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Schools for Scribblers

Newspapers dwindle, but journalism graduates keep coming.

12:00 AM, May 26, 2006 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THOSE OF US SADDENED by the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry had hoped that shrinking newspaper staffs would have at least one salutary effect: fewer journalism-school graduates. This has not proved to be the case. In 2005, newspapers cut 2,000 jobs; this spring more people graduated from journalism schools than ever before.

On the education of young journalists, there has been much recent debate. There is one argument over whether or not journalists should aspire to objectivity and another about the liberal bias that permeates journalism programs. But the problem isn't that journalists are being taught improperly; it's that the foundations of journalistic education are faulty.

The notion of a special program for journalists first surfaced at the turn of the century, when Joseph Pulitzer dreamed of founding a school of journalism at Columbia. In 1902, he offered the university $2 million to establish one. The administration wavered; Pulitzer's peers thought the idea ludicrous. As Michael Lewis once reported in the New Republic, a New York newspaper editor "suggested that one might as well set up a graduate school in swimming."

The University of Missouri took advantage of Columbia's dithering and established America's first journalism school in 1908. Prompted by this upstart, Columbia took the plunge in 1912 and it's been off to the races ever since: Columbia has produced 10,423 journalism graduate degrees; Missouri's School of Journalism has expanded to grant not only master's and doctoral degrees but a bachelor's, too. Today there are 930 juniors and seniors enrolled in Missouri's undergraduate course of study, 36 percent of whom, the university assures us, unassuringly, will graduate with honors.

There are now some 450 journalism and mass-communications programs across the country, although only 100 or so are accredited. These news-writer factories have contributed mightily to the ranks of America's 116,000 working journalists. According to the forthcoming book The American Journalist in the 21st Century, 36.2 percent of journalists with college degrees were journalism majors. If you include journalism-related "communications" majors, the percentage jumps to 49.5. This far exceeds the percentages of the next most common major, English (14.9 percent). History, political science, math and physical science majors--combined--total only 13.7 percent.

So what do aspiring journalists learn in school? Undergraduate courses of study vary, but if you survey course catalogs, there's a heavy emphasis on process and theory. At Ohio State, for instance, a student majoring in journalism might take some substantive core courses, such as introductory American history, math and microeconomics. But a large portion of his coursework will be taken up with classes such as Principles of Civic Journalism, Topics in Public Affairs Journalism or Industry Research Methods. An undergraduate at Missouri can take courses such as Cross-Cultural Journalism, The Creative Process, Women and the Media--there's even a class on High School Journalism.

At the graduate level, Missouri students get courses that are less about the theoretical aspects of journalism and more about the tricks of the trade: Intermediate and Advanced Writing, Newspaper Reporting and Magazine Editing are all required. For its Master of Sciences program, Columbia's School of Journalism offers Personal and Professional Style, Covering Ideas and The Deadline in Depth. (As we say in the trade, the jokes practically write themselves.)

The running theme is an emphasis on process and the "craft" of journalism: nut grafs, ledes, kickers, inverted pyramids and the rest. Yet this seems a waste of time. Schooling is expensive. A four-year undergraduate education can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000. Grad school is just as bad. The one-year graduate program at Columbia is $38,500.

Yet when it comes to learning about the style and craft of writing, an education can be had for much less. Amazon.com sells the complete archives of the New Yorker on DVD for $63--it's hard to see how a classroom discussion of story structure could be much more valuable than reading and studying the work of the greats, from Truman Capote to David Grann.

Instead of educating future journalists on the nuts and bolts of journalism--because let's be honest, it isn't rocket science or even carpentry--it would make more sense simply to teach them things. Facts, it turns out, are useful.

Most people can write a nut graph after 30 minutes of practice, but comparatively few people can explain, say, econometrics, or fluid dynamics, or the history of the French Revolution. Aspiring journalists don't need trade-craft--they need a liberal-arts education that gives them a base of mastery in actual academic subjects.