University of Missouri journalism school students via Wikimedia Commons

About that J-school education…

There’s been much #AdviceForYoungJournalists floating around the Interwebs of late — Ezra Klein weighed in here in response to Felix Salmon’s piece here, all of which resurfaced Michael Lewis 1993 smackdown of journalism schools here.

What follows — originally an email from Kelly Furnas, executive director of the Journalism Education Association, to the JEA listserv — is not necessarily a defense of journalism schools but a more circumspect view of the value they still hold, even if attending one isn’t a rock-solid guarantee of a journalism career.

It is republished with his permission.

I’m reminded of the scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Will explains you can get the same education from a $150,000 college degree that you do in $1.50 in late book charges at the library. I think that’s true with any field of study, from journalism and mathematics to business and engineering.

But I think there are some assumptions in Klein’s piece (which is otherwise a heart-warming reminder of the value of a journalism career) that undermine the blanket statement that all students should avoid journalism school.

Assumption 1) All students learn the same.

For me, going to j-school wasn’t about sitting at the feet of all-knowing professors, but it was about being surrounded by journalists with whom I could network. I personally enjoy the small, recitation-style classroom setting, where students and faculty can learn and debate ethics and best practices. And I like to think those experiences paid off: I owe my first job to the glowing reference from one of those faculty members.

Assumption 2) All high school graduates are the same.

You would like to think that all students who graduate from high school are on the same level in terms of critical thinking, access to technology, writing skills and media literacy, but the variation in each of these is amazingly, sometimes tragically, pronounced. (It’s worth noting Klein went to the eighth best high school in the country. Michael Lewis went to a $20,000-a-year private high school.) So if a student doesn’t have the time or disposition to be self-taught in every aspect of media production, a journalism degree is the only degree that will teach you all of the skills you need.

Assumption 3) Only writers are journalists.

While you would hope that a strong writing component would be a part of any college education, it’s unkind to demean the work of photographers, designers, Web developers, videographers, editors, graphic artists and data visualizers who also consider their work journalistic. At some universities, these skills can be picked up in other programs, but at many, a j-school might be your only outlet.

Assumption 4) Journalism students only take journalism classes.

At most journalism schools, your communications classes only make up a third of your entire coursework, so students are forced to receive the broad liberal arts education that is fundamental to a journalist’s knowledge base.

Assumption 5) Companies invest in training.

I so wish this were true, but it is incredibly rare for professionals to take on the task of bringing fledgling journalists up to speed. (Sadly, this is true not just for broad journalistic skills, but also specific software skills.) Lewis’ piece famously quotes a New York Times editor as saying, “All we care about is ability and experience.” But where do you get the experience? No company hires someone with no ability. Talking to the New York Times about high school journalists is like talking to the White House about student council elections — there are quite a few steps between the two.

Klein’s — and Lewis’ — point is that the degree isn’t going to get you a job. And to this let me be abundantly clear: They are 100 percent correct. Your portfolio and references will be what lands that first interview. Your knowledge, curiosity and personality will land you the job.

The question students need to ask is, “How do I best develop my portfolio and references?” For some, it’s a journalism degree with real-world publishing opportunities. For some, it’s amazing work in student media and a religious studies degree. Sometimes, it’s no college degree at all. But that’s up to each student to know their strengths, weaknesses, work ethic, self-direction and learning preferences.

I’d resist the argument that a journalism degree has no value for anyone, just as I’d resist the argument that a journalism degree is the only path toward a career in the field. And I’d be overly suspicious of someone who prescribes their own career path as the best one.