Blame students, not j-schools
I loved journalism school. Everyone knows that about me. Hell, I even stuck around after a four-year undergrad just to see if a Master's degree would give me an added edge.
In the last two days, I've come across two articles about j-schools and their pupils. While one lamented the lack of innovation in journalism programs (particularly Columbia's), the other —by Montreal media journalist Steve Faguy— encouraged students to seek out experiences rather than sitting pretty in classrooms.
I don't disagree with the articles, but I felt compelled to challenge some of their key points.
Blame the students
In an article published on USA Today, columnist Michael Wolff took a jab at Columbia University's journalism program and its new Dean, Steve Coll.
Though the article focuses more on criticizing Columbia's decision to appoint Coll to the position, Wolff makes a point to condemn the university's lack of disruption in an industry that's suffering under intense growing pains.
"Journalism school, especially Columbia's vaunted program, is often anti-market in outlook. Much of what the market wants, journalism training doesn't give it. You surely won't learn at Columbia how to be a tabloid reporter, or an opinionated Fox News host, or an online aggregator, or a brand-name columnist full of brio or bile, or a social or mobile visionary or quant," said Wolff.
"Rather, journalism school tends to teach you, admirably or quixotically, many less economically valuable skills: methodological reporting, sourcing protocols, research procedures, and a grounding in ethical and civic responsibility. The ideal goal continues to be to get you a job on The New York Times or Washington Post, two organizations trying to fire more people than they hire."
If I understand correctly, Wolff is opposed to the fact that j-schools teach the very fundamental ethics and techniques of journalism.
Sure, media organizations are looking at cutting expenses wherever they can while continuing to ride the wave of changes brought about by the rise of technology and mobile consumption.
However, I think Wolff is wrong to be putting the blame on universities.
He laments the supposed lack of entrepreneurs in the industry without holding students responsible for a part of their education.
The disgrace is not just that the school takes students' or their parents' money to train them for a livelihood that it reasonably can predict will not exist. But it is also an intellectual failure: The information marketplace is going through a historic transformation, involving form, distribution, business basis and cognitive effect, and yet Columbia has just hired a practitioner to lead it with little or no career experience in any of these epochal changes.
Granted, universities should be on the lookout for fresh blood with open minds to teach in their journalism departments, but I don't think bypassing the study of ethics, media law, good broadcast writing and story construction is worth it.
University isn't meant to "set you up" for "real life," nor is it a place where educators are expected to hold students' hands and carefully shape them into perfect little journos.
University is a place where you're expected to mess up, to take chances and to set yourself apart. It's a chance to learn from your elders and not be afraid to impress them by thinking outside the box.
I think Wolff is placing the blame on the wrong group of people. Lazy students should be the ones held responsible for not having the skillset required to impress employers. They should be the ones aiming to disrupt the stagnant industry and help develop the whole new world of Journalism 2.0 — if that's the latest version.
Steve Faguy, a freelance journalist who blogs about everything media-related in great depth, also shared his views on the topic after attending a panel discussion about the pros and cons of journalism school last Thursday.
The event was organized by the McGill Daily, a student paper out of McGill University in Montreal.
In his post, Faguy argues that universities sometimes have to "force some of their students to get published at some point during their three-year degrees."
I personally don't expect lazy students to go out of their ways and seek out freelance opportunities, just like I don't expect the vast majority of other students to volunteer and gather extra-curriculum experience.
Some people argue that journalism isn't a job but rather a lifestyle. Only the people willing to take the extra step and acknowledge the fact that they need to acquire all of the free experience they can before graduating are likely to succeed in the industry.
I don't want to trample on any dreams here. Most journalism students are well aware, or at least they say they're well aware, of the difficulties the industry is going through. They know they'll have to make compromises once they enter the workforce, sacrificing the salary they would like, the location they would like to work in, or the exact type of job they would like to do. And the truth is that there actually are journalism jobs out there, if you look hard enough, if you're willing to make those compromises and think outside the box.
But you get the impression that few of these future journalists are spending any time thinking outside that box while they're in school. [...] Many graduate having barely or never been published even in their student newspapers, but apparently expect a job to be waiting for them when they get that certificate.
What else do you expect? Most of the students are kids that don't see past their noses. Upon graduating, most of them are going to pick lush jobs as public relations officers in lucrative corporations or go to law school while mom and dad can afford to pay for a second degree.
I appreciate the push Faguy makes in his post: get all of the experience you can get before graduating. I agree.
Journalists don't need to go to j-school, but until the industry can really define itself and what it does, how can we expect universities to be at the cutting edge of media innovation?
Don't blame universities for hiring "traditionalists" or not going outside of the box. Blame students for lacking motivation and creativity.
I think the debate needs to go far beyond what it means to "teach journalism" and start focusing on what it means to be a journalist.
*I read the following piece after publishing my blog post: Why I'm paying for j-school. I feel the author has good arguments when discussing why she pays for j-school. Read it here.*