Why My Journalism Degree Wasn’t a Complete Waste of Money

I went to school for journalism, but I ended up with a career in web design.

I love the art and the formula of writing a great news story. My experience serving as the editor of my college’s weekly newspaper was the single most valuable experience that I had in college.

THE POINTER — Weekly college newspaper for the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point

The weeks we put out a paper were a blur of:

  • Collaborating with the team on which stories we’d write.
  • Researching and writing about important school issues.
  • Consulting the AP Style Guide.
  • Pulling late nights fueled with coffee and music from the alternative radio station staffed next door.
  • Restarting the computer because Quark Xpress froze up again.
  • The beautiful puzzle of layout and fitting in the work of not just the writers, but photographers, cartoon artists and ad staff.
  • Delivering the final paste ups to the print house and sitting with their staff until I knew that everything was OK — the paper would be delivered the next day.

When I graduated in December 2001, the landscape for Journalism had changed. I knew a handful of people who were working at local papers who were barely scraping by. Luckily, I had some experience in web design and the interest to keep learning. But, changing direction meant giving up my dream of being a journalist.

So, was it all for nothing? Definitely not. Here are some things that I have brought with me from studying print journalism.

1. How to become a mini-expert — quickly.

Figure out the goal, talk to people, do research and learn as much as you can to speak or act with some clarity on the subject.

2. How to accept criticism.

There’s red ink all over your story? Great! That means someone took the time to read it!

3. How to be direct but considerate when giving critiques of others.

Use the red pen for edits, but ask the writer to clarify points you don’t understand or need to be strengthened. Don’t completely rewrite the piece in your voice.

4. Write a compelling headline.

5. Use the inverted pyramid style for writing.

Don’t bury the lead. Sorry, but most people aren’t going to read the entire story. Make sure that first paragraph has the meat, then support it.

6. Be concise.

7. Don’t go overboard with punctuation.

(No, I’m not going to ironically put three exclamation points after this statement.)

Maybe I don’t use my exclamation points as haphazardly as you do.
It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!
Seinfield, episode #504 — “The Sniffing Accountant”

8. Good layout matters.

Is it hard to look at? It’s probably also hard to read.

9. How to develop and stick to a style guide.

Consistency makes it easier for your readers to get to your content.

10. How to meet a deadline — often a tight one.

11. Related: How to work until the job is done.

I also credit this ability to those years of playing Nintendo in my parents basement. “We can’t go to sleep, Mom. The game won’t save and we’ll never reach the end of the Bucky O’Hare game!” — Incidentally, thanks Mom.

12. Sometimes done is better than perfect.

The first step to writing is writing. Write something. Walk away. Come back and edit. You can edit forever, but at some point you have to look at your work and call it good.

13. Forgive yourself for mistakes. You’re human.

Misspelling in thousands of copies of the paper? Nothing you can do about it now, but acknowledge the mistake, learn from it and move on. If it’s a big enough mistake, accept some responsibility with a retraction.

14. Working on a team with a bunch of driven, opinionated, creative professionals is a hell of a good time.

Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

Is going to school for journalism the best way to get into web design today? Probably not but it sure can’t hurt. And if you are going to school directly for web design, I hope you’re still finding a way to get all of these lessons along the way.