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 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.