“Should I Get a Master’s in Journalism?”

I’ve gotten this question twice from a couple of friends and colleagues, to which I gave lengthy responses. My answers reflect only my opinion, and I can only comment on my experience at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, having received my Master’s in Journalism with a focus in new media in December of 2007. But here are some thoughts…

“So, I’m wondering, are you happy you got your masters?”

When I was at Northwestern, students chose one of four disciplines: traditional reporting and writing, broadcast, magazine or new media. I chose new media. I’m very much interested in Web 2.0, social media, link journalism, networked journalism, online community journalism – you name it. I looked at Northwestern and it seemed as if that was the direction they were heading so I went for it. I tell you all this because I think it’s really important to specify that I went out looking for a new media journalism degree specifically.

Therefore, when I was at Northwestern, I took the core journalism classes in reporting and writing on public affairs, editing, ethics of journalism, etc., but I also took courses in new media storytelling (HTML, Flash, CSS, JavaScript, etc.), Videography (shooting and editing w/ Adobe Premiere), introduction to computer programming (Java) and two marketing courses (one in new media economics and one on online social networking.)

Finally, I did a quarter-long project researching, conceptualizing and proposing a hyperlocal community news site for Morris Communications, along with 10 or so other students. Eventually, the company took our recommendations and launched MyZeeland.com. Sort of on the side, I did an independent study working with a former NW graduate who launched a social networking site called Tokoni. Again, I tell you all this so you can get a feel for what my experience at J-school was and use that to put my comments into context, because I don’t know that it’s typical (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it was my experience).

So am I happy I went there and got my masters? Eh…yes and no.

Yes, because I had some incredible experiences, met some amazing (and amazingly talented) people, made some great connections and, to be honest, just plain had a lot of fun.

No, because I think it’s overpriced, and that a lot of those experiences can be had, people can be met, connections can be made and (probably) fun can be had without the degree.

“Do you like what you’re doing now?”

Yes.

I work at a medium-sized custom publishing company and I’m its first Online Content Manager.

It’s a great opportunity. I’m learning a lot of new things, meeting a lot of great people and interacting with some creative minds. And I do enough freelance stuff on the side to keep me plenty busy. Oh, and (insert shameless self promotion) I blog on all things digital here.

“Did they help you find a job after graduation, provide access to internships while you were there, etc?”

Absolutely. Any graduate program that offers a degree in a field in which no degree is necessary to practice must continually justify its existence to prospects like yourself. Therefore, it’s in their interest to connect their students with prospective employers through job fairs, internship programs, job boards, job postings, etc. I still get an e-mail a week with job postings in the Chicago area, many of which are not promoted anywhere else.

“Do you feel that they prepared you for your current position?”

Absolutely. Again, this goes back to my new media training and my specific interests. But the custom publishing industry and the news industry are both in need of new media-trained journalists, writers, editors and producers. Because of my training, I feel “at home” talking to the editors, photographers, videographers, web developers and marketing folks – which is an asset. Note: I am by no means an expert in any of those fields, and I don’t pretend to be. But it helps to be able to speak their languages.

“Other comments…?”

The people…

One thing I enjoyed the most about the program that you can’t discount is being constantly around the “fascinated-by-the-potential-of-new-media” news junkie types. I now count amongst good friends and colleagues an independent Web publisher in Chicago doing some really interesting things (WindyCitizen.com), a writer at Time, and numerous others doing a lot cooler stuff than I am. But again, I’d emphasize that it’s not that they are connections, it’s that they are friends – and it was a lot of fun to be immersed in an intense 15-month program with them.

Overpriced…

This gets back to what I said earlier about J-schools needing to continually justify their existence. You don’t need a degree to practice journalism. You don’t even need a high school education. With all the tools available, all you need is a public library card and your own skills. So in that sense, it’s overpriced. Just saying.

New Media drawbacks…

This may have changed, but one drawback I found is that new media is so, well, new, that all of the really interesting people doing cool things in new media are, well, doing cool things in new media – NOT teaching at J-schools. Just my observation. I had some incredible teachers, but I also had a few who didn’t really “get” the Web.

The future of journalism…

OK, if you thought this e-mail post was long, it’s going to get longer. Here’s my rant on new media…

In some ways journalism schools mirror newspapers and local TV stations in that they are gatekeepers. The former were gatekeepers to the industry and the latter were gatekeepers of information in general. That’s just not true any more.

Sometimes (usually around the first of the month when I’m paying my monthly loan repayments) I look back and think I should have just started blogging rather than gone to j-school. The act of blogging is still (somewhat) stigmatized and largely misunderstood by those who don’t do it. But to have a successful blog, you have to be an incredible writer, editor, publisher and advertiser. In essence, you have to learn the business. You’re much more a producer than just a blogger. Creating a successful blog that brought in even 10,000 visits a month and made $10,000-$20,000 a year would be an incredibly worthwhile accomplishment and would have taught me a ton about new media journalism.

So, anything to add? I know that, even amongst those who went to Medill, whether or not the education was worth the price tag was hotly contested. What do you think?

2 thoughts on ““Should I Get a Master’s in Journalism?”

  1. Great post. As someone who did not go to J school or study journalism but is now a working journalist, I never felt like I missed out on anything by not attending journalism school.

    On the other hand, I did write for one of the best college papers in the country and that experience is what resulted in my first internship and professional reporting gig. So I would say it’s not so important to actually study journalism as it is to have some experience doing it, whether you get that experience from classes, blogging, working at a paper, interning or anywhere else.

    As for the future of journalism and new media, no one really knows what’s going to happen. It’s hilarious to me that the media is always turning to people in the media business to predict the future of journalism. If any of those people had figured it out, they’d be doing it already.

    My own thoughts: I think the current premium placed on breaking news or scoops will fade away. With more people having access to broadcasting tools, anyone can report breaking news and events. The true value of a professional journalist will be in doing the type of long-form and investigative stuff that simply can’t be done for free.

    In other words, if your job was to be the first person to know a plane crashed in the Hudson or that there’s a fire at a local building, chances are you’re not as needed as before. Ditto for political pundits and other dispensers of opinion. But I’m covering federal contracting and procurement, developing sources and digging through opaque reports for corruption and waste. That kind of reporting is always valuable and no one is going to spend their free time doing it, which is why it will probably stick around.

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  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Gautham.

    I agree that experience trumps all else, almost regardless of where you get that experience.

    As for the future of media, I disagree that breaking news will wane in importance. In fact, I think in many instances it becomes more important. But I do think that what it means to report breaking news will change.

    Anyone with a mobile phone can report that something happened, i.e., that a plane crashed in the Hudson. Therefore, it becomes even more important to put events into context to discover why, and to do it quickly and accurately. And I don’t think you get those skills just because you bought a smart phone.

    I guess I’m arguing for the importance of journalist-as-curator, even in breaking news events. It may be part hounding sources, part monitoring the emerging real-time Web, part having a knowledge of historical context to frame stories as quickly as possible.

    Your thoughts?

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