Sometimes I question the usefulness of journalism schools.
Being a former newspaper manager, I know I’m not alone. It’s a common concern.
My experience is that more and more students are graduating without the basic journalism skills needed to succeed in their first job.
Naturally, I blamed the universities that are supposed to be preparing the next wave of journalists. But since taking over as editor of Quill in December, I have learned a little bit more about the challenges universities face. I have learned there is plenty of blame to go around.
Blame the universities
I don’t doubt the importance of J-schools in helping shape a young person’s mind. I’m just not sure they do much more than the political science or math departments when it comes to providing practical journalism tools needed for that first day on the job.
I think journalism departments do a good job of teaching all there is to know about the media. But they usually fall short when training students how to be productive members of it.
Let’s face it, if they can’t prepare students for a career in journalism, what good are J-schools?
Sure, journalism professors can conduct all kinds of industry research – usually in search of the ever-so-coveted tenure. But how does knowing what the media will look like in 15 years help a young reporter in his first job?
There was a time when journalism schools were rare. A reporter with a journalism degree was even more uncommon.
During the newspaper heyday of World War II, most reporters didn’t have journalism degrees. Carl Bernstein dropped out of the University of Maryland to get a job as a reporter at the Washington Post in 1966. His partner, Bob Woodward, was a Navy man before the days of Deep Throat.
College degrees have never translated into better journalism, and they never will.
There are a few traits that make a successful journalist: the need to question everything; the ability to work under pressure; the gift to communicate clearly.
Without question, the best place to get practice in these areas is at a student publication or during an internship. Yet, many colleges don’t require that their students to experience either.
Student publications and internships usually are looked at as extracurricular activities outside of required classes such as journalism law, ethics, convergence, mass media, diversity, etc.
If J-schools want to prepare students for the real world, why not make the classes secondary to required internships and involvement with student publications.
This is where students learn the craft – not inside a college classroom.
“I want the basics,” said Scarlett Syse, editor of the Daily Journal in Franklin, Ind. “I want (students) to be able to think critically. I want them to be able to write a basic story. I want them to be able to figure out ‘what’s the news here?’ ”
As the editor of an 18,000-circulation daily newspaper, a good portion of Syse’s hires come straight from the college ranks. She said most of the job candidates she interviews don’t understand what it takes to be a good journalist.
She never hears that people are applying for a job “because they want to tell the stories of the people in the community or be a watchdog over local government.”
“I like to write,” Syse said. “That’s nearly the only answer I get.”
June Nicholson, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and chairwoman of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee, said many of the problems stem from high school.
“Journalism programs do a good job overall in preparing students for careers in the field; some do an exceptional job. But all schools can improve. J-schools face immense challenges in preparing students to work in 21st-century media. Some of the most critical challenges have to do with society. As a nation, we do not value education as we should. Many students entering college are unprepared and seriously lacking in critical thinking, writing, information gathering and basic language skills.”
Blame the students
When it comes to training students, universities shoulder a lot of the blame. But they aren’t solely responsible. Aspiring journalists must take responsibility for themselves.
If you are a student, and you feel like your school isn’t cutting it, then find another one. If you feel like your classes aren’t giving you the experience you need, find an internship or join the student publication staff.
J-schools shouldn’t exist to make sure every slacker finds a job in the field. They are there to help those who are really serious about a job in journalism. If you don’t take advantage of the opportunities, that is your own fault.
There are only so many hours in a day. Colleges can’t expect students to work full time at an internship or student publication and still fit in other class work. Journalism instructors can’t require students to be on call 24/7 in case a big story breaks. As good as that training would be, it’s not realistic.
“The best journalism students do what they need to do to be successful, from seeking out professors as mentors to getting internships that provide professional clips,” said Mead Loop, assistant professor at Ithaca College in New York. “I have long felt that if I do my job right, it doesn’t matter whether my students become journalists; they will have the thinking and writing skills to succeed in any field.”
Internships are available across the country, and I have never heard of anyone being turned away from a student publication. If those options aren’t available, small newspapers everywhere are looking for cheap labor. The pay stinks, but a published byline is worth much more.
Lastly, it is imperative for students to research the field. Understand what you are getting into.
The pay is low, the job is demanding, and the criticism is constant. The only job available might take you to a city where you don’t know anyone. If you are lucky enough to meet someone, date and get married, a journalist’s life is rarely conducive to raising a family.
So, if you are getting into journalism solely “because you like to write,” you might be better off sticking with poetry.
Blame working journalists
It’s easy to sit behind a desk and complain about the poor quality of incoming journalists. It’s easy to blame schools and the so-called lazy generation that has produced said journalists. I know, because I’ve done it.
But when was the last time a working journalist you know took it upon herself to mentor a student? When was the last time she spoke with a group of students to explain what journalism in the real world is like?
At SPJ, we have hundreds of program ideas that come through our door every year. Most of them deal with ethics, freedom of information or technology. While there are plenty of problems surrounding these topics, are they bigger issues than the future of our profession?
Maybe if we all worked together to better train our students, young journalists would understand their jobs and not resort to making up quotes or falsifying information to cope with the pressure. Maybe they would have a better grasp of how to apply sunshine laws every day and how that can turn into story ideas. Maybe they would know what editors and news managers expect, instead of being overwhelmed when arriving for that first day of work.
There have been countless workshops in the past few months about bettering our profession, but I can’t think of a single one that brought educators, students and editors together to work toward improving journalism education. Yet, when you talk to editors, they see that as one of the major problems facing the industry.
I just wonder if universities and students even know what editors are thinking? Because being a former newsroom manager, I know that it’s easier to complain than become active toward a solution.
Perhaps Nicholson said it best: “I think real progress will be made only when the news industry and education align more closely and aggressively address the issues. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”
A good place to start
I don’t pretend to know all the answers. But here is a good place to start.
I encourage all journalism schools to keep in touch with their recent graduates. Find out how they are doing on the job. How do students think universities could have better prepared them?
When universities get that information, use it to shape curriculum. Don’t give it to some professor for a tenure-based research project.
Students, if you don’t hear from your journalism school, contact it. Tell your former dean if your experience at her institution was helpful. If you have an idea for improving it, then tell her. If journalism schools are getting little feedback from recent graduates, how can they improve?
Editors, be active in the process of education. Get out of your office once a month and speak to a class of eager journalists. When you do, be brutally honest. Tell students they will cover beats that nobody else wants, and they will have to sacrifice some of their personal life to do so.
But be sure to tell students that in the end, when they have paid their dues, there is no greater reward than protecting the rights of the people while helping them understand their own lives.
Joe Skeel is editor of Quill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 927-8000, ext. 214.