Do we really need journalism programs in order to have great journalists?

Back in August, the University of Colorado proposed the discontinuance of its School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Since I hold a doctoral degree from the SJMC, I was more than a little bit interested. The move stood to affect people I know and regard highly, and I couldn’t help wondering how badly shutting the doors would devalue my degree. It has been difficult to form hard and fast opinions, though, since the university still hasn’t decided how things will be parceled out once the dust settles.

To suggest that the administration lacks clarity at this point is to engage in dramatic understatement. In part, the drive to kill the SJMC seems driven by financial concerns. However, there is a desire to continue teaching journalism, although CU seems to feel a tension between its research mission and professional skills programs. Except that it doesn’t feel that tension quite so acutely with business, law and engineering, programs whose financial return on investment apparently generates something like an institutional endorphin effect.

Essentially, the university has decided that it wants to do things differently than it’s doing them right now, although it hasn’t made definitive progress into what “differently” will look like. Perhaps a new entity will be created to focus on issues like “content development.” Perhaps existing classes, professors and functions will simply be migrated into other programs around campus, like communications (in the College of Arts & Sciences), film studies and business. Much remains to be decided.

I’m surprised that it has taken me this long to address the issue, given my personal investment in the University of Colorado and the SJMC in particular. But the truth is that I’m feeling more ambivalence than anything. Once upon a time J programs made a measure of sense to me. We need journalists, and journalists need a certain skill set: writing, thinking, research, analysis, etc. University programs designed to develop those skills and to prepare students for meaningful careers in an established field seemed as viable as a lot of what colleges do these days.

However, my experiences in the J school at CU, where I was a teaching assistant during my first three years in the doc program, put some questions in my head. I taught 1001 and the upper division mass media and culture class, with a one-semester side trip into audio production. I had some sharp students, but I couldn’t have told you that the school was producing uniformly talented writers. On the contrary – the average writing skills were pretty disappointing compared to what was routinely expected of undergraduates at Wake Forest, my alma mater, just a decade earlier.

Then the real eye-opener hit me. In my fourth year I was hired by CU’s humanities department to teach a two-semester sequence entitled Humanities and the Electronic Media. They had figured out that the Internet was spawning a cyberculture that was important, but they didn’t have anyone on the faculty who could speak to it. So across the quad I went, departing the Empire of Sensible Skills Training for the Kingdom of Soon-to-Be Fry Cooks. There I discovered something odd: my humanities students were worlds ahead of my J students in just about every category that would ever matter. They were better thinkers. They were better researchers. They were better at analyzing novel information. And they were far superior writers. If a newspaper were looking to hire a cub reporter, only my very best SJMC students would have stood a chance against my humanities charges.

I came away from my University of Colorado experience suspicious of the idea that journalism programs were especially necessary for the practice of reporting. A good journalist didn’t need “professional training,” a good journalist needed to be able to research, ask insightful questions, analyze, think, organize and write. Or, as Denny puts it, a journalist should be able to “observe astutely, record accurately, analyze rigorously, organize thoughtfully, and present compellingly information she has gathered.”

By now I had all the evidence I probably needed to know that you get all these things, in spades, from any basic top-level liberal arts curriculum. I had never taken a J class, but had been perfectly prepared for every feature, depth research or business piece I was assigned during my freelance days. As a psychology major at Wake, I had been required to take two semesters of research methods, so I had an idea how to formulate questions and when I encountered a quantitative or statistical claim I knew how to evaluate it. My english minor made sure that I could write – heck, at Wake even the full-bird professors taught composition, so precision with the written word was an alpha priority. And the sheer breadth of the basic curriculum brought me into (sometimes unwilling) contact with history, religion, philosophy, multiple social science disciplines, mathematics, a science or two, and even a couple of semesters of physical education. I didn’t know everything, of course, but I had been introduced to many things, and I was taught how to think, ask questions, formulate positions and articulate arguments with supporting evidence throughout the course of my undergraduate career.

