Columbia’s graduate journalism school is planning to cut staff and shrink class sizes. In a story on the news, Bloomberg relays the following: “Estimated tuition, fees, and living expenses for a full-time master’s degree student are $92,933, according to the school website.”
People who work in the media industry lost their minds over this line on Twitter on Wednesday night. After all, $92,933 is a lot of money for an industry that doesn’t promise investment-banking-type riches. Or, to be more current, it doesn’t promise app-maker riches.
Here’s a guy I know who works in media saying people don’t need to go to journalism school:
PSA to anyone who wants to become a journalist: You don’t have to go to journalism school. Don’t go! http://t.co/VZaPOlj0Bx — Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) March 11, 2015
He’s half-right. You don’t have to go to journalism school if you want to be a journalist. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. I went to journalism school, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
Here’s my story: I graduated from the University of Delaware in 2002 with a BA in economics. I didn’t do any internships while in college. When I graduated, the economy was in the toilet thanks to the collapse of the dot-com bubble and 9/11. I had no experience in my field.
And frankly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I couldn’t land a real job. Turns out that when you go for a job interview and the person asks, “Why do you want to work here?” you shouldn’t answer with, “I just want a job.”
I spent the next five years working a middling job at the University of Pennsylvania. I was working at the photocopy shop at Wharton—Reprographics. My coworkers were great fun to be around, but they were not high achievers. One guy, for instance, literally slept on the job. Out in the open in front of everyone, he just took a nap every day. He also brought in his weights and tried to set up a mini gym in a storage space so that he could work out while on the clock.
The job was mind-numbing, but it was easy. I was able to listen to music and talk radio. It also allowed me to take two classes per semester free at Penn. I took lots of art classes. I learned how to use Photoshop. I took a bunch of photography classes. I took a few classes on video and a few writing classes.
Somewhere along the way, I decided I needed to do something more productive with my life. I was between going to school for filmmaking and journalism. I chose journalism because I thought I would have a better shot at landing a job when I was done.
(In retrospect, journalism was a perfect fit for me. I like taking classes and learning new things. I also like the creativity of art like photography and video. Journalism is built on constant learning. It requires creativity to tell stories. Also, I love talk radio, which is what modern journalism is most like.)
When I decided to do journalism school, I went to my writing professor at Penn, Robert Strauss, for advice. His advice: Don’t go! It’s a waste of time and money. He said I should just start writing, doing freelance for local papers.
For a certain kind of person, that’s great advice. For me, it made no sense. I literally could not think of one idea to pitch the local papers. And even if I did have an idea, I would have had no clue how to execute the idea.
So I decided to enroll in NYU’s Business and Economic Reporting graduate program. I don’t remember how much it cost. It was relatively expensive, but I got a student loan.
That program was a year-and-a-half-long immersion program in journalism. I learned more in 1 1/2 years at school than I would have freelancing for three years.
For instance, on my first day of my first class I was told to write a story finding someone who took out a subprime loan. Step one was to figure out what a subprime loan was. Step two was to have a complete meltdown about the fact that I had no idea how to find someone with a subprime loan. I sat in my apartment and thought, “I can’t do this. I am totally screwed.” Then I thought, “If you can’t do this, then you’re really screwed, because there is no plan B.” I eventually figured it out. School helped me learn how to report and learn the rules of journalism.
The student loan allowed me to afford life while going to school. If I was freelancing, I’m not sure I would have been able to afford life.
It also led to my interning at a website called Silicon Alley Insider (the site that would become Business Insider) as well as BusinessWeek. There’s just no way either organization is hiring a guy with no journalism training as an intern. And if I didn’t intern at Silicon Alley Insider, then I wouldn’t be a deputy editor at Business Insider.
So things worked out for me very nicely!
To people balking at spending $100,000 to go to journalism school, here’s what I would say: It can be a power boost that propels you into the industry. It’s sort of like venture capital money. Sure, you could bootstrap and grow slowly, or you could take an investment, burn the cash, and scale quickly, then figure out profitability later.
Now, this doesn’t mean everyone has to go to journalism school.
The guy whose tweet I highlighted above—Farhad Manjoo—never went to journalism school, and he’s making a lot of money practicing journalism. I haven’t talked to him about it, but my guess is that he was always focused on doing journalism. If that’s the case, then yes, journalism school isn’t necessary. If you know you want to be a journalist from day one, then there are plenty of other things you should do. I would recommend doing a computer science degree and working for your school newspaper or writing a blog. Then go intern at Business Insider, or BuzzFeed, or Vox.
There’s no repeatable straight line to success in life. That’s one reason we write stories about people who are successful. We want to learn from their example and see what we can apply to our lives. It’s never the same story.
So, people who tell you not to go to journalism school aren’t necessarily right. They didn’t go to school and it worked for them, so they think they’re right. People who did go to journalism school and had it work will recommend it. They’re not necessarily right either.
It’s your call. If you think you can write your way into a journalism job, then do it. If you want to invest in training through school, then do it.
(Also, while we’re here, lots of people say you can’t make money in journalism. I remember on my first day of journalism school the professors were talking to us as if we decided to become monks. My parents were teachers, so I don’t have the best sense of what making money is for people, but I can tell you based on following this industry that you don’t have to become a monk. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. Not app-maker money, but still good money for a really fun job.)