What Future Journalists Should Know About Journalism School

It might have been drilled into your head from a young age that the only way to be successful in life is to get a college degree. You might have bought into the idea that college would be the best four years of your life. Replete with parties, filled with office hours with inspiring professors, and chock full of intellectually rigorous debates with your fellow classmates in ivy-covered buildings.

Or you might have been told that there is a set path journalists need to take: work for your college’s paper, graduate college, get a job in a newsroom, and work your way up the ranks.

But that format is changing as the cost of college is skyrocketing: the College Board estimates that four years of tuition, fees, room, and board will cost more than $56,000 at public colleges for in-state residents. For students who opt to spend their four years at a private college, that number nearly doubles to $104,400. There is also a hidden cost: what could those four years have been spent doing instead? What else could you have done with your time and talents?

I went to undergrad at the College of William & Mary, a small, four-year liberal arts school in the swamplands of eastern Virginia. I studied government but was also required to take classes to fulfill general education requirements. My last year of school, when I should have focused on honing my craft, I shuttled myself back and forth to campus for a required astronomy class. It was an utter waste of my time, but college is full of inefficiencies like these.

Thankfully, I knew what I wanted to do. I started writing articles my freshman year of college and they evoked strong reactions from the people around me, going viral on campus and in the broader libertarian political circle. Although I wasn’t studying what I wanted to do—my school didn’t even offer an undergraduate journalism program—I was able to write for local newspapers and the school paper. I stopped focusing on my GPA and obsessively dedicated myself to a single focus: writing articles, getting them published, and having clips to show employers. I began to learn about composition and the craft of writing by simply getting my work torn apart by editors, left and right. Plus, I learned valuable freelancing skills that still come in handy: how to pitch work to editors, how to make and keep contacts, how to tailor a given piece to fit the editorial guidelines and style of different publications, and how to advocate for your work without being a pest.

But spending four years in college means tons of required classes. Even if you enter an undergraduate journalism program, it’s inevitable that you’ll have general education requirements—and even major requirements that aren’t relevant to what you’ll be doing as a journalist.

In college, you waste a lot of time in the name of well-roundedness and “general” education (or, in my case, the dreaded astronomy course). Is that any different in journalism programs, though?

The journalism trade publication Nieman Reports describes how in journalism school (both undergraduate and graduate),

Endless hours spent with computers and cameras, a fascination with the digital documentary, storytelling and first-person narrative techniques…come at the expense of instruction in the subject matter of journalism—how the courts work, the sociology of the police department…

In journalism school, you’re not necessarily learning the skills that will help you in the day-to-day. You’re still at the whims of your professors, some of whom are veteran journalists, and others who have never been in the field at all—or haven’t been in it for 20 years. Another Nieman Reports piece scoffs at the caliber of students graduating from journalism school, even graduate school:

How many editors and news directors want to hire liberal arts majors straight out of college or even research-oriented Columbia master’s degree holders with their page-long paragraphs, gratuitous opinions, and “Could I have an extension” requests?

The author’s point is that universities aren’t doing what they’re supposed to if their goal is to prepare students to be valued workers in the industry.

So, if journalism schools aren’t preparing students to be valuable workers in their chosen industry, why not? The incentives of school are fundamentally mismatched to the incentives of the workplace: school incentivizes obedience and compliance, but workplaces (or at least good workplaces) prize ingenuity, creativity, and anticipating organizational needs and the needs of supervisors. Of course, some aspects of school are aligned with aspects of the workforce—the ability to meet deadlines is crucial in the journalism industry and will earn you respect from editors. School teaches that skill, but at the end of the day, a good self-starter can learn that discipline on their own.

There’s some value of the critical thinking skills undoubtedly fostered in the college environment—but at what price do those skills come? Again, a good self-starter will learn how to contextualize a story, how to connect the dots, and how to write about different beats on their own.

