As New York City lay shrouded in a black cloud that afternoon following the World Trade Center attack, a student came into my office at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and asked, “Does this mean we’re not going to follow the syllabus?”
You can guess my answer. The careful plans of a writer, editor, or journalism professor change in a nanosecond with events. By its very nature, journalism defies rules that govern other disciplines, and this is why it’s dangerous to change the fundamental way journalism is taught—lots of reporting and writing and honing of both abilities.
As a public debate emerges about reshaping Columbia’s approach to teaching journalism, there is something of value that is getting lost—it’s the magic of journalism. I recall the 1986 Argentinean film, “Man Facing Southeast,” which is set in a psychiatric hospital. A new patient, who claims to be an alien, faces southeast to communicate with a star. The psychiatrist thinks the man is simply crazy, but the patient has strange powers. One day, the alien plays a fugue on an organ and patients who normally are freaking out are calm. Dumbfounded, the doctor asks how he did it. The alien explains that it’s the magic. But is the magic in the mind of the composer? In the organ? In this man’s fingers as he plays? Or is it in the ears of his listeners?
The film’s answer is that the magic is everywhere. And so it is with journalism. It’s as much an art form as a profession or trade and, as such, it should be treated differently within a university. Journalism is intellectual—the part of the intellect in which intuition and people skills are just as critical to use as the knowledge one has about historic and social contexts. Journalism is raw and fast and wild, often coming as much from the reporter’s gut as from the mind. It’s art, too, and not just in the writing but in the approach and execution of journalists. It’s also coal-shoveling hard work. It has a power that goes beyond the printed or spoken word. Some stories win prizes; others change the world. Some do both. Some run 12 inches, unread and forgotten. But among these stories might be one that forever changes the reporter and subject because of their human interaction.
In short, it’s the collection of many skills that don’t translate into the form, for example, of a program on Latin American studies or communication theory. We don’t hear clamoring calls for revamping of music departments, film or fine arts programs. Most of us wouldn’t presume to be experts in music, making a film, or writing a novel. But everyone, it seems, picture themselves as experts on journalism.
Like many who teach journalism, I have struggled with what journalism education should be. I’m an accidental professor. I don’t even have a degree. My journalism education was school of life. Nor was it ever my intention, at the start of my career, to spend the past 11 years teaching journalism—at Columbia University a few times, but mostly at Stanford University. Before I joined the academy, I’d spent 15 years as a reporter in newspapers and published a few books. But I write in strong defense of the Columbia program, even as I have doubts about journalism and my role in the process.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to act on these doubts. At Stanford, we set out to change our program after a review of our department raised questions similar to those now being debated at Columbia, albeit in a much smaller way. (There are never more than 16 students in the Stanford program.) For quite some time, we had offered a general journalism education. As part of our discussions about possible changes, we talked about the idea of opening up the university to our journalism students. They would select their own area of concentration, in addition to taking the classes taught in our department. But this would have lengthened the journalism program to two years, which meant students would spend over $80,000 for this education—for jobs that often start out paying less than $30,000. Only the very rich could come to such a program. We couldn’t do that.
Even though we set out to reinvent the wheel, in the end, what we had was pretty much still a wheel. After much discussion and soul searching, we’d decided to specialize our teaching efforts on public issues reporting, but still I had to teach all the other areas of this “magic”—writing on deadline, slogging out stories, and being edited, edited, edited.
After more than a decade in the classroom, I now realize I made a mistake when I began teaching. My course readers were stouter than computer magazines at the height of the dot-com boom. When teaching about reporting on social ills, I assigned books by sociologists such as Charles Murray, William Julius Wilson and Christopher Jencks. The next week, I’d have these same students read multiple tomes on education or health care. It was just too much. They couldn’t take it all in. What I learned is that sometimes less is more. Now my students read such works, albeit at a slower pace.
I don’t think the answer is putting more emphasis on the study of such experts, or becoming a narrowly specialized reporter, adding a year or two to a program. Nor am I arguing for dumbing journalism down. Quite the contrary. Our job is to create journalists in whom inquisitiveness is their guide, including questioning what they do and how they do it. It’s to create journalists who are hungry for engagement in ideas and for the pursuit of information which, in many cases, those who possess it don’t want to give up.
We have to remember that no matter how many changes we put in place, we will never graduate students—except for the rare and gifted ones—who are ready to drop into a top reporter slot at The New York Times. After all, programs in music, film and fine arts don’t churn out students who become instant Beethovens, Orson Wellses or Faulkners.
One, two or even three years is rarely enough to hone the variety of skills that good journalists require. Those who come to graduate school for training are there to be primed, not crammed. If we do our jobs well, in time, they will find their way. In time, too, they will discover the magic.
Dale Maharidge, a 1988 Nieman Fellow, was a journalism professor at Stanford University. He has published five books, and his current one is “Homeland,” a work-in-progress about nationalism and McCarthyism in post-September 11 America. He is now a visiting professor at Columbia University.