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Standing Up for the Journalism Degree: It Is Not Useless

Last week, the Business Insider ran a post disparaging the values of a journalism degree. In “Degrees Are Useless And Other Tips For Aspiring Journalists,” author Jean Prentice writes, “anyone who has graduated from journalism school and gone on to work in the industry can tell you that a degree in journalism is useless.” She argues hard work and experience are what will land you a job after graduation.

She is not alone in saying journalism degrees are useless. In April, journalism topped the Daily Beast’s list of 20 Most Useless Degrees. Journalism doesn’t pay well and your student loans may very well be greater than your first salary as a reporter. But who goes into journalism thinking they will make a six figure salary? Being a reporter is tough, no doubt about it.

Yes, it’s true hard work and experience are important. But Prentice is incorrect in saying that all J-school grads would say their degree was a waste. A journalism degree is in no way useless.

I, for one, am a proud 2007 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where I majored in newspaper journalism. I graduated at a time when most newspapers were offering buyouts or just simply laying off staff. The future of newspapers wasn’t just shaky — it was downright terrible. But I got a job at a community newspaper three months after graduation and have been gainfully employed ever since. I have never once regretted studying journalism. And I am not alone.

“Having the degree allowed me to get to where I am today. It’s pretty much as simple as that,” said Katie Zemtseff, an environmental reporter at the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce Newspaper, who received her bachelor’s in journalism from Emerson College in 2006. “I think what makes it useless is that a lot of people don’t know how to use it or don’t have perseverance to go after something and then they blame the degree.”

Another Newhouse grad, Julianne Pepitone, who graduated in ’08, landed a job as a staff reporter at CNNMoney at 22. Yes, she had internships and experience, which was very important. She is also a naturally gifted writer who works hard. But by the time Pepitone had graduated college, she had already written an award-winning story about a war veteran who had been hit by an IED while serving in Afghanistan. And she wrote it for a class assignment.

“By the time I was 19, I’d already come out asking a guy what’s it like to see one of your best friends die in Afghanistan,” Pepitone said. “I had as close to a real world experience as you could while being in school.”

All of the other reporters I spoke to agreed that nothing quite takes the place of actually working in a newsroom. But they also all said the skills you learn studying journalism gives you an edge. Unlike a citizen blogger or a History major, you have learned how to interview people, how to get them to call you back, etc., from experts in the field.

“It’s true that nothing can take the place of actual reporting in an actual newsroom with actual editors,” said Jen Thomas, a reporter with Abu Dhabi-based The National who has a master’s in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. “But you can’t just throw in any old post-grad and expect them to be able to hack it. This is a cutthroat industry, and previous training isn’t useless in my book.”

“Ultimately, journalism is one of those degrees where no matter what you learn in class, it’s really working in the field where you really start to learn things and that’s what finesses you and that’s what makes you better,” said Zemtseff, the reporter in Seattle. “But having the degree gives you a bunch of basic skills that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Tim Herrera, a reporter with amNewYork, who studied journalism at New York University, has friends who studied journalism with him who now feel like they wasted time and money. Herrera fullheartedly believes it’s not necessary to have a J-school degree to be a reporter but is still very happy he studied journalism.

“Journalism school makes you a better journalist, at least for the first few years of your career,” he said. “It’s not that I’m any smarter or talented or skillful, I just have a set of knowledge that’s taught in journalism classes that isn’t taught in a different major.”

For me, perhaps the most important reason my journalism degree isn’t useless is because I had fun studying it. Just because someone likes reading and writing doesn’t mean they should be an English major. Instead, my homework assignments meant I got to go out and report on actual events. It was hard and stressful at times but I loved every second of it.

This underlies another important point: You can’t be a reporter if you aren’t passionate about the job. The cons of it will just eat at you and make you hate it unless it is really what makes you tick. And there’s really no way to get around that fact.

“The pay sucks, the hours are long, and there aren’t that many awards. Finding a job in this market is an absolute nightmare, and the whole news model is literally collapsing,” Thomas said. “But a student who knows they’d be passionate about storytelling and be able to roll with the punches, I’d tell them to go for it, because there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”

What do you think? I know there are strong points of view from both sides and I’d love to hear them all. Let us know on Twitter (@10000words) or in the comments section below.

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