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Home > Publications > Quill > Questioning the J-School Choice



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Thursday, December 6, 2012
Questioning the J-School Choice

Majoring in journalism? No, you're not an idiot. But you may be naive if you're not asking yourself important questions.

By Scott Leadingham

“It’s 2012 and I’m in journalism school. Am I an idiot?”

Call it a shot across the bow. Call it an angst-ridden plea for help. Call it obvious. Whatever you want to call that question Reddit user “Sound_Sop” asked of Ira Glass, it’s the basis for a very worthwhile discussion on the state of the industry and the value of the venerable journalism degree.

Glass, host of public radio juggernaut “This American Life,” was participating in a forum on social site Reddit called “Ask Me Anything,” basically a standard real-time Q-and-A where registered site users can ask any question, without moderation. Glass and fellow chat participants responded. (See the full Reddit discussion here.)

Glass:

Short answer, no. There’ll be journalism somewhere. There’ll be jobs. Longer answer: depends on which school.

User “northwestwill”:

No — Journalism isn’t dying, the paper it’s printed on is. The art of reporting and retelling is never going away regardless of how the media changes.

User “carreening”:

No, but be prepared to work outside of journalism. I graduated in 2006 and worked in journalism for a while, but that wasn’t paying the bills. Fortunately, the communications and analytically (sic) skills you learn help you transition to many other fields.

To which user “PleaseDontStalkMe” replied:

I agree with this. I’m working in marketing even though I studied and interned in journalism. Take some marketing classes.

And Ira Glass replied:

Or ... be ambitious! Start doing journalism right now! One great thing about being a writer at this moment in history is that you don’t need permission to start making your work. Just ... start!

The discussion didn’t end with the “Ask Me Anything” session, nor was it confined to Reddit. It’s really a universal question any college student should ask himself or herself: “Does the field in which I’m majoring have a future? Does my degree have value?”

For journalism majors: yes.

At one time I actively tried to distance myself from the label of “journalist,” or, more broadly, “journalism.”

In college I wrote a column for the Indiana University student newspaper and fancied myself part political commentator, part bloviator, at the campus radio station. A friend asked me about a rather wonky journalism issue of the day, a topic I honestly didn’t care about much at the time. (I was busy trying to be the next Molly Ivins.)

“You’re a journalist, so you must care about …” my friend said.

I corrected him. “I’m not a journalist. I respect journalism too much to sully it with my inclusion.”

That’s why writing on this topic for Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, seems ironic in hindsight.

But someone told me imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and that person was very likely a journalist. So, here we go…

The fact that I didn’t go to journalism school might surprise people who associate journalism with a clearly defined path: Go to college. Get summer internships. Get reporting job at (insert standard news media outlet). And to be sure, it probably is a limitation had I wanted to go the work-in-a- small-newsroom-and-slowly-climb-the-ladder route.

But anyone who’s reading this should understand the nuances of journalism enough to know that “Big-J journalism” doesn’t mean just working a newspaper beat or filing daily packages for the 5 p.m. newscast. Journalism — and journalists — is more than the romanticized notion of a Clark Kent*, J. Jonah Jameson and, more realistically, Ernie Pyle.

*(That is, Clark Kent the Daily Planet newspaper reporter, not the recent iteration by DC Comics to make him a blogger.)

If I’d wanted to be any of those people — or countless other fictional or real journalists — a “traditional” journalism education would have helped. By “traditional” I don‘t mean old or in any way antiquated. Rather, “traditional” here means a single-track course, one in which you’re taught the ins and outs of concise print or broadcast writing and hold the inverted pyramid as your guide. Along the way you get a healthy dose (we hope) of journalism history, ethics and responsibility.

The point of this “traditional” route is to prepare you for your chosen career as a “newspaperman” ... er ... newspaper-person or reporter for radio or TV.

That route, we know, is dubious and not the universe of what a career in journalism entails. If the goal with your journalism degree is to attain a reporting/writing job at a legacy media outlet (or even a website) and stay with that limited Clark Kent-like role for the rest of your career, then I’ll throw this out there: You’re not an idiot, but you need to honestly ask whether you’re spending money on a degree program that’s preparing you for an unrealistic or unsustainable future.

To be sure, there is still great value in a journalism degree — if you’re in the right program and have the right goals and outcomes in mind.

But what are the “right” goals and outcomes?

ROLLIN’ WITH IT

“At this point I’m just going to roll with the punches,” one journalism student said when asked about the prospect of his degree being relevant.

His so-so attitude seems justified, given that he’s the person who asked Ira Glass in that Reddit chat about being an idiot for majoring in journalism.

I tracked down Matt Oxman after his Reddit question gained attention by posting a comment in response to his query to Glass. Oxman emailed me, and we set up a time to chat.

He attends Ryerson University in Toronto and will graduate in 2014. It may sound cliché, but after that, who knows what happens? Oxman certainly has his own ideas and goals, but he admits he has to clear structural and skills-based hurdles.

“There seem to be fewer writing jobs and fewer full-time employment opportunities for pure reporters,” he said. “I see every time we get job announcements from the school, a lot of them ask for digital skills, and I’m not really being taught that.”

He admits that while his coursework does include training in HTML and Adobe Creative Suite software, he came away from classes with grades, “not the confidence of having skills for a job.”

That lack of job skills and prospects is something that drives Oxman’s hesitancy. He said he began questioning a journalism degree after his cousin, a Northwestern University graduate, couldn’t get a job and “made it clear that he regretted” majoring in journalism.

But his cousin’s experience — and certainly Oxman’s, too — is anecdotal. There could be any number of reasons he’s struggling to find journalism work.

(Sidenote: After reviewing hundreds of applications for various writing and reporting internships with SPJ and Quill, I know one that stands out to me: no Twitter name listed on a resume. If it’s not on there, much like an email address or phone number, it’s immediately discounted. Seriously.)

Oxman didn’t come off as jaded or bitter. But he definitely seems cautious and skeptical about his career in journalism stemming from his educational pursuits. (Hmmm, “cautious and skeptical” sound like pretty good journalistic traits to me.)

“There’s just no guarantee (for a journalism job). There’s no sure bet, it seems,” he said.

NEVER A GUARANTEE, BUT QUESTIONS

Oxman is right: There’s no guarantee for a journalism (or any) job out of college. You have to work for it. Insert your own standard and overused motivational phrase here.

Since when was a mere degree in anything the one-way ticket to lifelong employment? Every field has a need for professional development and continuing education, including (and perhaps especially) journalism. And almost every hiring manager or employer will have stories about applicants who clearly don’t try or don’t distinguish themselves. That’s not a reason to discount journalism as a field of study or employment. But it is a reason to examine your own motivations for getting into and studying journalism.

So I’ll end with a few questions you could ask if you find yourself like Matt Oxman thinking you may be an “idiot”:

-When you think of "journalism," what comes to mind?

-Why do you want to study journalism? Perhaps more importantly, why do you want to be a journalist? Could you accomplish the work of journalism through another career field? Could you gain the skills journalism demands through another academic discipline?

-Are you a "news junkie" or a "news about the news junkie”? Both? Do you see the difference?

-What is the role of a journalist in our country and world? How would your inclusion in the field contribute to that?

-What is it your school's journalism program offers that gives you a competitive advantage above others? Is it worth the price?

Finally, watch this staggeringly blunt yet realistic video. Good luck.

Scott Leadingham is SPJ's director of education and editor of Quill magazine. Interact on Twitter: @scottleadingham.

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