My dear grad student,
You asked my opinion about applying for a graduate program in journalism, and I asked for some time to think about it, because my immediate response was negative.
Who in their right mind wants to study journalism, which everyone says is dying?
Journalists: People who love language. People who pursue truth. People concerned about social justice.
I believe journalism is one of the best careers in the world. I don’t believe it’s dying. (More on this later.)
Most journalists, despite their open cynicism, are incurable optimists. They hope that their reporting will send a corrupt politician to jail, will expose greedy developers, will change public policy, will move the public to do something to improve their community, to help someone else.
The best journalists are those whose ego is overshadowed by this drive to tell the truth, to right wrongs, to make the world a better place. (Read about Paul Watson, the only Canadian to win a Pulitzer. He won it for covering an American issue in a place too hot for most American reporters to cover. Watson is a man of rare courage.)
Journalism has been the very best part of my working life. It has helped me indulge my insatiable curiousity every day. It has helped me advocate for people who don’t have a voice. It has made a difference.
It also pushed me out of excruciating shyness.
I’ve been a journalist since I was 15, when I talked my way into a newspaper office. I left home at 17 to get a journalism degree only because no newspaper would hire me at that age. And my parents insisted I had to get a degree to survive. (Yes, parents can be right about the big stuff; I didn’t believe it then.)
I didn’t have any other skills. I loved writing more than anything. I loved it more than eating. Or sleeping.
But I could not get through J-school fast enough. If you love reporting — and I loved it from the second I started at 15 — you don’t want to do much else.
At university, I was immersed in political science (boring, but the foundation of my journalism career) and economics (flunked) and English (my best marks, best profs).
I took an extra major in English because I loved language. I loved reading, and an English major means you study books you always wanted to read, or re-read, and discuss them with others who love language. I wasn’t as keen about writing about literature, but I had the luxury of mandated book buying, every week, for years. And the joy of meeting Leonard Cohen for my English thesis … a very long, lovely story for another time.
It also meant another year added to my B.A. This softened my disappointment with J-school.
I worked two summers as a newspaper reporter before I went to university. Luckily, I had found a grumpy British editor willing to give an enthusiastic kid a break. I thought I had learned everything already I needed to know on the job.
I didn’t think journalism school taught me much about working as a journalist. Still don’t.
Aside from learning radio and TV journalism — which I knew from the start was not what I wanted — I just didn’t think I was learning anything in journalism school I wasn’t learning from the indefatigable, chain-smoking reporters and editors at “my” newspaper. None of my profs was working in the field, and for students, then, that was the bottom line of acceptance.
Yet one prof, the late Phyllis Wilson, made all the difference. She pushed and pushed me to be better. She urged me to get over my shyness. She took my writing to big-city newspapers; she read my work aloud for other journalism students. Phyllis made me believe I could be a real (big city, big paper) journalist.
Journalism undergrads scoffed at Masters J-students then. We made cruel jokes about “can’t get a job, get a Masters”; these jokes persist still.
Apply here to learn about the sacred art of story
When I was considering leaving journalism after a long career, I spent a year as an “international visiting scholar” at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley (apply here), and I understood the appeal.
Succeed in one career or excel in your studies in one field — or both — and go to grad J-school to learn about the sacred art of story.
I met the brightest students at Berkeley, students who had done volunteer work overseas, had 4.0 averages in medicine, international relations, archaeology, social sciences, etc., and wanted, more than anything, to share.
We had the brightest profs too, people who have excelled in journalism, in public advocacy, and in the growth of online reporting, and — this is critical for anyone considering a grad J program — they are still working, in excellence, in the field.
Journalists want to hear stories; they want to share stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s TV or online or in print, they just want to tell a story that is so good they have to share it.
I know, grad student, this appeals to you. Now that I’ve had time to consider it, here’s my advice: Go to school for something more marketable first, and then see if you have the same drive for journalism. Get a degree or certificate or training in the field that excites you first, then add grad J-school. Blog all you can in the meantime; read, read, read.
I always offer the same bit of advice to any student who asks: Follow your passion.
I celebrate those with the courage to follow their passion for journalism because it is a noble profession, still.
It’s just smart to be trained in something else too, so you can be sure of earning a decent income.