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Sep 25 / King Kaufman

What skills are needed for a journalism career, and is J-school necessary?

It’s not clear to me that the headline—“This week’s 4 arguments against j-school”—accurately reflects the contents of Andrew Beaujon’s post about the state of hiring in journalism today, but the post leads to a lot of interesting reading.

The week in question was last week, by the way.

Beaujon leads off with Atlantic Digital editor Bob Cohn’s essay, “Hiring in the Digital Age,” in which Cohn argues that, at least at Atlantic Digital, the people getting hired have a broad base of skills:

What we’re looking for, I’ve come to realize, is people who can do a bit of everything: report and write stories; write headlines and deks; select and crop photos; fact check and copy edit the work of others; make charts and graphs; oversee social media; manage outside writers. (And hey, can you do some coding?)

The upshot: Today, everyone is an editor in chief.

Cohn describes it as a “transition from vertical job descriptions to horizontal job descriptions.”

I don’t see how any of this necessarily argues against journalism school. It simply argues for journalism schools to teach to this hiring model. I’d say the same about Beaujon’s citation of a post by Felix Salmon, Reuters’ excellent financial blogger, headlined “Teaching journalists to read.”

Salmon writes that journalistic entities, by which he means professional outlets as well as journalism schools, “have to start putting much more emphasis on reading, as opposed to writing.”

The reason, fundamentally, is that journalism is becoming much more conversational …

One of the best new media properties to come along in recent years is the Atlantic Wire. It’s run on a shoestring budget, and staffed by young, smart, hardworking kids with fantastic reading skills. Many of them can write, too—but they write short and punchy. Which is something else Old Media needs to learn how to do: it’s always much more fun reading a Gawker pickup of a Washington Post story than reading the original piece.

The biggest shortage in journalism right now isn’t good writers, or even enlightened proprietors willing to fund investigations. It’s critical readers—journalists who can see when they’re being snowed, who can read between the lines, who can pick up information from across the blogosphere and the twittersphere and be able to judge it on its own merits rather than simply trusting the publisher.

OK, two of the pieces Beaujon points to argue against journalism school. One is “J-school won’t make you a journalist” by retired reporter Bill Cotterell at the Tallahassee Democrat. Calling Emory University’s decision to eliminate its journalism program in two years “no big deal,” Cotterell argues that the qualities that make a great reporter don’t need to be taught in journalism school:

I wouldn’t want a self-taught doctor, or a lawyer who learned the law as a hobby, so would I want reporters who didn’t go to journalism school?

I don’t know. Are they smart and curious?

Cotterell then calls Lucy Morgan of the Tampa Bay Times the best reporter in Tallahassee and points out she didn’t graduate from college, never mind J-school. Then he delivers what’s already become an oft-cited money quote:

One example does not a rule make, but I’d estimate that the majority of really top reporters I’ve worked with over the years either didn’t have a journalism degree, or overcame it.

It’s telling that Cotterell uses the term “reporters.” Note the difference between that job title and the kind of thing Cohn is talking about at Atlantic Digital.

But that’s just an old-school guy talking. The same principle applies to any role in journalism. This stuff isn’t brain surgery. Journalism is not so difficult that a specialized school is the only way to acquire the skills needed to do it well. You can pick those skills up in other ways, as Cotterell says he did, as he says many of the best in the business did and as I—a graduate of journalism school—did.

The important thing is to know what skills are required in the current job market, and figure out the best way to learn them. For different people, that might mean going to journalism school or doing something outside the academy—such as, just to pull one example out of a hat, writing for Bleacher Report.

Finally, a clear argument against the ivory tower route is Lilly O’Donnell’s Huffington Post piece, for which I’ll let the headline alone do the talking:

“My $60,000 Ivy League Degree Was Just a Pyramid Scheme.”

  • Ken Kraetzer

    Our neice just graduated from James Madison with an English degree. Suggested to her that because she had read many of the classics and had written analysis of them, she should be well prepared for opportunities to write and edit on-line. Perhaps that is a broader alternative to a journalism degree.