My Take: The Point of Journalism School, Anyway

A National Public Radio report recently reopened one of the most spirited debates within collegemediatopia.  The question at its core: “What’s the point of journalism school, anyway?”

The report presents the classic arguments: the skyrocketing cost of higher education vis-à-vis the decline in mainstream news media careers versus the still-powerful impact of quality journalism and the idealism of j-students and j-educators about their ability to change the world.  Descriptors such as dying, awful and unsettling appear close to others like innovation, renaissance, and re-creation.

The gist: J-school enrollment is up and it continues to have its supporters, but concerns also exist about its relevance in a do-it-yourself, free-information age.

So, circa 2010, what is the point of journalism school, anyway?  Here is my take:

1) Journalism schools are also now news providers.  Students gain practical experience and produce work with the potential to reach websurfers worldwide . . . while still in school. Of course, you do not need a j-school backing to make that impact, as I confirmed in my most recent PBS MediaShift piece.  But the new media resources, faculty mentoring, general connections, and peer support available within a solid j-school can help a ton.  Not everyone has an innate Zuckerberg-esque entrepreneurial or media instinct.  Most students need some direction and feed off collaboration.

2) The aura and reality of the journalist-as-superhero remains strong.  Last year, a Baltimore Sun piece cited a University of Maryland j-student saying, “All of the kids in journalism school still have idealized visions of journalism. We’ve all seen All the President’s Men and that’s the journalism we fell in love with.”

Fortunately, that journalism still exists.  Amid the incessant gobbledygook of information floating online nowadays, actual truth-seekers and hold-their-feet-to-the-fire-starters are still in great demand.  We still need individuals trained in info. gathering, cultural interpreting, and ethical reporting.  Journalists still possess the power to be the information overload’s smoking gun.  And these journalists need training.


3) All the chatter about bankruptcies, layoffs, and early retirement packages often hides one absolute truth: Many j-school graduates do still mesh the words journalism and career together.  And even more cognitively dissonant, those dead tree newspaper thingies still provide the most news jobs of any medium in j-world.

There is even hope that new media’s worldwide (web) domination will soon lead to an explosion of related journalism jobs. Columbia University’s dean of academic affairs said last year that he views the current journalistic slash-and-burn “as being like a forest fire. It damages a lot of trees, but once the smoke clears, you see the buds come out.” (Does he mean blogs?)


4) Journalism schools help students beyond the traditional journalism job-seeking.  It’s an audio-video-Flashified-bloggerific-podcastastic time in not only journalism but marketing, advertising, PR, corp. comm., etc.  I have a friend who developed and runs a daily-updated website full of multimedia extras and a New York Times-style seriousness.  Her field, and the site’s focus: real estate.  Her degree: journalism.

5) Yet, for all the practical assistance they can offer, journalism schools are not fish farms.  They do not simply breed future news media professionals.  For some students, journalism is the new philosophy.  It’s a sexier version of general studies or liberal arts.  It is a major awash in lessons about creativity, communication, marketing, ethics, the law, contemporary history, politics, culture, management, the Internet, and much more.  A related degree is a starting point for a career in a bevy of fields outside news and new media.  And for some, it is simply enjoyed on its own merits and for its ability to make students more informed, involved citizens of the world.

6) Journalism schools increasingly provide a service to those in transition– older folks, career-switchers, and print-and-ink journalists looking to get a new media leg-up in a tough economy.

7) There need to be leaders in every field- individuals and institutions who set standards, start conversations, and, as the NPR report notes, pose the tough questions.  The professors, classes, students, and publications in journalism schools today are those leaders.  Undergraduate and graduate enrollment in j-schools are growing.  More professional journalists are coming aboard to teach and collaborate.  Individual student start-ups and school-sponsored outlets are emerging in greater numbers than ever before.

As Geneva Overholser, the University of Southern California director of journalism, told NPR about the state of journalism: “It’s a renaissance, a re-creation. . . . [M]y favorite word for it- and I’ll carry this one all the way- is promising.  And these students know that they’re going to re-create it.”

What is missing from this list???

2 Responses to “My Take: The Point of Journalism School, Anyway”
  1. The Truth says:

    This piece is very interesting and I agree with much of what you write. However, I do have a concern about your first point: It seems to me that the fact that journalism schools are now news providers is, or has become, problematic. At the point that J-schools are now content providers as well, what has happened to role of the educators?

    There seems to be a different attitude among journalism educators about their role. Too many of them see themselves as journalists instead of teachers. The educational function is more than simply providing students with experience as practical journalists and more than simple instruction in methods and processes. Educators are supposed to instill ethics in their students as well. They should also recognize that they are employees of their educational institutions and have responsibilities to those institutions.

    I read so very many stories in your publication about claims of First Amendment violations by schools. Unfortunately, in all of those stories, I do not recall one that concluded that the students and/or faculty advisers were incorrect in their claims of censorship. Am I to conclude then, that all schools and administrators are evil violators of the First Amendment and that all students and instructors are paragons of virtue and ethics? That is certainly the impression that is created and feeds into your point that journalists are superheroes.

    The truth is that just like there are good and bad administrators, there are good and bad students and faculty advisers. Journalism is certainly a noble profession. Your constantly positive coverage, however, creates a false impression that no one who practices that profession is ever ignoble in their actions. And while I will admit that I am not a journalist and therefore do not know everything about the profession, I am an avid reader and possess both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Communication. In my rather in-depth studies of Mass Communication, it has always been my impression that one of the objectives of good journalism is to provide balance. I have been an avid reader of your publication for some time. Unfortunately, in that time, I have not found that balance. Why don’t you share stories about journalists who cross the line? Is that you don’t believe it happens? Or is it that you fear that showing such balance will somehow damage the superhero image you promote?

  2. M says:

    “Or is it that you fear that showing such balance will somehow damage the superhero image you promote?”

    “The truth” is that there is no truth, only opinions.