I also knew that Dr. Denny, my colleague and roommate at CU, had managed a pretty solid 20-year newspaper reporting and editing career with a Geology degree. Bob Woodward has won multiple Pulitzers with a degree in history and english. Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer for uncovering the My Lai Massacre and he had an english degree. If Ben Bradlee had a journalism degree I can’t find reference to it, and Ethel Payne, “the First Lady of the Black Press,” really stumbled into her career as a reporter. Two of the most important figures in American journalism in the last 50 years, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, did it without J degrees, as well. Thompson picked up the skill while in the military and Wolfe majored in english. My guess is that a lot of our nation’s most distinguished and important reporters – local, national and international – didn’t have professional J degrees.

My year as a professor in the J school of a small university in the Northeast did nothing but strengthen my belief that journalism programs were unnecessary at best, and perhaps a hindrance at worst. Again, I had some good students (and fantastic colleagues), but felt there was a strong argument to be made that the core skills required for a job as a reporter could be developed just as well elsewhere on campus. The technical nuts and bolts of the actual newsroom were the sorts of things that newspapers could probably teach on the fly. None of this means that journalism programs don’t produce great journalists – they certainly can and do. I’m just not sure that they’re the only route, or necessarily the best route.

Of course, I’m a pretty big believer in the liberal arts approach to education in general. While some argue that the liberal arts prepare you for nothing, I’d argue that the exact opposite is true. I’m a pretty fair marketing and communications strategist these days, with lots of success stories serving clients in over a dozen industries. I never took a course in marketing, business or any sort of professional communications. Some of the smartest business people I know are liberal arts types, and some of the worst chimps I’ve ever had to save from themselves have business program credentials that look all kinds of impressive on paper.

Maybe my faith in the liberal arts makes me biased when I’m thinking about professional education. Or maybe it makes me informed. Your call.

The upshot is as a result of these experiences, I can’t say that CU’s decision to do away with its J school really troubles me. I have no reason to think that whatever new structure they replace the SJMC with will result in a less prepared talent pool for news outlets to select from. In fact, if we see a “discontinuance” of J programs across the country, it could force news agencies that are still hiring to alter their criteria in ways that are good for the industry.

What does trouble me, though, is the state of journalism in general in the US. I won’t even begin to try cataloguing all that has gone wrong in the past generation. I’ve had my say elsewhere and Denny’s archive is a veritable textbook of what’s wrong with the industry and the nation. The short version is that where American journalism is concerned, university education isn’t the problem.

Let’s hope that CU finds its way to a productive answer, although I can’t imagine that an emphasis on “content development” will be of much value to the Republic. I guess this CU SJMC alum is rooting for a solution that fosters … thinking, organizing, analyzing, writing…

13 replies »

  1. Maybe you’re reading too much into it. Perhaps CU is just responding to the job market. With newspapers folding left and right, I can’t imagine there are a lot of 18 year-olds out there pining to be journalists; particularly not from the gullible post-millennial generation.

    CU has never been particularly good at preparing students for the real world. Hell, football has been one of its more passionate pursuits — their video department is better than the film school’s — and even their football program isn’t particularly well suited for getting players drafted into the pro ranks.

    I think CU is content to be the party school at the base of the flatirons, gladly accepting out-of-state tuition from kids who want to practice their drinking and skiing. They know they need to come out the other end of the oblivion with a degree, so let it be something that might actually get them a job.

    Besides, CU’s Journalism grads seem to just turn around and take the piss out of their alma mater every time they do something particularly revolting.

    • Actually, CU is a very good school for certain hard sciences and most engineering disciplines, and it was an excellent school for learning Japanese a while back (a legacy from WWII). But I’ve never really thought of CU as much of a liberal arts school.

  2. I can’t speak for the entirety of the LA program, but there are some good people in English and, as I noted in the post, humanities students impressed the heck out of me.

