Until Journalism Is a Real Meritocracy, J-School Is a Necessary Evil for Minorities

Journalism tools on a table, including a camera, notebook, and press hat.
Access to the trade isn’t equal for everyone. ERphotography/Thinkstock

It’s that time of the year again—no, not spring break, and definitely not March Madness. It’s the season when universities release their application and admission numbers, and someone pens a rant against the value of fancy educations. And because the issue is close to so many journalists’ hearts, a passionately written takedown of the specific fancy education of journalism programs can earn its author innumerable retweets captioned “this” with the pointing down emoji. This year’s truth-bombing J-school critic is Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan, who writes in shouty caps that “JOURNALISM SCHOOL IS A SCAM.”

Nolan joins noted J-school critics like Michael Wolff and Vox’s Ezra Klein. His argument recycles all the usual points against J-school: It’s expensive, it doesn’t teach you anything you wouldn’t learn on the job, and “it contributes to a lack of diversity and an economic elitism that is detrimental to the goal of equality in news coverage.” Which, true—as a graduate of journalism school, I wholeheartedly agree that it cost far too much money and that there were too many rich white people in my classes.

But Nolan, and most J-school critics, tend to operate under a couple of very mistaken assumptions. The first is that Columbia, NYU, and Northwestern are the only journalism schools in the country, when there are plenty of journalism schools that don’t come with a six-figure entry fee. These critics also tend to take aim at graduate schools in particular, ignoring the sizable slice of J-school grads who complete training as undergraduates. The argument that J-school is expensive, and therefore particularly scammy, doesn’t really hold up when you consider the fact that college in general is expensive. Unless you’re advocating for journalism positions not to require a four-year degree (which maybe we should be!), then telling an 18-year-old not to major in journalism when they want to be a journalist seems pretty counterintuitive. And when at least one-quarter of the 2018 class of interns at the New York Times went to some kind of journalism school, it’s almost laughable to contend that the entire institution is useless.

Critics of J-school also focus on the fact that the tools of the trade are mostly learned on the job, rendering journalism schools pointless. “Let internships be your J-school,” advises New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb. Nolan reminds us that while one of the main selling points of journalism schools is that it will help graduates get a decent job in the industry, that claim is demonstrably false because “plenty of successful working journalists never went to J-school.” Which is true! But a lot of successful working journalists did go to J-school—and not because they thought it meant they would be able to skip getting internships. They went so they could get internships, because that’s what the state of journalism requires for people without the social connections to break into the industry—especially those who are low-income or of color.

As a black woman I didn’t have a choice not to go to J-school—and that’s a sentiment shared among many of my classmates. Journalism is an industry rife with nepotism, where career trajectories are determined more often by the people that you know rather than the quality of your work. When journalists of color make up less than 17 percent of American newsrooms and 75 percent of white people have no nonwhite friends, making connections in the industry after graduation is a luxury afforded to very few people of color. Breaking into these elite spaces is a necessity, and journalism school not only gives you access to professors with connections but also the future journalists who could put you in contact with your next hiring manager. As important as journalism internships are—and they are important—screeds advocating against J-school rarely acknowledge that a fair amount of journalists who look like me need the institutional legitimacy of places like Northwestern to even get an internship. And for people who can’t afford to work a low-paid or unpaid internship after college, getting your foot in the door as early as possible is paramount.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of problems with J-school—there are, including the fact that they’re overwhelmingly staffed by white people and they’re slow to adapt to the changing media landscape. Then again so is most of legacy media. But the recycled take that journalism school is fundamentally useless is one that not only lacks nuance but one that assumes that the industry is a meritocracy. It’s not. And until it is, the best thing seasoned journalists can do for reporters trying to break into the industry is push for fairer newsroom hiring practices and the elimination of unpaid internships—not giving out the same tired advice.