land well beyond their capacity to ever take anyone off of them. They never extended the courtesy of contacting me in anyway shape or form about their decision to eventually not accept me and I now attend another highly reputable journalism school and after reading Janeway’s article I feel much happier and secure in my position in life because of it. Apparently Columbia, the school established by Joseph Pullitzer himself(they give out his prize you see), was aware that they had something worth hiding from their prospective students.

Please keep in mind, I am not sore about not getting into that place because I’m doing a-ok-thank you for your concern. But, my experience with Columbia was not uncommon to most people who have tried to deal with them from the outside and these experiences are worth noting, now in light of their new external revelation about the quality of their program.
As a student with three weeks left in my competing Master’s program, my fellow students and I are starting to try and figure out what exactly has happened to us over the last year. Mr. Janeway’s opinion article ironically comes at an interesting point in this self-analysis.

From my year as part of the infrastructure that I belong to, I fully understand what Mr. Janeway is writing about and if you have been around me at any point within the last year, I am sure I have mentioned some of these very issues, if I could get you to listen.

According to the great journalistic administrators of our time, there are currently two philosophies out there when it comes to journalism school curricula : Practical and Theoretical. From my perspective, I will explain some of the inadequacies of being pushed through both systems and then offer a substantial solution package.

The Practical School of Journalism-The HOW? School.
Currently I attend the most practical journalism school in the industry-no really I do! What they mean by practical is that they give you ten weeks of journalistic instruction, and then for the remaining thirty weeks they have you work for a bona fide ‘client’ publication or you produce stories for a bona fide cable television news program.

There is virtually no discussion of what you are doing at any point of this journey.

You arrive at the office/classroom at 9 AM, you file a story, and you try to leave by 5 PM, but you may normally stay until 7 PM just like in the real world! I have my own desk, my own phone number, even some blank business cards that I can write my name on! I represent a newspaper or a television station and I send my work back to them and they are supposed to publish it and most of the time they do. I pay my school money, and the station/paper pays my school money. The school pays the electric bill and in most cases the phone bill, as well as the salaries of our professor/editors and of course the rent and school’s heavy promotional costs.

There are some required classes, but a majority of them teach you how to use something and don’t address the WHY you are using it. They also tend to teach you how to do something based upon the way its been done up until this point. When you leave the building at the end of the day, you will know HOW its done on at least of the forefront of how they were doing it five or ten years ago when your professor/editor last worked in the field. Stuff, however, unfortunately changes quite often these days and in fact, stuff always has. If you were to ask some of the dead people that were running newspapers back in the 1950s that are now closed down or merged what they were thinking at the time, they would have told you that television would never catch on–Robots can only act as they are programmed you see. ( lets see how the television execs. react to what’s coming to them…).
I’m crazy, I know it and there’s no denying it… I always thought that a master’s degree in order to be called such a name required some sort of concentrated thesis-a big huge paper that requires binding at Kinkos® two hours before its due.

My other snooty friends trying to get liberal arts masters degrees have been making fun of me all this year and even though I am getting tired of it, they make a solid point. I came before my board of the Practical School of Journalism before I arrived on their campus and offered to them a proposal to do a master’s thesis in their house, in which I would study how to put more research and information into your everyday stories.

Yea, I thought I was really on to something with that one (you know, BETTER INFORMATION=BETTER STORIES THAN THE COMPETITION=MORE $$$)…their committee, however, disagreed. Behind closed doors they held a meeting in which they reviewed my three-page proposal-I was not invited to this meeting. At that meeting, whenever and wherever it was held, they apparently decided my proposal was not descriptive enough and so they tabled the matter until oblivion and then failed to ever notify me of any of these actions. Essentially they shut out not only my particular idea, but they gave me the strong indication that the entire idea of a masters thesis was not up for discussion. A thesis was not practical you see, but I was left to wonder what separates what I’m doing in school from what I did before I came here, which was actually working in the field of journalism and getting paid doing it.

Now that I have pooped on their parade a little, let me tell you why this experience appears now to be most valuable at even this present hour. I currently hold a press pass that allows me access to Capitol Hill and countless other places around our nation’s capitol. I’ve reported from the capitol, the White House, the Pentagon, and other places around DC and the folks at those places really had to take me seriously when I was there because what I would report actual people actually read in places outside the beltway. I don’t know how else I would have ever gotten the chance to go to those these places with a legitimate purpose and I love calling home to tell my parents that I went to them. I have something special to offer my employer, whether they are journalistic or not, from what I have legitimately experienced for myself in this center of our universe. I have learned and experienced so much actually being a Washington reporter that even if they tried to explain this stuff to me in a classroom (as they tried in my Political Science years), they could never have fully captured it.

