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Teaching Online Journalism

Getting a journalism degree, getting a journalism job

This is an endorsement I like to see:

I have never once regretted studying journalism. And I am not alone.

That comes from Elana Zak, writing at 10,000 Words on June 24. According to her post, she received a journalism degree in June 2007, got a job three months later, and has “been gainfully employed ever since.”

Her post made me think about several things:

  1. Many successful journalists do not have a university degree in journalism.
  2. Many graduates with a university degree in journalism will never have a journalism job.
  3. Some people who study journalism at university are not well rounded in their knowledge.
  4. Why does anyone go to university?

It might be helpful to examine each of these thoughts more closely.

Many successful journalists do not have a university degree in journalism

This is indisputable. If you aspire to become a professional journalist, you can do it via other routes. It will require hard work and dedication and tenacity — no matter which route you take (degree or no degree).

A long time ago, I worked with Jonathan Weber at a weekly business newspaper. Jonathan had not studied journalism in college — he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Read his brief bio to see what an interesting career he has had! Today he’s editor-in-chief of The Bay Citizen, a very interesting venture in nonprofit journalism.

I chose Jonathan as an example because while working with him in the 1980s, I occasionally observed something or another that reminded me he had not been trained — in school — to be a journalist. These were little things that an editor would catch and point out to him, or that he would ask about — never anything major. The reason I remember this experience: It taught me that someone with intelligence and commitment absolutely could learn on the job how to be a good journalist.

Many graduates with a university degree in journalism will never have a journalism job

There are many different reasons for this — maybe as many reasons as there are people! However, I suggest that one simple word explains a majority of cases:

Internships.

In the J-school where I teach, we see a lot of students who: (a) take no internships at all before they graduate; (b) take only one internship; (c) take one or more “low value” internships (see below). Of course, their professors counsel them not to make these mistakes, but all we can do is recommend.

I recognize the challenges — too many internships do not pay; most of those require the student to pay for college credits while taking the internship, creating a double hardship; in the current economic climate, many news organizations have reduced the number of internships offered.

These challenges do not erase the simple fact that most journalism jobs are off-limits to all applicants who have not completed at least one internship. No internships = no job. It really is that simple. Many students, it seems, refuse to believe this applies to them. These are usually the students who are obsessed with getting high grades — as if anyone in a newsroom would ever care what grade you got in any class! (No one but a graduate school cares what your grades were.)

Another key contributor to failure to get a job in journalism: Location.

Students who are tied to one town or city — or even to one state — severely limit their job opportunities. This applies to internships as well as to jobs. Those who are willing to move to the other side of the country — or even to a new country altogether — have hundreds more options and opportunities than those who refuse to pick up stakes.

It is not as if you can never come back. Imagine a recent graduate who lives in a big market where it’s harder to get a first job because the media organizations can be very selective. That person could take a position in a faraway smaller market, then in a year or two move to a bigger organization in another location. By the third or fourth job, that journalist could return to the big city and settle down there.

What is a ”low value” internship? These are internships at very small organizations, such as a local entertainment tabloid or a small, independent magazine with only one or two paid employees. Students can learn valuable lessons at these organizations, but just imagine how your resume will compare with the resume of another job applicant who has had an internship at a bigger, well-known organization.

Recently one of our students asked me for advice about which internship to take: an unpaid one at a big daily newspaper in her home city (she could live with her parents for free), or a competitive, paid internship in a faraway big city, also with a big daily newspaper. I appreciate that for a young person, the second option is more intimidating, and in this case the student’s parents were urging her to take the “safe” option.

You need to look at value when you face this kind of decision: Where will you learn more? Which newsroom will value you more (and teach you more)? Which internship will be more challenging? The answers to these questions should tell you which is the better choice.

Some people who study journalism at university are not well rounded in their knowledge

We see students all the time who seem to be fully focused on the goal (complete a bachelor’s degree) and ignoring the means to that end (learning new things). We see students who are diligently investigating which courses are an “easy A” and filling up their schedule with those courses. What a pity.

Pultizer Prize-winning data journalist Matt Waite once commented to me that he took a lot of courses in English and sociology while he was majoring in journalism as an undergrad — and he regrets that. It was like majoring in journalism and minoring in journalism and journalism, he said. I laughed — I knew what he meant!

As an undergrad journalism major, I took a lot of courses in the English department — mostly very enjoyable literature courses. Of course, I learned new things in those courses, but I graduated woefully ignorant of economics, political science, and modern world history. I’ve been working hard to catch up ever since.

Learn a non-European language. Go on a study abroad. Take an upper-level course in world art history, or world religions, or geography. Instead of a general sociology course, take a course in criminology or the U.S. justice system. Take a course that addresses national health policy or poverty.

The opportunity to study at a university is a great privilege, completely unavailable to so many people. The grades do not matter. The learning does.

A student who knows more about a broader range of topics is much better positioned to become a great journalist than one who has spent her time looking for an easy A.

Why does anyone go to university?

A lot of students and their parents seem to think the purpose of attending a four-year college or university is to acquire skills that will qualify one to get a job.

