Do you remember your first byline? Mine was in the eighth grade in the Grandparents Day Newsletter. I was one of three students selected to have their essay published. To be honest, I still consider it one of my proudest moments in my writing career, and it gave me my first taste of seeing “By Nu Yang” in print.
I got the same thrill seeing my byline over the next couple of years, writing for my high school newspaper and a few guest articles for my local daily paper. I always knew I wanted to be a writer as a kid, but after I had the opportunity to job shadow an editor, journalism became my dream career.
In college, I studied English and journalism, and started writing for my college paper. I was a sophomore when 9/11 happened, and my editor tasked me with talking to students in my dorm and reporting their reactions. It wasn’t easy, but I knew I had a job to do. That day taught me how to ask the right questions, empathize and listen. It was also the first time I felt like a real journalist.
These memories came back to me as I read a Columbia Journalism Review special report titled “Do We Need J-Schools?” The article presented three different points of views: “Yes, more than ever” by Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School faculty member; “No, and they should not exist” by Felix Salmon, a financial writer and editor; and “Maybe, but cost is key” by Alexandria Neason, a CJR senior staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.
All three presented good arguments, and I have to say none of them are wrong.
“A strong journalism program will help young reporters challenge their presumptions and prejudices, will encourage them to meet people and go to neighborhoods outside their comfort zone, and will force them to develop the resilience that journalists need, especially now,” said Grueskin.
Looking back, it was the school system that helped me become a better reporter. Faculty members pushed me to go into writing and helped opened doors for me. And there were the valuable lessons, skills and habits I learned from teachers and professors (who often used to work for newspapers) in a classroom setting.
Salmon, on the other hand, feels differently. “The best and simplest way to move toward that goal would be to abolish the graduate journalism degree entirely. That would help to level the playing field, while saving students billions of dollars in tuition. Better yet, it would bring the industry back to a model of on-the-job training. People wanting to enter the profession would get paid to learn the ropes.”
I agree that there’s nothing better than newsroom training. I “learned the ropes” as a staff writer for a small weekly newspaper. It was where I learned to develop sources and contacts in the community, where I learned how to work under a deadline, and where I learned that creating a newspaper was a business.
“Journalism school (has) real benefits to offer. But you shouldn’t go unless you can secure significant funding to pay for it,” Neason said.
That’s a fair point. With more young people drowning in student loan debt, is a journalism degree even worth it? It seems like it still is. MarketWatch recently reported a jump in applications at J-schools like Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, proving that the profession is still a sought-after one.
In the end, I believe there’s no right way or wrong way to learn journalism. Many of us graduated with a degree from a J-school; many of us ‘”learned the ropes” working in the newsroom. But I think we can all agree that what we need are more journalists and more bylines, no matter how they got there.