Working practically has created my arsenal of clips that, as they tell me, will help me to get an actual job. No word yet on the job front, but I’ll let you know how it turns out…

I also got through this process having to deal with less bias then one might think because this program was so practically based. I just did my work, argued with the instructor about why I wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it and that’s the true process that one must go through in the real world, that is, unless they have a mutually beneficial website commmunity for which to post something that’s unaffected.

Theoretical School of Journalism-The WHY? School.

Journalism classes are stupid.

Watching videos of perceived broadcast controversies caught on tape…studying journalists that died twenty years ago and treating them like gods…what does this do to develop someone’s ability to think for themselves? At the Master’s level, a person should have already established that they can think, now they should be challenged to finally do so.

You can only learn so much from anecdotes and that’s essentially what you get at these places. Come on, lets face it, the people that teach these classes full-time are former journalists who for one reason or another are not actively working in the industry full time. They have things that worked for them in their world when they were starting out a long time ago that may or may not translate into being helpful in the present day…let alone the unscripted future. It is really hard to base a whole curriculum based off of short stories from the field.

In the classroom, you are at the whim and mercy of the way in which your journalism instructor sees the world—right, wrong, incomplete, offensive, nazi, stale….whatever. I graduated from elementary school, and in fact, even a high school and then a college. I had constructed my view of the world by the time I took the GRE and I am somewhat happy with it. It is not a journalism school’s place to instruct me about what my view of the world should be-they are given the task of teaching me how to explain the entire world which I believe is enough by itself.

The only way I would become a professor is if I got tired or fired from journalism. I would not hit the classroom because I was all of a sudden energized to explore the new limits of the field, not in education’s present state, unless I was totally full of myself and wanted to spread my personal propaganda throughout the land. While this may indeed happen to me and in fact, with an MSJ, I will be able to teach because it is the penultimate degree in this field, if I were not still contributing and working the field in some legitimate way, shape or form, as a student in that class I would validly question my credentials and motivations.

I have a great deal of respect for journalism professors that are either currently working in the field or who have accomplished a great deal within their careers and are now interested in sharing their wealth of experience with the younger generations. But in this business, unfortunately, one size does not fit all and in these traditional journalism classes that issue is constantly forced to the surface.
WHAT NOW?
What my friends and I are confronting right now with three weeks left in this program, after paying, not $20,000 as Janeway’s article suggests, but instead $40,000, is a job market that’s as tough as its always been for journalists with the terrible pay to match. Also, despite a sense of entitlement to a job that one has after paying this much, no one is lining up to take an MSJ from our program, in fact, several employers have suggested that we seek internships as the ‘next level’ before actual employment(which hurts, especially with my addiction to food and housing).

I can recall at the open house at this school that they promoted their jobs JOBS JOBS!! without explaining what we would learn here. They implied their school had vast connections throughout the industry-their faculty members were well-engrained players. This didn’t sit well for me at the time and now I can see why in two ways:

1) When you have four quarters worth of students run through a place like the practical capitalist factory that it is, there is very little time for the faculty to take ownership and get to know their students. Mentoring is so important in this industry and I don’t think establishing solid relationships works well through a drive-thru window.

2) If the teachers and administrators have this great amount of students flowing through like Drano and with the competition for journalism jobs always fierce, wouldn’t employers be tired of hearing from these teachers all the time begging them to take their students? I had one professor that openly said on the first day of class that he would open-up his ‘arsenal of contacts’ at the ‘network level’ in the event that we produced quality work. Last time I checked, this same well-connected individual had not returned any of the emails from my classmates, especially those asking him about class-related issues.
You know, my private and most snooty undergraduate Midwestern States University always claimed that journalism was so icky and vocational that even though they had one of the presidents of the network’s wives on their board and they could open up a j-department overnight, they would never allow a journalism class to be taught at their school in the light of day (They only offered journalism classes at their night school with adjuct professors).


vocation vo·ca·tion (v-kshn) n.
1. A regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly suited or qualified.
2. An inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a certain kind of work, especially a religious career; a calling.

Yes, j-school can be considered vocational, but what the hell is a business school then? What about the law and those lawyers on the back of the phone book…is that not a vocation? These law and business and medical schools are considered more valuable to universities becuase the people that graduate from these programs make money. Journalists traditionally don’t do as well, but since Doctors, Lawyers and Business Tycoons read newspapers, it is important that the people who write for those outlets know what they’re doing.The truth is there really doesn’t have to be that much of a difference between a j-school and the other schools that teach professions. There is just a perception(which is apparently now shared by some administrators at the j-schools themselves) that journalism is strictly an icky vocation. If j-schools are interested in their own survival the vocational mind-set inside and outside the school needs to change. Journalism masters programs do have a place in this world, a very specific one and the best indication of this can be found in how stupid Americans are about their world around them as compared with their counterparts in foreign lands.I offer the following to be slated, Beckmann’s plan to save the world through the Journalism Schools masters programs:1) Self-proclaimed Good Masters Programs should be reserved for those who tried to learn something else about their world during their undergraduate years like history, economics, art, etc., so that they may actually know what they are writing about. The journalism school can then teach them how to explain what they know and apply it to situations that come up in our world. People who only have communications/journalism backgrounds from their undergraduate years only know how to explain nothing really well. These people should be allowed in a masters program once they have worked for a few years.

