Should You Go To J-School?

I make every effort to be as open and available as possible. Occasionally I receive questions about how to start a nonprofit, advice on content management systems, etc and I make an effort to answer every single one.

It just so happens that the following question was sent just before I got on a plane. So this individual will get a long and detailed response. And because it is a question I get regularly, I will point people to this blog post in the future when they ask the ever popular question: “Should I go to graduate school for journalism?”

My Background: For undergrad I did a double major in philosophy and rhetoric at U.C. Berkeley. These were both useless unless I wanted to sell thoughts on the street. To get started in journalism straight from undergrad I did a little over one year as a “professional intern.”

If One Doesn’t Go to J-school?

If you are set on journalism and straight out of undergrad be prepared to do the year of professional internships. You will not be handed a job. This has nothing to do with the current state of things. Even ten years ago when profits were high, you wouldn’t have been handed an ideal job. Journalism is a craft and has an apprenticeship model. They say a fair percentage of students don’t get past the first year of law school. Well, think about whether or not you can get past the first year of internships in journalism. If you aren’t prepared to pay some dues and start at the bottom, then don’t start at all.

Getting some experience: After about 1.5 years of professional internships at various places I had a fairly steady gig at Wired. In fact, I suspect if I didn’t leave to go to J-school, I would still be at Wired (I hired my replacement, a friend, who has moved up the ranks and is still working there).

So, I’m confident I could have made it in journalism without getting my masters at Columbia. By no means is a graduate degree required. I repeat: BY NO MEANS IS IT REQUIRED.

So Why Did I Leave?

My gig at Wired was turning steady but I still felt stagnant. This is in part because I wanted to do more than tech journalism (the irony is that once I got to Columbia, I realized I LOVED tech reporting). I needed to start somewhere fresh where I wouldn’t have started as “David the Intern” but “David the guy who came from Wired.”

There were two amazing editors at Wired who, whether they knew it or not, have had a big influence on my career.

Marty Cortinas: Never went to J-school (if memory serves) and didn’t think it necessary by any stretch of the imagination. For him, it wasn’t – he continues to be a great editor. He advised me against it. (UPDATE: See comments. THANKS MARTY!!!!)

Kourosh Karimkhany: Had gone to Columbia and filled my brain with starry eyed visions of taking over the world. He would point back to his time at Columbia as origins for the business savvy he uses today in various jobs within Conde Naste. Journalism school was very fruitful for him and he recommended it.

Both were right.

So I left because I needed to get out of the Bay Area for a bit. I got a paid internship at Columbia Journalism Review and figured that was my “in” for J-school.

My Standard Line on J-school (here’s the meat of the post)

“I don’t regret having gone to J-school.” But I say that for the same reason one should never regret anything they do in life. I met lots of great people – folks who I can earnestly call my friends. I had the opportunity to write/report about things outside of technology. I lived in New York!!!

What I do regret is the student debt that I still have on my shoulders.

The reason J-school worked out for me: I was a part-time student and continued to work while I was a student. As a result my loans aren’t that bad, I paid some tuition out of pocket.  More importantly, I was WORKING the whole time. I got practical experience while I was in New York. And in truth – I learned more on the job than I did in J-school. And while my connections from Columbia are great (and some would argue the whole point of going to J-school is to make connections) I got more practical and meaningful connections while working. I got to work for folks like Jay Rosen on NewAssignment.net. Without a doubt, that helped bolster my young career.

If you can find a journalism program that has a part-time option. Take it!!! Be prepared to slog, sleep on couches in the student lounge, etc. But if you are young, it can be a wildly awesome ride.

A practical warning: J-schools are figuring themselves out right now.

I went to school at Columbia. I worked for Jay Rosen at NYU, Jeff Jarvis at CUNY and I consider Geneva Overholser at USC’s Annenberg program a colleague. I speak with journalism professors all the time. I know a thing or two about J-schools and one important footnote that I bet they’d be willing to admit is that their programs are in flux. From my perspective CUNY and USC are drastically pushing the envelope. I just found out that even Columbia, the flagship of J-schools, has an entrepreneurship class.

