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If Your Journalism School Says It Knows What's Best For You, Check It Out

An open letter to the class of 2005

By Greg Lindsay - May 11, 2005

To The 2005 Class of American Journalism Schools:

First, congratulations. As of this month, after spending a year or two in classrooms and city council meetings and $30,000 or more for tuition, you are all newly minted journalism school graduates! That isn't the same as being journalists, but the distinction doesn't matter to many of you, anyway. In fact, a healthy percentage of your classmates—some 190,000 strong this year—will head directly for jobs in PR, marketing, or entirely unrelated professions which may pay enough to earn back your tuitions. The one trait you all share—assuming you were paying attention—is the ability to effortlessly write a nut graf. Again, congratulations.

This address isn't for future publicists, and it isn't for the mid-career journalists who took a timeout for nine months, either. They're already halfway down the route. What I really want is to ask the kids (because I was a kid when I graduated j-school and still am, honestly) if they understand exactly what it is they and their parents have just paid for.

You thought you were buying a set of skills, credentials, and quality time with the placement office. And you did. But your professors also sold you a mindset, a worldview, an ideology—one in which newspapers are God's work, bloggers are pagans, and your career trajectory is a long, steep, but ultimately meritocratic climb to a heavenly desk at The New York Times or 60 Minutes. Accepting any of this as gospel truth will almost certainly cause permanent damage to your budding careers.

To have made it this far, you've had to inhale the usual bromides like "the reporter's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"—a noble sentiment that overlooks the fact that anyone who can spend $30,000 on j-school should be considered "comfortable." You've been trained to be skeptical of every truth and every detail ("If your mother says she loves you, check it out") but you've been steered away from skepticism about j-school itself. So think of the following as a quick adult education course.

There is one book on the syllabus, On Television. It's a collected pair of lectures by the last of the French philosopher-rock stars, Pierre Bourdieu, whose life's work was discovering the hidden exchange rates between money, education, and culture.

On Television was a takedown of the TV news business, and of media careerism in general. His argument was simple, powerful, and pissed off a lot of French journalists back in the mid-'90s: media careers, he argued, aren't governed by the search for truth, justice, and transparency, but by institutional and peer pressure. "In other words, if I want to find out what one or another journalist is going to say or write, or will find obvious or unthinkable, normal, or worthless, I have to know the position that journalist occupies" in the media landscape.

Bordieu points out that just as every media outlet competes for readers, viewers, and advertisers, every journalist competes on a personal level for professional respect, greater responsibilities, a better title, a better salary, etc. This should be eye-rollingly obvious—it's office politics, people—but was never discussed in my two years of j-school, unless I count my professors' curt dismissals. Why?

Because journalism as we know it and j-schools are themselves caught up in a larger struggle for relevance. Newspapers are facing a permanent decline in readers and prominence. Not one of the broadcast news anchors you grew up with will be behind the desk tonight. You are the only hope for the future they've got; they're desperate to make believers out of you.

Bourdieu also explains (albeit in a different book) that an up-and-comer in an cultural field like media or academia has to make a choice: Do you side with the establishment in hopes that you will someday inherit it; or do you subvert the status quo by creating something new in hopes of winning a place at the table down the road?

In case you haven't already figured it out: By enrolling in j-school, you (perhaps unwittingly) picked the establishment. Any guesses as to what's on the other side? Bloggers, for one. The debate about whether bloggers are journalists ultimately boils down to a struggle about whether the former should be granted the privileges and pay packages of the latter. Bloggers are outsiders seeking status the only way outsiders know how: by prying it away from those who currently have it. The mainstream media (now abbreviated "MSM," if it hasn't come up in class already) rejoins with debates about ethics (a j-school favorite) and other red herrings, but don't be fooled.

Don't make your professors proud by shipping off to "pay dues" at some Midwest daily unless you really do see yourself as the second coming of Seymour Hersh or James Agee or Calvin Trillin. My professors were certainly right that we need more reporters and editors who think of themselves as public advocates, but to insist that every j-school student should and will go down that path is to do you a disservice about the realities of your new profession. And it prompted me to do a disservice to them by tuning them out while I was in school. It didn't help that the dot-com gold rush and online publishing revolution was going on at the time.

Because the reality is that the rebellion is more fun.

Need another example that has nothing to do with blogs? How about Fox News? Or Spy magazine?

The Republican's favorite channel launched during the Clinton presidency against a seemingly invincible CNN. Refusing to play by the rules (just another name for nominal objectivity), the news channel rose from also-ran to presidential kingmaker, and today employs an army of broadcast majors.

And Spy—which still haunts every magazine editor you're ever likely to meet in New York—was the 1980s creation of a pair of young Time writers who struck out on their own to scathingly lampoon the city of their time. They founded a legend, but didn't stay rebels for long, going on to edit magazines like New York and Vanity Fair. But they had had a choice: start Spy, or else hold tight to an editor's desk at Time for another 15 years.

