Apologies for the long hiatus. I could explain, but none of us knows how long we have to live, and writing and reading the explanation could prove to have been, in hindsight, time-prodigal folly.
This is the season when young minds are applying to journalism school, or thinking of majoring in journalism, and I’d like to add my voice to the chorus that yells, “no!” unless there’s still room for me in the “fuck no!” camp. I must be careful here, because I am married to a j-school graduate (University of Michigan, 1982) and she disagrees with me on this point. But this is my blog, not hers, so here’s my take:
Journalism is a craft. You learn it by doing it. To expend undergraduate time, or, heaven forfend, graduate-school time learning how to interview or do a records search, or how to write the inverted-pyramid or anecdotal lede would be wasteful of precious time and money. (Take it from a guy who freelanced for 30 years and then got brain cancer; you don’t know how much of either you have.)
This isn’t to say that college or even grad school can’t prepare you for a career in journalism. If I were designing an undergraduate education for an aspiring journalist, I’d load up the curriculum with history, political science, economics, biology, art, music, women’s studies, black studies, foreign languages (Spanish in particular), physics, literature, and so on. You want to step from campus to the newsroom an educated person, firmly anchored in our country’s (and world’s) past, peoples, and institutions, and familiar with sorting through opposing points of view, so that when you encounter, say, a laundress strike, a Federal Reserve policy reversal, a whale die-off, the derailment of a train full of Central American deportees, a world-famous painter or hip-hop artist come to town, or any of a million other possible stories, you’ll be able to reach down into that education and find some framework in which to place the current events, and enough study of our beautiful language’s fiction and non-fiction literature that you can tell your tale clearly and compellingly. (One undergraduate journalism class that might be worth taking, if anybody’s teaching it anywhere, would be the history of American journalism…. Knowing how we became the producers and consumers of our current news diet would be instructive.)
As for grad school, one might say that if you become a real expert in something, you can be the country’s leading journalist on that subject. Maybe. But for God’s sake, be careful. A friend of ours, wanting to be a writer, got a PhD in divinity and now teaches religion on the college level. She likes teaching and the college a lot, spends about a third of her time doing fascinating research in India, has lots of friends, and has written a book from her dissertation. It’s a great life. But she’s not a journalist, or the writer she set off to become. (My wife, Margaret, used journalism grad school to become familiar with the culture of the craft and to make connections that got her a series of good jobs, the best being the one at which I found her, as the Savannah bureau chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Writing about place A for readers in place B has always been my dream gig — covering the upper peninsula of Michigan for the Detroit Free Press, say, or — a job for which I applied but didn’t get — covering the maritimes, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire for the Boston Globe. Margaret had such a gig when I met her.)
So yes, Margaret did get something out of journalism grad school. But I still maintain that the time would have been better spent skipping from newspaper to slightly bigger newspaper, to slightly bigger newspaper. I had five jobs in six years before going freelance, and I don’t regret a one of them.
I’m only one guy, of course. But now, when you hear of someone applying to journalism school, or the thought flickers through your head of majoring in journalism, you can snap your fingers and say, “Yeah, I just talked to someone who thought that was a real bad idea.”