Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

A Note Regarding Michael Schudson and Journalism Schools

I was extremely intemperate yesterday on the matter of Michael Schudson, current Columbia J-School prof, and his contention that this age is a wonderful world of opportunity for journalists. So, a disclaimer: I'm sure that he is a wonderful sociologist and historian, I'm sure his books are fantastic, and I'm sure some students love him. (Though the ones I've talked to, who've taken his classes at Columbia, did not love him at all.) I have no reason to think he is not a great person, and a fantastic wealth of information. So I do regret going a little postal. But! And! Also! A couple of things!

I was flagrantly enraged by his bizarre take on the current age for a couple of reasons.

First was that I'd just talked to a mid-00's Columbia J-school grad who was eating, for his meal that day, hot water with crushed-up vitamins in it.

Schudson, Nick Lemann and pretty much everyone else up at Columbia are perpetuating an obviously-failing scheme, in which they send young people into tens of thousands of dollars of debt while teaching them some basic skills that those students could and should learn by doing. That some of these professors discourage their students from actually working, for money, in the field while in school is outrageous.

There is a huge confusion about the use of j-schools as a place of academic inquiry (which is a good thing! Learning is good!) and as a trade school. As places that prepare people for a trade, they are a complete waste.

Since Schudson threw himself right into the gaping pit between his strength-academic inquiry-and investigation of the actual practice of journalism in these times… well, he's going to be falling down that hole for a long time.

That there is nowhere at all for the last few graduating classes to work speaks very badly of the way a trade school is preparing their graduates. Nicholas Lemann and his pals up at Columbia J-School should produce a list of the class of 2008 and exactly where they are employed. I can do it for them, using the methods of "reporting," if they give me a few weeks.

But, ah, the Internet. What a tricky place!

That another j-school prof, C. W. Anderson, who is an assistant professor of Media Culture at CUNY (and God bless CUNY, of course), and whose work is both fascinating and useful, referred to what I wrote as "poorly written linkbait, well:

1. Please hyphenate "poorly-written." (OR NOT!)

2. That a discussion of media business models and j-schools could ever constitute "linkbait" is laughable. If I was working on linkbait, I'd be writing a post about that golfer who we have yet to ever name on this site.

3. If you're interested in the intersection of media culture, journalism and capitalism, well, come aboard! Welcome to one of the few places on the Internet that cares about that.

That being said: I was mean to his friend, so I didn't deserve a very nice response. I'm sorry I was so mean!

Finally, I'd love to know more about what j-school professors are actually doing to make the new version of the industry a place in which people can actually work, and any communication is quite welcome.

41 Comments / Post A Comment

Hamilton (#122)

Ha. J school professors are just bitchy, territorial, oversensitive, reciprocal backslappers– just like bloggers! And equally unemployable in the real world. We should all be friends.

I agree. Hugs all around.

beingiseasy (#1,735)

Journalism school will be flung by the wayside like stenographer class was when the tape recorder was invented. J-school doesn't produce a useful product anymore and this will only be realized when the 'powers that be' (ie. those who used to work for newspapers) die off. It's irresponsible and almost criminal for these schools to claim they are offering something of use when websites with the title of NewspaperDeathWatch flourish. Fuck them and their lack of foresight.

joeclark (#651)

Mm, sorry, but there is an insatiable demand for trained stenographers, as some of us like to see spoken words written down for posterity.

PBRthur (#2,607)

I kept finding myself nodding in agreement with this article.

UNTIL your first bullet point. According to the AP Style Book (the tome used by many, if not most, journalists), you are not supposed to use a hyphen in compounds with "very" or adverbs ending in "-ly."


PBRthur (#2,607)

But the rest of your story was spot on. It's by honing those incredibly meticulous editing skills that got me where I am today: shitcanned by the journalism industry and unable to find any job in that field.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

An Awl post on Tuesday on Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson, who is helping Nick Lemann encourage journalism students to ruin their lives, was mean to Schudson, who is probably smart and nice. The Awl editor should not have gone postal over the tenure-loving sociologist’s insensitivity. In one paragraph consisting of unproofread capitalized letters, there was a superfluous comma before “CHEERLEADER.”

Brachinus (#2,627)

I did (J-school), and I can confirm that PBRthur is correct, and that compounds with adverbs don't get hyphenated.

