So You Want a Journalism Degree? Maybe Think About it For a Second


The question of whether or not to attend and pay for college these days is rivaled only by the almost absurd question of whether or not to attend and pay for journalism school. It's a particularly peculiar higher-ed niche, one affected broadly and deeply by the tightening grip of the internet. Let's examine it, anyway.

Believe it or not, readers, senior writer Sam Allard and I both hold journalism degrees from Northwestern University and Ohio University, respectively. We worked at college publications and elsewhere before landing at Scene in the winter of 2012-2013, when we dove swan-like into the world of longform magazine feature writing and extremely savvy jokes about the mayor's mismatched socks.

At j-school, we learned, there's an empirical benefit to working through the mechanics of good writing and interviewing technique, day in and day out, for four or five years under the watchful eye of journalism professors (who, if they're worth their salt, spent years as reporters and editors before seeking cushioned tenure or who, if they're not, can be seen through like freshly washed windows in a downtown law office). But know that there's also a rigidity to the classwork that sometimes feels like walking on a treadmill set perpetually at 2.6 mph. It's not, shall we say, "the real world," and no college program ever will be.

Legendary writer Michael Roberts once wrote: "J-school ate my brain." And that was 24 years ago!

Even if you're attending a state school, the likely outcome is a good decade of student debt. And, no secret here: Journalism pays a garbage salary. (Most journalism schools these days include a public relations or marketing circuit, which will lead to more financially lucrative careers. We will ignore that troubling fact for now.) The financial cost-benefit analysis is pretty clear and pretty pessimistic, which means what it has always meant: This is a calling, not a job.

As a journalist, you'll not only need to know that a tool kit exists for your work, but also how to use those tools. English classes will take you far, but it will be the nuts and bolts of conveying information in a quick, relevant and enticing way that will propel you into your career. To that end, yes, j-school is a useful playground (if only because the life of a journalist is conducive to self-flagellation and an unbound thirst for Mega Mugs at Red Brick Tavern on a Wednesday afternoon).

Every journalist will make many mistakes. It's best to knock out as many as you can while working at a student paper or an off-campus magazine, rather than on the gradually expanding platforms your career will find you.

But — and now we arrive at the bottom line — journalism remains a unique sort of business where your experience matters more than your pedigree. If you can't ask direct, confrontational questions of someone in power, then your bachelor of arts won't do you any good. But that skill — approaching strangers with the sole intent of drawing information from them — is something that a good j-school will massage if you need the preseason workout. Unless you're naturally inclined as a high school student to hang around the county justice center or inquire tirelessly about the nature of class and neighborhood development, then you might want to consider the classroom for a few years. Read the book!