Acquiring skills that will qualify one to get a job is what students do in a trade school, or in a vocational program. See the first item above: It is not necessary to study journalism to become a successful and prominent journalist, and it never has been. (For many people, myself included, it makes sense to major in journalism and then pursue a career in journalism. But it’s not required.)

As Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker earlier this month:

Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test.

But that is not the whole story. Menand goes on to offer a second, different “theory of college”:

In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

Some say education is wasted on the young (as some also say youth is wasted on the young). If we do not require young people to eat their vegetables — and to acquire other assets important to their mental as well as physical development — they will be stunted, ill, even permanently damaged.

Their ability to develop to their full potential will be compromised. Perhaps severely.

This might not be so terrible for a lawyer, say, or a doctor. In their graduate programs, they will acquire skills that will enable them to do their jobs.

For a journalist, it would be a great tragedy.

Referring to a study that is the subject of a recently published book, Menand noted:

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields — sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities — do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. … The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

The ability to think creatively, correlate data, perceive connections among seemingly unrelated events, analyze information intentionally crafted to mislead, and other hard-to-quantify talents can be honed in a well-rounded liberal arts education at a four-year institution. These abilities can greatly contribute to one’s success in the journalism field.

This honing, however, can be sidestepped by those who choose to regard the university as a trade school — or a diploma store.

Related post: Why does anyone major in journalism?


Categories: ideas, jobs


12 Comments

  1. Patrick Hogan says:

    I graduated from college in 2006. I pretty much had zero prospects until I expanded my job search out from my home in New York far enough to include New Mexico, which is where I ended up working at a daily newspaper in tiny Farmington.

    Five years later, I’ve moved close to home to Iowa, but I do frequently wonder if I’m ever going to live in New York again.

  2. Elana Zak says:

    Thanks for mentioning my post! I completely agree with what you’ve written above. The unpaid internship is a deterrent to many — especially when some schools require you take them for credit. But boy, are they worth it. Every job interviewer I saw during college commented on the many internships I had.

  3. @Patrick – It seems that a lot of successful journalists who started at a small place played their cards well by moving about every 18 to 24 months — up to about age 30. You should be able to get a bigger pay raise by moving to a whole new company than by staying put and taking a promotion. After 30, or after about 8 years, you can settle in.

    The exception is those folks who land a job at a really big media company early on. They can often (but not always) stay put and just take promotions. The exception was some of the early dead-end online producer jobs at big organizations.

    Look for a vertical position change as well as more pay when you search for your next job. A lateral move can slow you down too much.

  4. Ruth Terry says:

    Hello,

    Love this post! Do you have any advice for people who are making a mid-career shift to journalism?

    I have a background in art, English, public admin, NPO management and fundraising. So, of course, last year I decided to become a journalist ;-) I transitioned to nonprofit consulting and freelance writing, with the long-term goal of taking on more and more journalism assignments.

    I write for , a regional online magazine in MI. I also blog and volunteer as for citizen journalists, but this isn’t turning into more opportunities. Should I pursue an internship?

  5. @Ruth Terry: It sounds like you are already racking up freelance clients, so why not focus on that? Develop one or two areas of expertise and build your portfolio.

  6. bob stepno says:

    Great post, Mindy. Is there a research study somewhere that we can point students and parents to, to support the observation that “most journalism jobs are off-limits to all applicants who have not completed at least one internship”?

  7. Very interesting, Mindy. Those are points that i’ve been thinking while majoring journalism here in Indonesia. Your post was just opened my mind. Now i’m considering to take any internships in a place i’d love to work at a journalist someday, seriously. Before i read your post, i don’t really care about where i’ll take any internships as long as my credit would be good enough. So, many thanks. I heard you’ll come to Indonesia? Longing for it.

  8. It’s likely that people looking to hire a new journalist will be more impressed if your internship(s) were with organizations they respect. (deandrasyarizka – I’m sorry that is such a convoluted sentence — I would never be able to read that if it were in Bahasa! Yes, I will be in Indonesia soon!)

  9. Jimena Antuna says:

    I am currently a Journalism major at New Mexico State University. Reading this blog has made me even more confident that I have chosen the right career! Thank you

  10. Ross Effler says:

    I am interested in a career in journalism but at age 32, and having worked in the graphic design/marketing industry for the past 9 years, feel intimidated by the prospect of 4-5 years of college. Do you know of many people who started a career in journalism in their late 30′s? You mentioned that many journalists do not have a journalism degree. Do you have any tips for someone looking to break into this field without the aid of a degree or internships?

  11. @Ross Effler – I don’t know how many people have started in journalism after age 30, but I’m sure it is more than a few. As a mature professional person, you should be able to get some foundational information by searching the Web and reading a couple of books. Get a feel for what the field is like nowadays. What are your ambitions? Do you want to write, or design infographics, for example? First explore the types of jobs there are (check journalismjobs.com for ideas!) and then narrow down the type you are interested in.

  12. Brian F. Hirleman says:

    I’m interested in pursuing a career in journalism, I was planning to take journalism courses while in the Army. I was wondering if there was any advice you may have as to what I should do. Thank You.

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