What Makes J-School Worth It?

Given the state of the journalism industry, you wouldn’t think that prospective students would be knocking down the doors of journalism schools, but they are. The Chronicle has an article about the burgeoning popularity of J-schools and the changes they’re making to adapt to a circa-2009 media landscape:

At a time when the newspaper industry is in free fall and thousands of jobs are being cut each year, one would think that the halls of the nation’s journalism schools would be awfully quiet. Think again.

Many universities report that journalism enrollments are up this year. Over the past few weeks, a lot of these budding journalists have been blogging, broadcasting, and tweeting their way through introductory courses that have been revamped to embrace the digital age.

Applications to Columbia University’s master-of-science program in journalism rose 44 percent, to 1,181, for the class entering this fall, and an investigative-journalism specialty drew more than twice as many applications this year than last year, up from 54 in 2008 to 121 this year.

Elsewhere, applications to master’s programs were up 30 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 25 percent at the University of Maryland at College Park, and 24 percent at Stanford University.

So yes, there’s a lot of excitement. And J-schools are doing everything they can to adapt and train their students in the ways of new media. But graduates have quite an uphill battle to climb:

A report released last month found that in 2008, graduates of journalism and mass-communication programs had far fewer job interviews and offers than in 2007, and that full-time employment was at its lowest point since at least 1986.

The report is based on an annual survey conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Some 2,542 graduates of bachelor’s and master’s-degree programs at 86 institutions responded.

The report blamed the declines on “the sharp downturn in the national economy and the collapse of the economic model for media industries.” Paper Cuts, a blog that tracks layoffs in the U.S. newspaper industry, has recorded more than 29,000 layoffs and buyouts since 2008.

Only six in 10 graduates had full-time employment six to eight months after earning their degrees, the Georgia report noted. Graduates of newspaper and telecommunications programs fared worse than those pursuing careers in advertising and public relations, whose programs are often housed in the same colleges.

(Before I go on a mini-rant here, I should probably note for the sake of full disclosure that I turned down a slot in the 2009-2010 Columbia J-school class to accept this job. So I can’t claim to be coming at this from any sort of wholly objective, removed perspective).

Columbia costs $70,000 when you factor in both tuition and all the various costs associated with living in New York. There are cheaper options, of course, but even graduates of other programs leave school saddled with debt (the average graduate of Temple University’s journalism program, for example, leaves school with $30,000 in debt, according to a Temple professor quoted in the story).

I’m sure there was a point when this was worth it. Not too long ago, if you didn’t have journalism experience, you could go to J-school, get a job at, say, a small community newspaper, and eventually work your way up to a larger daily metro. This simply isn’t the case anymore, and J-schools aren’t even claiming otherwise. Instead, they tell prospective students, they can provide all sorts of vital hands-on multimedia storytelling training. They can teach you to use Flash and create slides hows and shoot great video—all the sorts of skills employers will be looking for in the newer, leaner, we-need-everyone-to-do-everything newsroom (this was hugely emphasized at the day and a half of events for prospective students I attended at Columbia this past spring).

That’s all well and good, and I understand there’s an important networking aspect here as well. But look at the stats for the graduating class of 2009:

Of the 306 students who earned degrees from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism last month, 197, or 64 percent, already reported having jobs or other post-school plans (such as internships, fellowships or continuing education) lined up by May 28, according to Elizabeth Weinreb Fishman, the school’s associate dean for communications. Adds Fishman, “Many of our students have gotten job offers in the last couple weeks, so 64 percent is lower than the actual number now employed.” It’s also better than last year’s graduating class was doing at the same time.

Now, for a ten-month program designed at its core to get you a job in journalism, I don’t think 64 percent is a hugely impressive number. But it becomes even less so when you think about the fact that it includes everything: jobs, temporary positions, unpaid internships, etcetera. What percentage of 2009 graduates have full-time jobs? As far as I can tell, Columbia doesn’t say. (If I find out that there’s a more thorough breakdown somewhere, I’ll certainly update this post to reflect that.)

Some people love journalism, want to learn it, and think J-school is the best way to do so. This is understandable—noble, even, given the state of the industry. But think about what an aspiring journalist could do with the money they spend on journalism school, a greater and greater proportion of which is going to technical training that can be had (albeit in a less intensive manner) at any adult learning center, community college, or …For Dummies book.

It’s clear from the enrollment numbers that many, many people disagree with me, but from a strictly cold-blooded, financial perspective (and given the times we’re living in, most people can’t afford to adopt anything but such a perspective), I don’t see how going to J-school makes sense.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.