The question is, how much is that knowledge worth these days? As much as knowing how to use Photoshop (which I taught myself because I needed it to make graphics for the newspaper website I built with raw HTML, which I also taught myself)?

I'm unemployed right now (laid off a year ago), and I'm getting a lot more interviews from people interested in my Web skills than my editing expertise.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Now postal workers and upset with you.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I don't want to step on your post–which is fantastic–but will suggest you can drape the net further, over the so-called "professional" schools teaching law. There are plenty that prepare students for practical entry into gainful employment.

There are more–and these include some of the real expensive ones–that are blind to the monumental gulf between what's taught and what's waiting, and numb to the roaring, icy depths of commercial undertow greeting those who take the plunge. As if the name on the sheepskin would make you float.

Keep on plugging in the j-school niche, but there's a long, broke lifeline between academia and marketplace that will just continue to flood us with debt-drowned young (and older) folk wondering what toke them down.

Was my metaphor too soggy?

KarenUhOh (#19)

No, but do toke another take.

iplaudius (#1,066)

This is right, though you might've begun with, "I don't want to dilute your post … "

orangequestion (#2,624)

Just curious…which law schools do you feel aren't helpful for preparing students for employment? (I'm going to law school next fall and don't want to spend 3 years and lots of money on a school that won't help me get a job).

Much like j-school, the law schools that aren't helpful for preparing students for employment are those that load their students down with more debt than they can reasonably repay given their realistic post-graduate employment prospects. Though I would hazard that a larger percentage law graduates have a reasonable shot at a post-graduate job that pays enough to enable them to repay their student loans within a decade.

(There are also issues regarding the amount of practical hands-on knowledge to be gained at many law schools, but I think opportunities exist at most schools, as long as you know where to look.)

It has nothing to do with this, but Schudson's book on advertising (The Uneasy Persuasion) is quite canny. I am often dismayed when scholarly-smart writers turn out to be cloisterishly-dumb administrators.

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

I am sure telegraph operators say this is a wonderful world of opportunity, too. Mainly because they are lonely. Two dead media.

iplaudius (#1,066)

On the bright side, if journalism schools really are useless, a university might reasonably cope with small returns on dwindling endowments by cutting the budget of its journalism school.

This is a great apology.

Zack (#2,609)

I, for one, am completely glad that my undergrad journalism program so ill-prepared me for a career in the field that I was forced to pursue a different path. Sure as hell saved me from frustration (and vitamin soup!)

NoNoNo (#2,207)

Karen, absolutely agree. The amount of debt incurred, relative the employability of the graduate, makes no sense.

hockeymom (#143)

Ah, Columbia J-School grads…fond memories! Have they changed at all?

When you hand them back their scripts, marked up in red to correct, do they still act as if you've scribbled all the baby Jesus?

Do they still constantly remind everyone in the newsroom that "my first job in television was actually in college, because we ran a REAL TV station?"

Are they completely condescending and dismissive of all other colleges (and BTW, Northwestern grads, they think you SUCK, but they're too wussy to say it to your face)?

Do they still eventually come around when they realize the world is nothing at all like Columbia J-School and sometimes the satellite truck operator really DOES know more than you?

That last one is good advice to anyone in the dying industry of television news. Trust the damn truck operator. Also, feed him.

Vitamins and ramen cost the same. Why is this j school grad's obvious anorexia being mentioned?

spanish bombs (#562)

it shows that j-school grads lack even the life skills to boil water.

afarerkind (#379)

You are spot on about journalism schools as trade schools. Anyone who needs two to four years of job training is dead weight in a newsroom.

I'd much rather take a liberal arts major and teach her how to use a style book than take a journalism major and teach her how to think.

beer (#1,073)

Hasn't there always been a line between the more academic (read: pricey/snobby) j-schools and the ones that treat the job as it should be — as a trade?

J-schools that have taken the trade school approach aren't completely useless (hey, one helped me and i gots a job) because they tend to bypass all the ego-boosting theoretical dung and teach stuff like how to write a proper f*cking nut graf.. sure, you could figure that on your own with some time and few mag subs, but if you're not all that disciplined and a bit cluless and the school's a decent price and teaches by "doing," then there may be still a place for such programs… or not! internet!