Which forces me to ask the question – what is the best way to learn entrepreneurship? Is it by taking a class or just by going out and being an entrepreneur? (There is a side question here about whether or not young reporters should learn how to report or learn how to be entrepreneurs and I think the answer is both, so the conversation becomes very nuanced at this point).

There is obvious benefit from taking time and really thinking about what one wants to do in the wide open space of online journalism. J-school gives you the space and time to screw up without it reflecting negatively on one’s career. if anything J-school provides a buffer space to screw up and get positive feedback rather than getting fired and burning a bridge.

So the Answer Is??

I would never prescribe anything for anyone I didn’t know personally. Sorry – this post is and may just remain a back and forth of the positive and the negative.

In that same vein I’ll add that there is no right/wrong answer here. That is the beauty of it all. J-school works out for some folks and it doesn’t for others. Whichever you pick you have to commit to it 100 percent. If you are on the fence and decide not to go – you can’t ever look back and say “if only I had gone to J-school, I’d be handed positions left and right.” That isn’t the case – and you have to be prepared to slog through some dirty internships before you reach dry land.

And if you do decide to slog through a year of J-school, don’t worry about the student loans (which is the major practical downside). You are young, lots of folks have student loans. My sister is a social worker with student loans. Much like journalists, social workers, teachers, chefs and other schooled jobs don’t make much money, so save the sob story. And if you do decide to go – don’t think that means you get to skip the slog of working in the real world. Even recent J-school students start at the bottom. I think there is a misconception that they hand out jobs at the end of J-school. I think 10 years ago this may have been true, but it isn’t right now, perhaps never will be again. The goal for when you come out of J-school is to start at the bottom, but be so refined and qualified that they’ll recognize how good you are quickly. Whereas others straight out of undergrad will be learning on the job – you’ll be showing off on the job. And there is real practical benefit to that in one’s career.

So that’s how I see it. Go forth and journalize.

22 thoughts on “Should You Go To J-School?

  1. @Mary Ann Chick Whiteside.

    I can’t help it – I like making up my own words ;)

    As for undergrad: Without a doubt I recommend it. I might have done this for undergrad at UC Berkeley if they had offered it.

    Again, I majored in philosophy and rhetoric which are more or less useless. But I had a BLAST. And in truth – it was through philosophy that I found my love of journalism.

    If you are a student of the humanities (anything outside science, math, etc) then no major is a bad way to go if you are passionate about it. Yes, it is cheesy to say it: but I think undergrad is really a time to explore your intellectual curiosity – and if that is journalism, then one should go forth and…… um…… journalize!!!!!!

  2. hi dave,

    thanks for that long and thoughtful response. I never imagined my question would be turned into a full-fledged article. Thank you!

    I was thinking of j-school mainly because of the connections it would give me. It seems that connections are really very important in getting a job, or at least getting your foot in the door.

    I have a sub-question if that isn’t too much to ask: does the J-school you choose matter? Will Columbia be much different than USC, other than location?

  3. @Davina
    Ahh shucks. Like I say – I’m just here to help.

    It is an age old question – so it is great for me to finally post some thoughts on it.

    J-school will give you some connections. Mostly to your peers. After folks graduate they keep in touch. Paths cross and we help each other out. And yes – connections do get a foot in the door. A dirty secret of larger journalism organizations is that it is an insider’s game. But what is really interesting about the current situation is that you can show up without an invite and get just as much respect as the prom king.

    As for what schools: Location location location.

    But – schools are unique. At least from my experience – they all have their personalities. I think within any of the schools you’ll find your own niche and program – but some schools give some niche’s more room than others.

  4. Dave, your views on J-school are similar to mine. But two things:

    1. I think you downplay the positive effect not taking the advice of Marty Cortinas may have had on your life.

    2. More seriously, the wife, an academic advisor at Cal, would have a problem with this if she were awake right now: “For undergrad I did a double major in philosophy and rhetoric at U.C. Berkeley. These were both useless unless I wanted to sell thoughts on the street.”

    Major does not equal career! she would say. You write: “To get started in journalism straight from undergrad I did a little over one year as a ‘professional intern.’” And what do you think qualified you to be able to do that? Your high school years? No, your liberal arts college education.

    J-school is a trade school, a short cut to learning what could also be learned on the job. Whether you decided to go to J-school or not, the key part of your education as a journalist would have been your undergrad years as a rhetoric/philosophy major.

