I missed the weekly #wjchat Web journalism discussion last night on Twitter, which focused on whether journalism schools are still relevant, and what their roles should be today. As a J-school graduate (Missouri BJ’04) and someone who has seen a lot of recent grads enter and exit newsrooms, I have some insight.
Journalism school is neither totally irrelevant, nor totally necessary. There are things they do well, and not so well. Each prospective student can decide whether these things are worth their time and money…
Journalism school is good for:
- Learning basics of how to report and write information. This part is a craft more than an art. There is a right way to write clearly, and you can learn it from a good school.
- Meeting a network of peers. If you do it right, you will leave J-school with hundreds of friends, colleagues and professors who share a lot in common and can help each other along their career paths for years down the road. Journalism jobs are still a lot about who you know, and who knows you — and J-school is a great place to know a lot of people.
- Helping find your first job. Especially for undergrads, having the newly minted journalism degree (and the contacts I just mentioned) can be enough credibility to get you that first entry-level job. (After that, however, your career largely sinks or swims based on work performance and experience.)
- Stoking idealism. Graduates usually believe that journalism defends democracy and can change the world. You need confidence and a make-it-happen attitude to succeed in today’s challenging journalism environment, so that’s a good thing.
Journalism school is bad for:
- Creating understanding of how news really works. J-school can better prepare you for learning on the job later, but there’s no substitute for learning on the job.
- Teaching you about the broader world. You should travel, study many non-journalism areas and possibly even get a second degree in something you would like to cover. There are many sources to turn to for online news on any subject — if you’re not an authority bringing something special to the topic, you’ll get lost.
- Teaching ahead of the technology curve. A few schools, professors or classes do this better than others, but most are teaching a journalism ethos from at least a few years ago (when the professors were in the biz), from textbooks written a few years ago, on systems designed a few years ago. Students have to take responsibility for staying on top of the cutting edge themselves.
- Guaranteeing you will succeed as a journalist. A lot of bad journalists manage to graduate from J-schools and wash out of the news business later. The degree doesn’t matter if you don’t have work ethic, aggressiveness, initiative and common sense.