The value of a journalism school education

The latest edition of CJR has a pro and con (and maybe) on the value of attending journalism school. Strong arguments on all sides. Now, I have an opinion.

First, my bias: I have never taken a journalism course. I graduated with an English degree from what is now St. Andrews University. My first newspaper job came two years after I graduated. I worked as a reporter and editor for 30+ years, and I did pretty well. Six years ago, I started teaching journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. (I think media literacy should be a required course in high school and college, but that’s a topic for another day.)

With a Smith-Corona, working on a story circa 1980

My first job was at a 5-day a week afternoon paper in Monroe, N.C. I learned at the side of a good, tough editor, who tried to teach me the principles of the trade. But he taught primarily by correcting my mistakes. He didn’t teach me how to interview people, or pick up anecdotes and detail, or how to write with life. For that, I was self-taught and much of my self-teaching was wrong.

I learned new skills from better journalists along the way. One showed me how to peel layers off the onion to try to get to the truth. Another taught me to slow down and find the right word, rather than the almost right one. A third taught me about “gold coins.”

But it took years, dozens of journalists, and hundreds of errors and false starts to get me there.

I teach those skills now in my classes. Other instructors teach data journalism and web design and building a brand and opinion writing. They teach media law and media ethics. Entrepreneurial journalism is on the rise. Students are being prepared for a journalism life even if newspapers and TV aren’t in their¬†future.¬†And, if they’re lucky, they get a few experienced mentors for life.

I came up in journalism at a time in which editors had time to teach, and reporters had time to figure things out. Now, there are fewer editors, fewer reporters and journalism is more complicated. Then I needed a pad, a pencil and a typewriter to report and write. Now, journalists need to know the skills of reporting and writing, but also how to navigate social media, how to write for multiple platforms, how to shoot video…among other things.

Complicating it exponentially is a news environment in which conspiracies are spread by political leaders, lying by the president of the United States is commonplace, Russians manipulate social networks, people will believe the damndest things, journalists chase after the shiny objects, and newspapers are dying.

Journalistic rigor and discipline and high standards are vital now. Can you do all of this without a J-school education? Sure. I don’t regret not attending a journalism school, but it took me way longer to master the trade because I didn’t.