I'm not saying you should be hitting bloggers up for jobs—wait another 10 years. But I hope that you're beginning to see that what your professors presented as the lay of the media landscape is a glimpse from a narrow, territorial point of view.

It's already too late for you, but for the sake of the Class of 2010: Is there a way to fix this?

One response is: Get rid of j-school altogether! That was Michael Lewis' recommendation a dozen years ago in "J-school Ate My Brain," his takedown of the Columbia School of Journalism for The New Republic. At the climax, Lewis is pressed by one of the adjunct professors for the "null hypothesis" of the story he's writing. "My null hypotheses,"he replies, "is that the Columbia Journalism School is all bullshit."

Even the professor agreed. Lewis painted a portrait of desperately networking students that might hit close to home—they're more interested in the faculty's credentials than anything the professors actually have to say. The only investigative reporting they're interested in undertaking has to do with how the head of the placement office quit without their being informed. In short, their behavior conformed to Bourdieu's sociology.

A decade later, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger decided to overhaul the School. The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann was appointed dean despite having never attended j-school himself and a more academic curriculum, featuring plenty of media criticism, was installed. Michael Wolff, who was still writing for New York magazine at the time (he should have been on the syllabus) poked around and dismissed the School's occupants as the "media working class." The best Lemann could do, perhaps, was try and mimic Harvard—the school, as Wolff noted, real masters of the media universe had attended.

Wolff was right about Harvard, which has produced an outsized proportion of the media firmament over the past 25 years. (And it never even occurred to me to apply.) One year the presidency of the school paper boiled down to two candidates named Michael Hirschorn and Jeff Zucker. Hirschorn was an editor's editor, while Zucker wanted to make the paper look more like USA Today. Zucker won. Today's he the head of NBC Entertainment. Hirschorn went on to edit Spin and co-found Inside.com (where I worked for him, paying my dues), before he landed as a top exec at VH1. I could go on. (Lemann was the editor of Harvard Crimson himself.) I could even draw you charts.

And I shouldn't have to point out that neither man in that case went to j-school.

What do we take away from this? That four years of networking at Harvard trumps whatever connections you may have made here in your time at j-school, for one. But more important, I think, is that they were never asked to defend the faith. They were entitled—by their smarts and ambition, by their Harvard credentials, by the safety nets of their personal connections—to chart their own path through the media landscape and take risks, rather than hunker down, pay dues, and wait for an editor to tap them on the shoulder.

"Entitlement" is a scary word, I know. In its best sense, it implies a natural ease and confidence—the world is already yours, you just have to grab it. But the word raises hackles in journalism circles. If you need proof, I hope you paid attention to the strange case of Krystal Grow, the entitled would-be intern, who burned up the message boards of this site and Romensko (please tell me you all read Romenesko) just a few weeks ago.

Grow, an undergraduate journalism student in Massachusetts, recently wrote a column for her local paper detailing her na´vete and then crushing disappointment after she applied for an internship at Spin, convinced herself that it was hers despite a flimsy resume, and then learned it wasn't after all. After a link appeared to her column appeared on Romenesko, less charitable readers attacked her as spoiled, whiny, and entitled. There's still practically a witch hunt going on in the letters page of Romenesko, where one editor posted this recent response from an intern applicant who had traded up in the meantime: "now that i've secured an internship at national geographic, i can confidently tell you to take your program and shove it up your ass." A few months ago, more than a dozen journalism students (potential Krystal Grows themselves) from my alma mater, the University of Illinois, flew to New York to visit magazines, meet alumni, and see the sights. It was the first such trip in anyone's memory. "We felt that we were shortchanging the students who wanted to go into magazines," said Lynn Holley, the faculty advisor who had organized the trip. "They were already at a disadvantage by being in the middle of the country. It's hard to get used to that big city, assertive atmosphere if you're sitting in the middle of Illinois."

The students were glad to be here, but they seemed a bit lost, too. (Drinking with their potential employers was something new.) I followed up with a few of them later, asking if their consciousness had been expanded by the trip. Absolutely, they replied, and "I would agree that journalism professors/schools teach/preach that journalism is about paying your dues, climbing the ladder, and that it is a very ideological view," one wrote. "But, teaching from the 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' perspective does not exactly encourage students to work hard and build up their skills." There it is again, that feeling of entitlement.

But back to the original question: Is there a way to fix this? Maybe, if your professors are willing to admit that they're evangelizing as well as teaching, and that where they see a decline and fall going on in the media landscape, you might just find opportunities helping tear it down. But who wants to say that?

"Maybe next year, when we come back, you could talk to the students about that," Lynn Holley replied when I complained about this.

I probably will. And I already have. Thank you, and good luck.

Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily



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