2) The schools should work directly with industry to find out what industry needs to evolve and then provide it for them. In order to do this, Journalism schools should be centers of research to provide a direction for the industry. They should require students to construct their own research program so that they may offer something legitimate to the industry that is all their own. If history MA programs simply taught their students how to be professors and just let them TA, they wouldn’t have anything extraordinary to offer a university-their thesis sets them apart from the others. A Journalism thesis, however, should be muitlifacited, including a large research paper as well as a tangible product produced from their research. Masters programs should produce the future pioneers of the industry and nobody else. They should require their students to prove thier initiative early on in their careers.

3) Masters degrees should be advanced degrees…and not those that are offered to people who have never worked in the business and all of a sudden want to become famous. There should be a place for those people who have worked professionally in other fields in advanced journalism programs, but their admittance should only be allowed once it has been determined that they understand the fundamentals of journalism. Masters students should come to school with piles of questions already formulated from their work as either a practicing journalist or from some other profession that they have practiced so that they can add something specific and unique to the class discussions. Students should also be able to TA undergraduate journalism classes based upon their experiences so that they can learn how to become better qualified as journalism teachers in the future.

4) Classes should be taught jointly under the authority of those who actually know something-Economists, Biologists, Political Theorists, Doctors, etc.. and those who can actually explain it-the Journalism professors. I can recall the conversation in the halls of my undergraduate political science department where they complained that politics is not black and white but rainbow colored…the history department argued that journalists had no perspective longer then the last 10 years and thus history is repeating itself faster. We are attempting to write for people who know what they are talking about, and trust me, they know that we don’t really know what we’re talking about, even though we can get away with it among the ‘lay’ Americans.

5) Some effort should be made to create a place in this harsh, cruel world for those who want to learn how to basically do journalism. I did it by going out to Butte, MT and reporting for minimum wage. I did it by interning and being treated like a brainless piece of shit at network affiliates throughout the county. I say this, and I still don’t have a job, and I don’t expect my journalism school to provide one for me. This is a really tough industry to get into and from some accounts to stay alive within. There should be no perceived short-cuts, but with consideration to the reality of the various back-door connections into this industry and this world, there should be some place where a person can work hard and if they prove themselves can indeed become a journalist in this country-for that’s the American way!. This industry is in a great need of fresh blood all of the time, whether its realized or not. Education has leveled the playing field of back-door entrances for other industries in this country and can be easily translated to journalism so long as the admissions departments only have a singular and centrally located entrance to their building. This basic education, however, should not be awarded as the industry’s penultimate degree.

6) No more cheezy slogans!

Well, why not one last quotable for old time sakes?…
give a person a fishing pole and tell him how to use it and you can make it as a fisherman today…
stimulate a person to achieve the fishing net and then maybe they’ll be able to construct the next fishing technology that will not only make them in charge of the fishing industry, but also feed many more people…

I write all of this knowing, good and well, that the journalism industry, as a whole, is one of the most irresponsible businesses out there. The journalism business has a strong and storied history of fly-by-night profits and losses as the primary consideration and then responsibly educating the country in a distant second, often despite the protests from the journalists that work for these organizations. The most important thing that a journalist’s work effects, is not really the present day-but both the future and the past.

Historians use journalistic accounts to help shape their impression of history and if they are wrong or jaded then history will forever be wrong. Attorneys make arguments based upon what is reported in newspapers.

Social scientists have a broader perspective on the issue of the effects of journalism than those within the industry and it is hard to see or understand these long term effects from the inside of a news-room.

Asking members of this business, both in print and broadcast to invest in their long-term future by aiding these schools to produce students with a broader perspective and to bring more with them to contribute to the marketplace will not be an easy sell, because these companies won’t see immediate benefits. It will take several generations of a school proving itself by providing innovative students into the work force before the media industries could realize how investing in education will pay off.

A failure to educate American journalists on not just the best perceived way to do their job, but more importantly on how to innovate and advance their field while providing the most information, will best be reflected in the failures and shortcomings of our Democratic American populace as a whole.


Creative Commons License
Some Rights Reserved 2001-2006, Tomarken.com/Tomarken.org. All objects are the property of the individual contributors. Tomarken.com is the house and some of the rights to the design, concept and idea of that house are reserved by Tomarken.com/Tomarken.org. Tomarken.com/ Tomarken.org resides not for profit and is maintained by its board of moderators.