There is also the opportunity cost component too often neglected by too many: spending four years in school means losing out on—or trading in—hours and hours of productive time. That time could be used learning more about grammar and editing (memorizing the AP Stylebook, for example), tracking down sources and learning how to interview people, and getting internships where you can generate clips.

As a journalist, your clips are a hundred times more valuable than your degree—or, God forbid, your GPA. Your clips indicate to editors what you will be like as a staff writer. Your GPA indicates how bored or entranced you were by your classes, and how well you can follow instructions. In the journalism field, you absolutely need to be a competent instruction-follower (at least from your editor), but having an inquisitive mind, a healthy dose of skepticism, and the persistence of a Bloodhound on the scent helps you excel when talking to sources. A lot of journalism skills are learned on the job: conversational skills for talking to sources, internet stalking skills for tracking down comments from sources, and analytical skills for putting it all together and noticing patterns.

Journalists aren’t paid to regurgitate talking points from some source with a clear agenda. That makes for bad journalism—or worse, boring journalism. Journalists are paid to represent sources accurately, but also to contextualize a situation and add background and analysis that our readers need in order to fully grasp what happened. We’re not in the business of solely following directions.

And frankly, a lot of it is hustle. Journalism and rejection go hand in hand: you will pitch thousands of story ideas and very few of them will come to fruition. You’re going to have to know when to abandon, when to morph, when to adapt, and how to manage your time accordingly so you don’t get stuck on an idea that there’s simply no market for. This is especially true for freelancers who have to constantly shop their ideas around.

Another Nieman Reports piece says it best:

What journalism needs are newsroom rookies with the ability to assess situations quickly, to figure out whom to contact and how and where to get information, and then be able to write what they learn accurately, fairly and clearly—and do all of this, usually, in one day.

Some journalism schools train you to do this, but do they do it better, and more efficiently, than freelancing or self-teaching would? At what cost do these lessons come?

Keep in mind: “There is not one path that, if followed, transforms young people into quality journalists. Certain aspects of character—integrity, in particular, an inquisitive personality, a persistent temperament—seem innate.”

Although it’s intoxicating to believe that going to the right school will set you on the right path or guarantee a certain income or caliber of newspaper job, that’s not how it works. Journalism school could be valuable for an aspiring reporter, but at what cost does that value come?

As a journalist, your clips are a hundred times more valuable than your degree.

As the news environment changes, so does the traditional path to success. The days of getting a job as a fact checker or cub reporter and working your way up are no longer here. News is increasingly national, not local. News is increasingly digital. News is increasingly partisan, and the premium placed on objectivity is mostly gone, or only given lip service to. But the good news is that there are fewer barriers to entry and growing your skills and your brand is easier than ever before. Of course, the downside to that is that the marketplace is saturated with wannabe writers of varying skill levels, integrity, and value, and it can be hard for consumers to parse out who to listen to and who to ignore.

The last thing to consider, as unromantic as it is, is that journalism is a sorely undervalued profession—and with that comes low pay. When weighing college and graduate school paths, future journalists would be prudent to not just consider the cost of a degree, but also their earning potential. Being saddled with $80,000 of debt might be reasonable for a future doctor, or someone taking a consulting job straight out of school, but an entry-level reporter might be making $35,000 for the next three years, and maybe $45,000 for five years after that. Paying off $80,000 in debt is pretty tough on a low salary in an industry wading through the murky waters of changing revenue models and historic public distrust.

College is expensive. I’m glad I finished my undergraduate degree early, and I’m even more glad I didn’t go into a journalism undergraduate or graduate program. Had I done so, I might not have been inspired to learn the skills I sought. I might have been hemorrhaging money while bored in class, not seeing the connection between school skills and job skills. A more entrepreneurial approach might not be the course for everyone, but with the field of options for entry into journalism constantly expanding, I highly recommend taking the scrappy approach and seeing what comes of it.

Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices, a contributing writer for Playboy, and a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in the Daily Beast, The Atlantic’s CityLab, Newsweek, USA Today, and Reason Magazine.