When Michael Wolff wrote his controversial and cynical column about the death of journalism schools, I kept trying to pinpoint where he was wrong. On a micro level, I disagreed that the skills J-school teaches are useless, especially since the gap is widening between those who call themselves reporters and those who actually are. But I constantly thought about what he said on a macro level. And then I realized: it’s about the people.
One of the biggest attractions of J-school is being around like-minded and dedicated people. If the school does its job, its students will be talented in some capacity, since the required skills for journalism are rapidly evolving. At J-school, being around equally inspired people could mean finding the right team to incubate a new digital media startup.
Love him or hate him, Steve Jobs knew what he was doing when it came to finding the best people (firing them is a different story). A-Players, as he called them, make a venture, class, or club meeting sink or swim. J-schools put you in the room with A-Players, which is really important.
Since launching Seersucker four months ago, I’ve learned first hand that finding A-Players is hard. Really damn hard. People don’t commit, complain too much, take things personally and find excuses to get out of obligations. These are all characteristics of B- and C-Players, who are in abundance. But you need A-Players to succeed, and any avenues that help in meaningful ways are important to take advantage of.
Wolff mentions in the piece that Steve Coll, Columbia Journalism School’s new dean, isn’t qualified because he hasn’t tweeted before. You can teach someone to tweet, to spell correctly, to use interesting hooks and leads. But the world, especially journalism, isn’t built around teachable skills; it’s built around people. That’s why being around the best people is paramount. A substantial amount of successful founders met in college or graduate school.
The reason Wolff is wrong and can’t see past his own ego is right in the piece:
Rather, journalism school tends to teach you, admirably or quixotically, many less economically valuable skills: methodological reporting, sourcing protocols, research procedures, and a grounding in ethical and civic responsibility. The ideal goal continues to be to get you a job on The New York Times or The Washington Post, two organizations trying to fire more people than they hire.
If the Times and Post aren’t hiring many people, then it’s up to students and graduates to create new opportunities by being entrepreneurial. These new ventures have a chance of succeeding if students are around A-Players and are taught to take risks, something Wolff seems to discourage.
Learning how to work in high-stress environments, dealing with people effectively and making an impact are valuable skills J-schools teach, which are important to remember. It’s the little moments, the details and the ancillary benefits that often make a large impact.
Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, is a perfect example. When studying abroad, Systrom was persuaded by a teacher to stop using a Nikon and switch to a plastic Holga that took square photos. It wasn’t just “photography” that has made Systrom as successful as he is. It was a little development (switching cameras) that, in hindsight, was instrumental in making Instagram what it is today. If you map this example onto journalism, you find that what happens while a student is enrolled matters more than his being enrolled in a dedicated journalism program.
It’s not about the degree, the learnable skills, or the prestige. It’s about the people.