The J-school Blues

By: Ana Mantica

Commentary

I am a journalism student — or, as some may affectionately say, a j-school kid — at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. After three years, one thing I still haven’t figured out is why people in the business who meet me and find I attend Medill first widen their eyes, then follow with a snide comment, smirk, or just a simple “Why?”

Is there some sort of secret I’m not privy to? I can’t figure out if people are impressed — or if they’re laughing because they believe I’m wasting more than $120,000. If they do believe this, I think they have a point. Unless properly used, the degree with the lofty price tag is only as valuable as the paper stock it’s printed on.

In some warped netherworld, there are high-school students who have come to the conclusion that they can become journalists simply by attending a prestigious j-school. However, in their quest to attain success and recognition at a school such as Medill, many lose sight of what it means to be a journalist. Their one-track minds make them forget that being a journalist goes far beyond writing for the school paper and getting a byline on Page One.

After speaking with professional journalists, I sometimes find myself questioning why I took the j-school route. Perhaps a reason for the smirks is the belief that j-school students focus so tightly on honing their writing skills that they lose sight of pursuing the liberal-arts education that inspires story ideas.

And, to an extent, it’s true. Students convince themselves that, because they’re at a j-school, everything they need to learn is in a journalism classroom. Some students are so consumed by their j-courses that they forget there are sociology classes, history classes, and art classes in the building next door, not to mention various other school activities.

At times, it seems ridiculous to go to school to learn something better learned on the job. No doubt I’ve benefited from my classes. I’ve learned, for example, that if you spell a name wrong, you get an automatic “Medill F.” But I’ve learned more about real-life journalism during summer internships and by working at the school paper and for the school’s media department.

Reporting, writing, editing — all the right ways and wrong ways can be learned on the job, often by making mistakes. And it’s probably better since you’re concerned with keeping that job, not just with getting an “A” in a class.

A school will teach you the basics: how to write a lede, how to use editing symbols, when to consult your Associated Press Stylebook — and how to exploit the school’s name to land a job you want. But can a school teach you a compelling prose style? Can a school convince you to be ethical? Can a school prepare you for conducting an interview with a mother who has just lost her son?

A school can teach you every rule in the book, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be a good writer. A school can implement every kind of ethical code, but it still can’t guarantee that you, as a working journalist, will follow it. And a school can teach you what questions to ask, but it won’t teach you compassion. It’s up to the student to put the skills learned in class into action.

A friend of mine on the “newspaper track” spent her first two years of college desperately trying to get into our j-school. And, finally, in her junior year, she was able to transfer here. But, two weeks into it, she was wishing she hadn’t.

That’s how it is with many students. As high-school students, they fall in love with the idea of attending the best j-school in the country and with the dream of becoming “the next big thing” in the media. But once they get to school, many lose that spunk, fall out of love, and end up disappointed. It’s not necessarily the school, but rather a combination of realizing that, once you graduate, the job isn’t instantly glamorous, the pay isn’t great, and you’re already burned out and fed up with the whole j-thing.

So why do I spend almost $36,000 a year at a school studying something I’m not quite sure I really want to do?

In the course of our years in j-school, we may become even more passionate about journalism — or realize that it isn’t the lifestyle for us, increasingly disappointed that we spent four years studying to work in a profession we no longer want to pursue. But I guess it’s better to learn it the hard way.

After getting out of the classroom and working in the “real world” a few times at various internships, I realize that many of you are probably laughing because you already know that you don’t need a j-school degree to be a good journalist. Now I know it’s true.

Sure, it’ll open a few doors along the way that might otherwise have been locked, but it takes more than just a “big-name school” to become a well-respected journalist. It requires putting into action every skill we’ve learned in class — and “backing up” the degree. And it takes more work than any Medill class ever required.

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