  5. @King Kaufman

    Re: Point number 2: You are totally correct. That line was my lame attempt at humor. Getting jokes across in writing can be tough. If you look two comments above yours – you’ll see my more reasoned/serious thoughts on undergrad (although I try and make the joke again… tone is everything).

    As for number 1: It is tough to know. I sympathize with the questioner cause I went back and forth myself. Should I or shouldn’t I go. In the end you have to just commit to one or the other and move on with the decision. If you are a good, hard working individual – things will work out either way. Again maybe cheesy, but it is what I believe.

  6. Nope, didn’t go to j-school. I wrote, edited and worked backshop for the Daily Cal for a few years as an undergrad, something not many Cal j-schoolers did, if memory serves.

    J-school is never a bad thing to have on your resume, but I still say it’s not absolutely necessary.

    So you don’t listen to me, and look at you now. A journalist. See what happens? :)

  7. Like your first poster (a former colleague at a daily paper) we both started at Michigan State University. We were both editors of the student daily – The State News.

    My comment may be as complex (but shorter) than your answer to the question. I found my experience at the student newspaper extremely valuable, the journalism classroom experience – not so much.

    Even before the newspaper implosion, I have been telling wanna be journalists to forget journalism school and concentrate on an area of study that interests them (business – criminal justice – medicine – arts – etc.) and perhaps take a couple of journalism writing classes or a English course or two.

    Then they have expertise in a field AND the ability to write which I believe serves them much better in the new world of journalism.

    Journalism school – at least in today’s world – looks more like a gateway to McDonald’s than to meaningful employment.

  8. The way I look at it is: To be a journalist, one needs a specific set of skills and knowledge. J-school is ONE of the places where you can get those things, but where you obtain those skills and knowledge doesn’t matter that much, as long as you have it. That’s one of the things I love about journalism: You don’t need a specific degree to enter the field.

    With that in mind, and considering the tumultuous nature of the journalism business right now, the smart money would be to major in something else and gain your journalism training somewhere else, either through a minor and/or part-time work experience.

    I loved my J-school experience at UNC. It gave me a solid foundation upon which to add new skills and knowledge. What was even more important, however, is the part-time work I did for the local paper while in school. That, more than anything else, gave me an edge when it came time to find a job. They offered me a full-time job before I was done with school, which was like a gift considering how difficult it was (even back in 2000) for journalism grads to find jobs.

    My advice to anyone in J-school or considering J-school is to remember that your journalism experience isn’t limited to what takes place in the classroom. Go and find part-time work while you’re in school, preferably with a professional organization. You may get to be a bigger fish at your campus publication, but most likely, the work you do for a professional organization, and the connections you make there, will be more valuable.

  9. with Convergence and the reduction in number and size of paper newspapers, J-school should be a must.

    But, pick one that TEACHES NEWSWRITING IN BROADCAST STYLE (radio and television), because that is far different from newswriting for paper and online. English writing courses don’t even come close.

  10. As a magazine editor turn PR pro, I agree with your sentiments about J-School. I don’t regret it, either. Teaches you the fundamentals of looking at things in different perspectives, asking the right questions, and basically how to communicate. (There really are a lot of bad writers out there.)

    You’re right though, those thinking of attending J-School need to make the right connections and to take as many internships as possible. Be prepared to do the grunt work.

    That said, J-Schools do need to do more to keep up with the ever-evolving Web and social media. Questions about credibility, objectivity, process journalism, etc. were never talked when I went to school.

  11. I randomly googled “should I go back to school to pursue journalism” (admittedly long, but an effective search), and stumbled upon your blog post. Thank you so much for providing me with some of the best insights I’ve heard on the matter since you were pretty much in the same boat that I am in now. I graduated about a year and a half ago with a degree in English and secondary education–my goal at the time thinking I would mold and shape the youth of America through Faulkner and Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the ideal fell short of reality. But after a lot of self-evalution, I found that I have a love affair with the news and the stories of everyday people. I’ve moved back to home town, am working an internship at the local paper, and am debating going to j-school. Too bad you left the final decision for me open ended, but I guess I will have to decide that on my own… None the less, thanks for the insights. And for the awesome verb “journalize”.

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