Journalism students ask: Why am I here?
J-school is more popular than ever. But is it necessary?
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Many are drawn to the field by a love of writing; others yearn for the role of guardian of democracy. "Some of the best students are motivated by very idealistic aspirations," says Loren Ghiglione, dean at Medill. The reasons for choosing the "J-school" path, however, tend to be more pragmatic. To many, it's a sensible credential that can't hurt, and may well help.Skip to next paragraph
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"I knew I needed clips," says Marta Hummel, a reporter with the Greensboro News-Record in North Carolina who attended Medill. Journalism school "was the easiest and quickest way to do it."
By the time Robert Tuttle decided to pursue journalism in earnest, he'd been out of college for more than a decade. And though he'd worked for a newspaper in Lebanon, he couldn't find a job in the US. "I saw the barriers to getting into the profession when I got back here," he says. "It's an insiders' world and I was on the outside."
He enrolled at Columbia this fall.
That school's dean, Nicholas Lemann, who most recently covered Washington for The New Yorker, doesn't suggest the journalist's skill set can't be learned on the job. The university just imparts it faster: "It's taken me decades to pick up stuff that our graduates will be leaving with," he says.
The fact that a degree isn't mandatory in the journalism world may be even more reason to earn one, says Libby Sander, a general assignment reporter at the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. "Medill at least tried to do a bit with ethics and the legal and moral issues. It can't be a bad thing to think about these things."
In her newsroom, though, only half the people have journalism degrees, she says, and "there's no distinction in terms of who is capable of what." She wonders "whether a master's degree isn't just icing on the cake."
Robert Fulford, a columnist with Toronto's National Post, goes further. He believes that any experience bringing journalists into contact with people - whether Wall Street or waitressing - is better training than a cloistered term in graduate school.
Yet even within academe, journalism holds a precarious place. It's "an old discipline," says Melvin Mencher, professor emeritus at Columbia who wrote the book used in the school's required Reporting and Writing course. "But it has always been the poor cousin on the campus."
After rethinking the journalism school's role, and place within the university, Columbia has decided to add two more general classes. In addition, come spring it will admit students to an optional second year, when they can specialize in areas like business or environmental journalism.
Other schools have taken a similar approach. Medill, as Berkeley has done, recently began offering new joint degree programs with focuses including religion and legal reporting. Next year, Syracuse University in New York, which has the nation's fourth-largest master's program, will introduce the first master's in arts journalism.
If not in the vanguard, Columbia is "taking the direction the field is already going in and trying to codify it and push it forward, to rely a little less on the joint program mechanism and a little more on doing it ourselves," says Dean Lemann.
Tuttle, the Columbia student, is mostly interested in honing his reporting and writing. He doesn't think he can spare another year to specialize.
"I learned so much more from being out in the world than I ever could in a graduate program," he says. "I think part of the profession of journalism is learning by doing."