Tulletilsynet (#333)

My Brit colleagues learned to take shorthand in their J-schools. I wish I could do that.

joeclark (#651)

But stenography is outdated, another commenter declared, surely making it true!

NinetyNine (#98)

Tiger Tiger Tiger Tiger. Tiger. Tiger Sex Whores Wife, Sex, Adultery, Divorce. Sandwiches. Tiger. Bait, linked.

Kataphraktos (#226)

Damn you 99, beat me to it.

Although I wouldhave spelled it Linquebate, just to piss off the Grammar Nazis.

(Godwin: invoked)

Tengrain (#858)

Choir -

I love it when you growl.

I've watched others in my field of writing (technical writing) thrown overboard for lower-cost workers in India, and always with the explanation that they speak the Queen's English, too.

You can look at the examples of writing job boards oDesk and Elance to see the race to the bottom where writers bid on projects, with the lowest bid is the person that gets the gig. And you know the quality of those projects will be great…

Everyone wants content, no one wants to pay to produce it.



Kataphraktos (#226)

Dearest Choire:

1. The education system is perhaps the second greatest bubble in human history after the derivatives bubble. Neither has even begun to burst yet, although the first leaks are showing. J-school is a tiny subset of this. Frankly there are too many journalists in this world, because these J-schools have been pumping out Cronkite wannabes for years now like iPod factories – but you don't need a journalist for every douchebag on the planet. There are too many of every profession in this world, and this will be the case for a looooooong time to come.

2. Most journalists are unemployable because the jobs these days demand the vapid, ignorant Kourics and Currys of the world, so even of J-school taught you something useful, it would be irrelevant in most cases.

3. Graduating from a J-school doth not one a journalist make.

4. Expecting real-world solutions from an ivory tower professor: NO. There's a reason these folks are professors. Let them remain there. Every time one of them escapes from their tenured asylum, we get "new paradigms" and "interest-only mortgages". Please, STOP.

Regina Small (#2,468)

"If you're interested in the intersection of media culture, journalism and capitalism, well, come aboard! Welcome to one of the few places on the Internet that cares about that."

This is true. Great post, Choire.

garge (#736)

But who is going to give voice to the victims of the Master of Fine Arts pyramid scheme? Perhaps the subjectivity of the smoke and mirrors doesn't lend itself to a united front?

Mindpowered (#948)

Post Structuralism put paid to any unity.

They knew exactly what they were getting in to, and get the benefit of all that fancy learning, unlike J school grads who just learn a dying trade.

ToxicShock (#2,619)

As a graduate of the J-School, I have to agree (mostly). I think the image of the School is that of a prestigious (academic) place -while the instructors are still teaching the business with "get me rewrite" trade school-like methods. I think we should really look at the J-School for what it really is, a finishing school. It's a place for the privileged and or the stupid and or both, to get a degree based on a pass/fail evaluation system for jobs that no longer exist. It's extended boarding school where people are literally treated like children. At least at Business School you get a few drinks…

petejayhawk (#1,249)


You don't HAVE to go into journalism with a j-school degree. God forbid someone interview for a job that doesn't fit into the extremely narrow purview of their degree.

brianvan (#149)

Have you seen the classified ads lately? God forbid indeed!

I don't think I've ever gotten an interview, for a job I've applied to (I like to be diverse in my scannings), that didn't fit the narrow scope of both my degree and the positions I've named on my resume. If I have deviated from that at all, I have gotten nowhere.

I like to think that's just because of the long-term anemic job market (and only that), but the fact that companies are actively creating job requirements right now that are difficult to fill with THIS overinflated labor pool is a sign that companies are taking overspecialization and pigeonholing to their greatest extents. No hiring manager wants a candidate who can't be defined within a description of what their department exactly needs at that moment. All other life experience is irrelevant, and perhaps worrying. Once the money comes back into the economy, these companies will refuse to function without these artificial needs; they'll then probably lose in the marketplace to new companies who have better hiring processes and priorities!

I'd disagree that all trade schools are a waste. I know plenty of Liberal Arts graduates waiting tables who would kill to know how to maintain an engine, or a server, both things that you can learn at relatively cheap trade schools, and both things that pay a decent wage.

Post a Comment