J-School or Not?

I sometimes teach at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, where we get a mix of students from young aspiring writers to mid-career professionals to older students hoping to hone their hobby. Lately, a few younger students approached me for advice on whether they should apply to journalism school.

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My answer used to be an unequivocal no. When I first started out, there were two schools of thought. Go to journalism school or learn something of substance and learn the tools of the trade on the job. I chose the latter. I studied international politics as an undergrad and got my journalism education through internships at the Washington bureaus of CNN and The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper before eking into U.S. News and World Report as a fact-checker. Even though the industry was already said to be dying at the time, both Reuters and The Wall Street Journal still had training in programs that I was able to take advantage of. I used to present myself as exhibit A for not needing a journalism degree.

Since I’ve started teaching, however, I’ve changed my mind. I still think it’s possible to succeed without a journalism career, but it’s gotten much harder than when I entered the field, which I didn’t think was possible (On my first day at Reuters, an editor congratulated me before telling me, “You’re now going to be begging for jobs for the rest of your life.” This was in 1996). In some ways, the Internet has given anybody who wants to write an unprecedented opportunity to publish, but most of the so-called “new media jobs” don’t pay a living wage. Even among the established media companies, very few of them still invest in the training that I used to get.

I’ve learned through my students at Berkeley that you need knowledge and experience just to get a coveted internship position. I’m talking about working at a company that sees its interns as a potential hiring pool and essentially gives you a trial run, where they assign you a beat and expect you to work a reporter’s job.

In the full-time intro to journalism class that I teach at Berkeley, students are required to complete 12-15 stories in various mediums from print and video to photography and radio in the first semester. In my class, I teach them how to blog, write earnings stories and comb through legal documents in Pacer. By the time they graduate, they have a portfolio of great clips, a working knowledge of all mediums, a mastery of one of them, investigative journalism experience and a strong alumni network.

I’m not trying to sell Berkeley’s J-school to you. I certainly won’t try to make a financial argument because I’m not sure that it will ever make sense in journalism to invest the many many tens of thousands of dollars required. What I do know is that my 21-year old self with no daily news experience and a couple glorified coffee runner internships would have had little chance to make it today.