Woodstein U: Notes on the Mass Production and Questionable Education of Journalists

More than enough students are enrolled in journalism courses at this moment to replace every professional journalist now employed on an American newspaper. What explains this madcap scramble for jobs that don't exist, and how well are the students prepared? A veteran journalist reports on the state of America's schools of communications.
ARE JOURNALISM SCHOOLS NECESSARY? The Views of Editors and Pulitzer Prize–Winners

The people ordinarily expected to judge—the editors and news directors who do the hiring—say they have mixed but largely negative attitudestoward the value of journalism education.

Ron Semple, publisher of the Helena Independent-Record in Montana, said, "No one is hired directly from journalism schools on my newspaper. Ilet someone else knock the nonsense out of their heads.”

Semple mainly objects to elitism by journalism graduates.

“I go to meetings all over my community and I see reporters with working people, in community organizations. They no longer know how to get rapport with ordinary people. If we disdain the high school graduate who is a blue-collar worker then we alight as well give up. Reporters just don't know people like policemen and truck drivers anymore."

I wrote to the editors of 100 daily newspapers of above 25.000 circulation, the ten biggest in the country and ninety others taken at intervals from a list t of papers of descending size. Fifty-eight percent said they preferred journalism graduates. The editors of three of the biggest papers (Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Milwaukee Journal) said the preferred journalism graduates; the others (New York Daily News and Wall Street Journal among them) were indifferent. 

The editors rated as superior journalism schools the University of Missouri. Northwestern, and Columbia. In 1972 deans of professional schools rated the best journalism faculties in this order: Columbia, Stanford, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Northwestern (lowest, Marshall, Louisiana State, San Fernando State). The most effective graduate programs were said to be, in order, Columbia, Minnesota, Northwestern, Stanford, and Missouri.

Whatever editors might say, they do hire journalism graduates. Sixty-five percent of their most recently hired reporters and an estimated 60 percent of their total professional staffs came from journalism schools. Larger papers seldom take on a reporter or editor directly from college. Published work and career experience are more relevant than place of education.

Michael O'Neil, editor of the largest paper in the country, the New York Daily News (circulation 1,900.000), expressed the sentiments of many editors, especially those of larger papers: "College years are a very precious period-one of the few times in life when you can concentrate fully on soaking up knowledge, developing thinking skills, forming judg- ments and points of view. If a student spends too much time learning the technical side of our busi- ness, then he or she may never again have the opportunity to build the intellectual stockpile needed for really productive work in later life…We can teach them the technical skills.”

On the other hand, Richard Leonard, editor of the Milwaukee Journal, expresses a view typical of major editors who prefer journalism graduates: "My experience has been that people who are interested in journalism as a profession attend journalism schools."

John Quinn, senior vice president of news and information of the Gannett chain, voices the same opinion: "Generally, they demonstrate a more sophisticated commitment to journalism and understanding of its demands, plus a working knowledge of the beginner skills."

The trend is significant in the Gannett chain, which consists of seventy-three daily papers. Quinn estimates that before 1960, from 20 to 35 percent of professional journalists on Gannett staffs were journalism graduates; from 1960 to 1970, 50 percent; but since 1970, 70 percent.

Bernard Lyons, editor of the Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier, has larger reasons for his preference for journalism graduates: "In general, they have a better background of the kinds of things they don't learn on the job: the posture of a newspaper in a democratic society, libel, privacy law rudiments."

Not all editors agree. August Lockwood, editor of the Jersey Journal (circulation 78.000), says: "I have found most J-school graduates misinformed about newspaper work and badly informed about the world in which they live. I prefer to hire a literate, informed college person. In six months, with the help of my staff, I can teach such a person more than most J-school grads seem to acquire in 'earning' a degree."

Of news directors of the 100 largest television stations, 36 percent replied to my inquiry. Their preference for journalism graduates was almost the same as editors', 57 percent. They rated the same schools superior-Columbia, Missouri, and Northwestern. Fifty percent of their most recently hired reporters were journalism graduates. About half of the news directors themselves were journalism graduates.

But one experienced news director at a major television station said: "I prefer someone who majored in sociology or architecture or art history or psychology rather than somebody who spent a year or two learning how to put a film story together. One of our best reporters was a Rhodes scholar specializing in Florentine history. Given the nature of politics in this city. I don't think that expertise in Machiavellian politics is such a bad idea."

The people who hire journalists say they are divided on the value of journalism schools. But what about practitioners of journalism who, with the benefit of years of experience, can look back and judge for themselves? Did journalism graduates distinguish themselves over non-journalism graduates?

I wrote to fifty-three journalists who have won Pulitzer Prizes over the last ten years. Of those who responded. 75 percent did not major in journalism, most having degrees in English. English literature, history, or philosophy. Three did not attend college.

These Pulitzer Prize-winners were largely hostile to the idea of journalism schools and most of those approving a journalism degree specified that they favored a different undergraduate degree with journalism solely in a year of graduate work.

Emily Genauer, 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winner for distinguished art criticism, found something different: "My two years at Columbia School of Journalism were invaluable. I learned. . . how to handle acts kind of story . . . how to spot features and column possibilities in straight news dispatches, how to anticipate where and when news would break, how to keep myself open to news and column possibilities and changing styles. Most important, I learned a sense of responsibility to readers. It has been of immense importance to me, especially in writing art criticism which, for too many writers, becomes an ego trip."

But Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said, “To consider journalism as an academic subject all itself is somewhat silly since the working journalist will be for the most part reporting on everything but journalism."

William Caldwell, who won the Pulitzer in 1971 for editorial commentary in the Bergen (New Jersey) Record, did not go to college. He says he delights now, in his retirement, in discovering things his classmates got from college forty-five years ago. "It's hard to write about it without getting stuffy, but I suggest the newspaperman who doesn't know Homer and Shakespeare, Whitehead and John von Neurniann and Bonhoeffer as well as his old city editor knew the names of the type fonts and all the bootleggers in town, will not be very useful to an employer or very companionable to himself."

David Broder, widely regarded as the best political reporter in the country, won the Pulitzer in 1973 for news commentary. He was a liberal arts major at the University of Chicago, and received an interdisciplinary master's degree that emphasized political science and economics with a little sociology thrown in. "Basically, it was designed for secondary schoolteachers." he says, "but it fit fine with what I wanted. so I grabbed it."

Stanley Penn, who shared the prize in 1967 for national reporting, did go to journalism school but says: "Journalism school was largely a waste of time…If I started out again, I'd major in English, history, or philosophy."

Frank Peters of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who won the prize for commentary in 1972, majored in English and says: "1 have a very low opinion of journalism schools and suspect that they are positively damaging. Journalism is simply not a 'discipline,' nor is it a profession in any but the loosest sense. Journalists should be intelligent, informed persons, and they should use college to inform themselves about history, economics, literature. the arts, and the sciences . . . . Being run by old newspaper hacks and young ideologues, the journalism schools manage only to perpetuate the worst vices of journalism-ignorance and prejudice."

Many editors share these negative views of journalism degrees, stressing the need for "a good liberal arts education." But they do not practice what they preach. Professor Paul Peterson of Ohio State University compiles the most reliable statistics on journalism enrollment. He says: "More and more, students notice that when recruiters come to campus from newspapers and from magazines and public relations agencies, they don't stop in the liberal arts departments but go directly to the schools or departments of journalism."

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