  3. Sam, thanks for the personal and insightful analysis. I spent three years as a reporter for a Gannett daily, and some years thereafter free-lancing, with no J-school background — my degree from Harvard was in African-American history, and my sole semester as a teacher was in poetry in an undergraduate English department. It looks to me as if mainstream (meaning corporate) journalism has largely become a kind of pass-through information processing industry rather than a societal art rooted in potent curiosity and truthful conviction. Major J-schools increasingly look like orientation programs for newsrooms that are more about typing than writing, and more about repeating than challenging. Humanities and liberal arts are among the last campus outposts of actual intellectual passion and human principle. And even then, today’s breathlessly-marketed MFA programs (Poets and Writers magazine is full of their ads promising The Writing Life to anyone who will enroll) are of questionable value at best in nurturing true verbal artists. We are perhaps likelier to find meaningful writers slinging burgers or selling furniture than brandishing pedigrees from the approved factories. This isn’t new, but it does seem increasingly true.

  4. …more about typing than writing, and more about repeating than challenging.

    You know, we weren’t having a “Sum Up the Washington Post in 11 Words or Less” contest, but if we had been, you’d have just won it.

  5. Egads. So much to say; so little time.

    Fikshun: Newspapers aren’t folding left and right. Printed newspapers may be folding but online editions are being maintained. You can see a list of 14 dead metropolitan newspapers here out of about 1,400 American dailies: I do appreciate your thoughtful comment, however.

    If a J school has the right faculty, then the degree awarded is likely to actually be useful. The “right” faculty is defined by what the J school claims it does and whether it does it well. J schools that offer absolutely everything under the media sun are likely to be large programs with numerous faculty (who probably have significant research obligations for tenure and promotion).

    As Sam pointed out, my 20-year journalism career was preceded by wandering out of the University of Massachusetts with a geology degree — and nary an English course in sight.

    I did well. But entering a newsroom in 1970 — in which hardly anyone had a college degree to begin with — differs greatly from entering a newsroom in 2011.

    Here’s what one of my ’06 grads said last year:

    “The job I do now barely resembles the one I took out of college two years ago. All I had to worry about then was writing a couple features and notebooks each week and covering a few games. Now, I am responsible for 31 Web pages, producing high school sports videos each week (shooting, editing and hosting, in some cases), blogging and writing stories for the Web site. Truthfully, I blog about my beat more than my byline appears on our Web site. It is not the job I thought I would have, but that’s okay. My storytelling and reporting skills are still the basis for all that I do.

    “I think students today need to figure out what they can do to be indispensable. Entry-level reporters are a dime a dozen and often the first to go in this climate of layoffs and buyouts. The way we tell stories, and through which medium, is changing constantly. What can we do to prepare students for those changes?”

    A good J school attempts to answer that question. Now, Sam is right about preparation elsewhere than a J school. The core skills I advocate for my students — observe, record, analyze, organize, present — can be attained in other majors, or even life experience.

    But an 18-year-old who wants to be a really good journalist fasts needs:

    • concentrated, repeated practice in several forms of media writing.
    • the best research and reporting skills money can buy, and especially in the analysis of database sets.
    • an understanding of the means and worth of self-promotion of one’s work.
    • training in fundamental business skills because she is likely to not have one job but rather three or four different streams of income.
    • an awareness of the socialization (the “herd” mentality) that occurs in newsrooms and how to avoid its toxic effects (that’s where the right faculty come in).
    • an appreciation of ethical practice (i.e., how not to be Fox News).
    • a constant lookout, even the ability to forecast, technological changes in how information is distributed — and to whom.

    There are more we can can add. But this is the core of what I think the modern J school needs to place in front of prospective students. And throw in minors in political science and economics.

    Being a journalist — an ethical, competent, appropriately paid journalist — is much harder than in my day.

    Yes, you can get there without going to J school. But the right J school can accelerate the process.

  6. Ive been a newspaper reporter and editor for the past 32 years – the last 22 in the big leagues. I was prepared to react to Samuel Smith’s post negatively. I was pleasantly surprised at his assessment of CU’s Journalism program – from which I graduated in the late 1970s. At the time, it had some decent professors (Mal Deans, Sam Archibald) with real-world, big city newspaper experience who had something to teach youngsters like me about reporting and writing. The current faculty is a joke. Very few instructors with real, world, major league reporting and editing experience. Even the school’s advisory panel of professionals lacks gravitas. I loved my time in Boulder and attending j classesl. But if the current faculty and leadership is the best the school and its dean can offer students, its best to do away with the school.