Journalism students ask: Why am I here?

J-school is more popular than ever. But is it necessary?

Heather Saucier learned the lesson of the "nut graf" the hard way. (In journalism jargon, the "nut graf" is a paragraph near the top of a story that concisely lays out its thesis.)

Ms. Saucier was still in college, working as an intern for the now-defunct Houston Post. She filed a piece on the city's troublesome squirrel population. The story was fine, her editor said, "But you're missing a nut graf."

She'd already written about squirrels chewing through telephone wires and gnawing on wood, so she dashed off a short paragraph about their diet: nuts.

Some would argue that Saucier learned this essential of the journalistic craft in the best possible fashion - on the job. Others, however, might point to Saucier's story as an example of one of the oddities of journalism: So many enter the field with so little formal instruction.

Whatever the answer, Saucier stayed her course. But as time went on, she considered returning to school. After five years as a features writer, her stories regularly took third place in competitions. She wanted "to be a first-place writer," though, and thought "there has to be something I don't know that I can learn."

In journalism graduate school, she says, content was held in higher esteem than style. And she discovered what had been missing from her work - substance.

It's one of the most circular and enduring debates in journalism: whether to bother with a graduate degree that certainly doesn't guarantee a job, and, unlike law or medicine, has never been required.

Nearly a century after the first journalism school opened in 1908, schools are in flux - Columbia University's vaunted program, where Saucier earned her degree, is in the final stages of an overhaul.

Debates over the value and purpose of such programs are perpetual. Should they focus on skills - or theory? Some argue their value lies largely in forging contacts to help crack open the door to a closed insider's game. Then there are those successful newspeople who insist their value is nil.

And yet - paradoxically, perhaps - even as tuition rises and the time spent earning a degree expands, enrollment at journalism schools is up.

Bolstered by a larger demographic shift in the numbers of students attending graduate school, last year students earning master's in journalism and mass communication hit an all-time high of 11,703, according to an annual survey by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

It's a tough job, journalism. The pay is low. Competition is fierce. And a spate of ethics scandals hasn't endeared the profession to the public.

The median salary of a person holding a master's degree in journalism and mass communication is a little over $32,000. While a year spent earning a degree at Columbia in New York City or Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill. - both private schools and two of the country's best - can cost up to $60,000, including living expenses.

Still, the allure - whether romantic visions of mellifluous prose, foreign correspondents confronting war zones, or oldtime newspapermen felling corrupt governments - remains strong. And journalists, both working and aspiring, talk of journalism as less a job than a calling.

"I always tell people that I didn't pick journalism. I think journalism picked me," says Roya Aziz, in her third - and, she hopes, final - year of earning a dual degree in journalism and international studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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.

"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."

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