When I entered journalism in late 2001, I was a career changer. I’d spent my 20s working in industries such as publishing and Web design, hoping to settle into a long-term career relationship. But nothing clicked.
I dallied. I dithered. My father had been a journalist all his life, working first in print and then in radio at the BBC. He had prodded me over the years, gently suggesting journalism might be something I wanted to pursue. But even though I loved writing, I reasoned that being a journalist meant asking people awkward questions they didn’t want to answer. It meant making people ill at ease. I wasn’t interested.
It wasn’t until I was 30 and working as a copywriter at a digital marketing agency, while also writing some freelance articles on the side, that I finally concluded journalism was something I wanted to explore. I did not head off to journalism school, though, at least not J-school in the American sense.
A little background here: I’m half- English, half-American, born and raised in London; I moved to New York in 1996. In Britain, traditionally, journalism was thought of as something you couldn’t be taught in an academic setting. Journalism was a trade, something you learned by doing. Still, I wanted to study because I knew it would give me much-needed confidence. I just didn’t want to take a year out of the workforce, and I balked at the expense of graduate school.
Instead, I headed back to London on the eve of 9/11 for a relatively inexpensive, three-month certificate course at the London School of Journalism. I’m glad I did. Being in school for one semester on the basics of news writing and reporting convinced me I was heading down the right path — that this was indeed a career I wanted to pursue.
In the meantime, I’d fallen in love with public radio. This was quite a turnaround for someone who grew up thinking radio was the fustiest medium on earth. I was raised in the shadow of multiple radios, all crackling with the clipped tones of BBC journalists talking about “current affairs” as my dad called news (the very words made my heart sink), sport or the shipping news.
But soon after moving to the U.S., I realized public radio was the only place I could get in-depth stories about the rest of the world (other than The New York Times, whose wordiness took some getting used to). I started listening more and more and became entranced by the storytelling those reporters pulled off every day. I wanted to do that myself.
So when I returned to New York in 2002, I started bugging my local public radio station, WNYC, for an internship. I interned there that summer, and that experience led to me being put in touch with “Marketplace,” the public radio business show, which was looking for an intern for its New York bureau. I wasn’t thrilled about having the title “intern” at age 31, but I was willing to do it because I wanted to get on air. Quite quickly, I did. I ended up working there for seven years as a contract reporter, and learned almost everything I know about radio and reporting at that show.
For anyone thinking about an internship, a little advice: have a good attitude all the time. Do everything you’re asked to do willingly, even if you consider it beneath your abilities — or your dignity. Learn everything you possibly can. Show initiative. The more capable you are and the easier you are to have around, the higher the chances that you’ll be entrusted with more responsibility.
Because of my experiences, I’ve often wondered whether journalism school is really necessary. Still, I have to remember that I was older when I went into this. Having some life experience helped my reporting skills, and growing up in a news-obsessed household was also a boon, even if I didn’t realize it (or appreciate it ) at the time.
These days one of the hats I wear is that of adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, where I teach radio skills. I’m finally seeing things from the other side. I’m impressed by the rigor of the courses and the amount and quality of work students are expected to produce on deadline. They undoubtedly receive excellent training. More than once I’ve thought, about one assignment or another, “I wish I’d had to do that.”
For more perspective on the journalism school question, I spoke to two young journalists who are taking different career paths.
Lindsey Bever was in one of my classes at Columbia last summer. After college, where she majored in journalism, she went to work for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and then The Dallas Morning News, writing for the community news section. She was at the paper for more than three years. But she says the reason she wanted to be a journalist in the first place was so she could pursue investigative journalism. She would occasionally help Dallas Morning News investigative reporters and editors with their stories.
“That’s when I decided (that) if I wanted to be an investigative reporter at a major newspaper any time in the near future, I needed to immerse myself in the craft,” she says. “For me, graduate school is a fast track to investigative journalism. Sure, it’s expensive and I’ll probably be in debt the next 30 years, but if this is the best way for me to get the education I need to do what I want to do right now, it’s worth it.”
Not everyone is that single-minded. When Noah Rosenberg was at Tufts University, from which he graduated in 2005, he knew he loved writing and storytelling.
Still, he was “interested in a million things.” He didn’t seriously consider journalism, even though he hosted a magazine-style show on Tufts TV. But in the end it was that gig that led to his first job out of college, at CBS News Productions, the network’s nonfiction and programming unit. After two years he moved on to a chain of New York City newspapers called The Queens Courier, which wanted a “digital director” to be a one-man band taking photos, shooting video and writing.
“At that time no weekly or community papers were doing multimedia at all,” he says. “I’d be on assignment with my pad and pen, camera and video camera, doing everything from breaking news to politics. I was writing three or four articles a week. I consider that time my journalism degree.”
Rosenberg went on to report on the World Cup in South Africa for The Wall Street Journal, and then became a freelance reporter for The New York Times, filing multiple times a week. He is now founder and editor-in-chief of Narratively, a longform, multimedia journalism startup that tells in-depth stories about New York City and its characters. It recently raised more than $50,000 on Kickstarter.
Rosenberg is an incurable optimist, which is needed to be able to found and run your own startup. He believes the convulsions in the media world lend themselves well to people like him who got their reporting experience on the street rather than in school.
“As these legacy media outlets continue to evolve and change, they’re going to look more to upstart people who pick up and go and work for a daily in Beirut for a year, or do on-the-ground reporting for the Olympics,” he said. “There is value in both of those routes (journalism school and work experience), and I chose more of the latter.”
Rosenberg is a good example of how important it is to have multiple skills. You can’t just be a good writer and reporter — or you can, but you have less chance of getting a job. Today, those best positioned to land jobs (or long-term freelance assignments) will know how to shoot video, take great photos, capture audio, write and edit.
I wish I knew how to do all that. I’m a diehard audiophile though, hooked on the sound of the human voice and the beauty of radio writing, which has to conjure pictures in listeners’ minds with only a few words. But public radio has become incredibly popular in the 10 years since I’ve worked in the industry. I’m not sure I could get in today the way I did back then.
Now, most of the New York interns for “Marketplace” come straight from Columbia Journalism School. Shows like “This American Life” and “Radiolab” have grabbed the attention of a new generation of listeners and inspired a new generation of journalists to become audio storytellers. Many public radio shows are flooded with eager applicants. There is a lot of competition.
Looking back, I can’t say that I would have done anything differently. If I’d had a crystal ball and could have seen the huge popularity of online video on the horizon, I would certainly have learned video skills back then. For anyone starting out now, I would urge you to acquire as many skills as you can, but most importantly, make sure you know how to write and report well. Whether you learn that through formal journalism school, “on the street” or through some combination is for you to carefully consider and decide.
Tagged under: journalism education