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J-School Confidential: Off The Fence

Penned by journos eager to step up their game, our new series tracks how media pros get made

- August 3, 2007
Welcome to our new series, J-School Confidential, filed by media experts in the making. Our rotating cast of emerging journos will take on that great media debate -- to j-school or not to j-school -- while chronicling their tales of learning the craft both in the academic settling and on the ground. They range from a writer who gave up a plum women's magazine editor spot to pursue graduate training she hopes will lead to work as a cultural critic to an overachieving undergrad who breaks TV industry news and has his own news radio show, all on top of the government degree he chose to pursue instead of journalism coursework.

In the first installment, soon-to-be Columbia University student Katia Bachko explains why she traded her senior editor position at a dance magazine for a chance to hit the books and the pavement at Columbia. She questions whether the education she gains will offset Columbia's cost, if she'll land a coveted job at Newsday or the Star Ledger in 10 months, and whether her live-in boyfriend who's footing the rent bill will tire of Ramen noodles.

If you told me a year ago that you were going to journalism school, you would've heard my standard refrain, drilled into my head by my successful journo friends: Don't get a degree. Get a crap job at The Nowhere Gazette and build clips. But after five years of not getting very far, I've changed my tune and this August, I'm starting fulltime at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. I'm asking the $50,000 question: Can I use this program to catapult myself to the next step in my career?

Right now, I'm a senior editor at a dance trade magazine (a trade pub) and, under the guise of dance, I've covered meaty subjects -- health, arts administration, education, small businesses, and personal finance. Sounds good on paper, but I'm hampered by the seniority of my title (inflated for 26) and pigeonholed in dance.

I'm in an office with five dance titles and three cheerleading magazines, so some days it feels like I work at a sorority. It's not an environment that inspires serious journalism in me. To write the kinds of stories I'm proud of, I need to get out. And fast.

It's hard to silence my inner know-it-all, but the truth is I'm going back to school because I don't trust myself as a writer and reporter. Sure, my editors are encouraging and generous with feedback, but few of us have experience writing for a different audience or working outside this niche.

I almost choked on humble pie when ventured outside the dance world. After a vacation, I pitched a story to a travel mag, got the assignment, but couldn't deliver what the editor wanted. It was a rude awakening about how my skills measured up. If I'm gonna hack it in the real world, I need bona fide professional training.

As a wannabe, I admire journalists who contribute to NPR and The New Yorker. J-school will strip away my romantic notions about this profession and let me try it on for size. I'm excited to audition a few types of writing I haven't tried before. I've never covered a beat; I've never written hard news. While shrinking newsrooms don't exactly foster mentoring, I can get what I need in the safety of an academic environment and work with Pulitzer Prize winners. I'd be lying if I said Columbia's cache had no bearing on my decision. As an NYU grad, I've always wondered if the grass was greener uptown, and I just couldn't let go of my teenage lust for Columbia.

[At Columbia's open house,] it was the polished-looking grads with jobs at the Star Ledger and Newsday who got me to sit up and listen.

Next year, my goals are twofold. First, I want to come away with pieces that will get noticed, which means I have to diversify my clips. Most people have been to concerts, museums, and plays, but aren't familiar with dance. Even though my portfolio contains profiles, health and business stories, how-tos, and more, employers can't always overcome the dance factor. Second, and more importantly, I want to build my confidence and competence so if my stellar clips snag me an interview, an assignment, or a job, I can arrive with the tools to excel.

Before I sent in my $950 deposit, I went to Columbia's open house in late March. J-school deans and professors spoke earnestly about the need for excellence in journalism, commitment to their students, and Columbia's track record of graduating successful professionals. A panel of current students—bleary-eyed from working on their theses—discussed their close working relationships with faculty, but it was the polished-looking grads with jobs at the Star Ledger and Newsday who got me to sit up and listen.

Still, although my check's in the mail, a question lingers: Is it better to spend a year honing my craft in school, or should I immerse myself in the thick of it? I got my current job based on my experience (gigs at a literary agency and a defunct luxury mag) and a background in dance. If I want to cover elections, should I work on a campaign? I'd love write about education and national affairs. I'm also interested in NYC development (especially in Williamsburg, my hood), design, technology, environmental issues, sex, and health. I'm curious about finance, which is probably my best chance to make a living. In the end, I'm going to Columbia because I believe an excellent journalist can cover any subject, but I don't know if employers will agree.

The next year will be hard. I'll be testing the patience of my boyfriend, who will generously cover rent and groceries while I study. Garrett and I have cohabited and shared a bank account for five years. Sounds pretty radical, but since I couldn't afford even half our rent on my starting salary, it made sense to us. Grad school was always part of my plan, and I'm lucky to have a supportive guy, but that doesn't stop me from feeling guilty about reducing our modestly comfortable lifestyle to a year of Ramen noodles.

I'm also trading my cushy cubicle for all-nighters and homework. For my first class, I'll pound the pavement as a beat reporter to find stories on the streets of a vibrant and diverse NYC neighborhood most likely a long subway ride away from my usual haunts. Crown Heights, here I come!

Katia Bachko will begin the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia this fall.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We'd love to add more voices to this series. If you'd like to share your take on pursuing journalism in and out of school, email us.]

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