There isn’t one definition of what “journalism school” is.
Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism built its reputation by focusing on brief, intense, high-feedback immersion in daily journalism, complemented by influential contacts in media-rich Manhattan. Like other Ivy League schools, Columbia undergraduates can’t earn a journalism degree. Yet, the recruiting for Boston University, where I teach, is greatly helped by being in another major market and a mecca for students. We do have undergraduate majors and minors in various journalism specialties and also professional master’s degree programs in journalism. Many other institutions such as the University of Illinois and Stanford University—where I earned degrees in journalism and communication, respectively—offer professional master’s programs and scholarly doctoral degrees.
These doctoral programs already do what Columbia’s president Lee C. Bollinger suggests by going deep into academic pursuits. Rarely do they produce reporters or editors, but instead feed schools of journalism or communications whose trustees require faculty to have doctorate degrees. When I attended the master’s degree program at Stanford years ago, we became exasperated by the teaching of these Dr. So-and-So’s who had seldom or never been in a newsroom. The esoteric things our professors were pondering did not appear to have any relationship to the exciting, important lives we wanted to soon lead as journalists.
Historically, the professional master’s degree programs admit students who already have a solid liberal arts education from their undergraduate years. Many applicants have substantial work experience as well. What they want in a graduate program is an intense grounding in their new endeavor—its practices, skills, ethics and technology. And undergraduate programs—and there are many good ones ranging in price, not always correlated with quality—require a strong liberal arts curriculum as well as journalism courses.
People in the academy often scoff at this “trade school” approach and suggest it isn’t worthy of a graduate degree, especially from an Ivy League school. But how many editors and news directors want to hire liberal arts majors straight out of college or even research-oriented Columbia master’s degree holders with their page-long paragraphs, gratuitous opinions, and “Could I have an extension?” requests?
Of course, there is a bountiful history of bright young people who got on a newspaper by pluck or family connections and worked their way up. But those days and most of those newspapers are gone forever. With computers, there is little use for copy boys or girls, a traditional point of entry. Even big city newspapers with two-year internship programs, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times, rarely hire interns no matter how many of their bylined stories the newspapers had published. And in news studios with high-tech equipment and live broadcasts, anyone who doesn’t understand the basic tinkering with the expensive toys isn’t welcomed.
A few talented, motivated people will always become terrific journalists without journalism school. Many other walk-ons in newsrooms have gotten their journalism training in the newsrooms of independent, daily college newspapers.
No matter where or how entry-level reporters get it, what journalism needs are newsroom rookies with the ability to assess situations quickly, to figure out whom to contact and how and where to get information, and then be able to write what they learn accurately, fairly and clearly—and do all of this, usually, in one day. Not every story demands a tight deadline, of course, but the timeliness part, no matter what the medium, has always been a critical part of what we communicate. We are, after all, the town criers.
There is not one path that, if followed, transforms young people into quality journalists. Certain aspects of character—integrity, in particular, an inquisitive personality, a persistent temperament—seem innate. But I’ve found in my teaching that these helpful attributes can also be encouraged.
Any academic program requires intellectual rigor and so does much of journalism. Even though it’s hardly a contemplative calling, there are times and issues that seem to inspire our best thinking. There are, for example, those postmortems that occur when something seems terribly wrong about how a major story was covered. Sometimes, after we’ve had a chance to reflect, journalists do perform better when similar situations arise.
A strong curriculum should imbue students with the history and principles of journalism, legal precedents and pitfalls, ethical principles and dilemmas. Students should engage in reading about and intensely discussing newsroom issues before they are faced with split-second decisions on the job. By using adjunct professors—often current reporters or editors or producers—as many journalism schools do, faculty members’ expertise is complemented with real-time, real-world experience. Good journalism teachers also help students become better, more sophisticated news consumers.
Some of the more important lessons are taught in the much-maligned “skills courses.” Immediately, students write on deadline, covering fires, crashes and speeches. We mark up their copy and challenge their selection of words. We insist that they explain why they organized the story the way they did and help them see how their dependence on one or two sources can skew the coverage. We circle clichés and circumlocutions, showing students how such imprecision weakens their writing. We let them know how a poorly chosen adjective or descriptive phrase can stereotype a community or people who live in it. In more advanced courses, we get students to explore difficult topics in great depth, then we ask them to write about this topic compellingly in a 700-word column or editorial. In narrative journalism classes, some students write 5,000-word, professional-quality pieces. A few of them win awards, but seldom lead their authors directly to the Atlantic Monthly.
Most of us would like to take more time to study a subject in depth, and this is a desire that a university can fulfill. At Boston University, we offer students this option through Advanced Journalism Studies, a program I direct. Graduate students and professional journalists, working with faculty and professional mentors, develop their own specialized curricula and take advantage of academic riches in other schools and departments. These students’ focus varies from studies about the Middle East to explorations of new technologies, and they devote considerable time to examining ways of reporting on specific beats such as education, religion or social issues. Others work to develop their voices in narrative journalism. We also have master’s degree programs in business and economic journalism and in reporting on science and medicine.
Graduate school is very expensive, in time spent away from work and cost of the education. So we also provide an intensive, skills-based practical program for students who want to be general assignment and feature reporters for television, online and print news organizations, and want to get these new careers launched quickly. For them, specialization might come later.
There is nothing wrong with periodic reassessments of where journalism education is and in what direction it should be headed. But history also should be heeded. Columbia has a strong record of graduating students who know what good journalism is and how to do it. What shouldn’t be allowed to happen is for a successful program like this one to join the ranks of the inchoate maw of mass communications. Agnes Wahl Nieman, in endowing the Nieman Foundation, charged it to “… promote and elevate the standards of journalism.” As professors at journalism schools, that is our mission as well.
Nancy Day, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, is director of Advanced Journalism Studies at Boston University and a freelance editor and writer.