BROOKE GLADSTONE: So generating high profit margins in the current nervous economy requires cutbacks and hiring freezes. Where does that leave the aspiring cub reporter? Frequently with no prospects and an impressive pile of debt. It could be argued that they might have been better off if they'd skipped grad school all together and gone straight into the job market when the getting was good! On the Media's Dave Serchuk looks into the pro's and cons of journalism school after this brief word from Jason Robards.
JASON ROBARDS: You have Deep Throat.
MAN: He's not a source on this.
JASON ROBARDS: Look do any of 'em have an axe?
JASON ROBARDS: Personal? Political? Sexual? Is there anything at all on Mitchell?
JASON ROBARDS: Then can we use the name?
JASON ROBARDS: Goddammit! When is somebody going to go on the record in this story?!
DAVID SERCHUK: Watergate was a watershed, not only for American history but also for journalism schools. The reporting of the Washington Post led to a boom in applications that helped gentrify this hard-living, blue collar profession. Cynthia Gorney is an associate professor at the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism.
CYNTHIA GORNEY: If you go to a newsroom now like the, the Post of the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, it has been pointed out frequently and accurately that you're looking at people who have mortgages, who have kids in private schools and who don't have nearly as much in common with the sort of mythic folks on the street as was the case in the heyday of Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin or some of the famous newsmen who did much of their reporting in bars.
RICK RODRIGUEZ: Fewer people now want to write about issues like underdog issues about poverty and, and ordinary people.
DAVID SERCHUK: Rick Rodriguez is the executive editor of the Sacramento Bee.
RICK RODRIGUEZ: Cops used to be a, a, a learning ground to learn how to - to, to report; and we're getting folks out of journalism school now who say you know I don't want to cover cops. A lot of the folks coming out of journalism school now don't think that they have to pay those kinds of dues.
DAVID SERCHUK: Mark Stamey, a grad of Columbia J School '93 and a New York Post reporter believes his school went out of its way to promote white collar stories and journalists.
MARK STAMEY: I thought that the subjects themselves were very safe. They avoided the unpleasantness, the-- the vicissitudes of life. They were uncluttered by a lot of grit, dirt in whatever happened. You know they don't, they don't teach people to sneak into a place, take notes unobserved, and sneak out.
DAVID SERCHUK: Columbia student Rebecca Nolan spent four years gaining proficiency as a beat reporter before going to get her master's degree. She felt Columbia put too much focus on the academic side of journalism rather than the practice.
REBECCA NOLAN: It's heavy on theory sometimes at Columbia and not on specifics, which can be frustrating. We could talk about the philosophy of journalism until the sun goes down, but what we need to know when we hit the streets for our first job at like the Wenatchie Journal is what it's actually going to be like day to day.
DAVID SERCHUK: For Columbia journalism professor James Carey such theoretical issues as the First Amendment, privacy rights and libel laws are as important as writing a good lead. But he adds, at Columbia people learn to do that too. MAN: Ninety-five percent of it is spent on practice. I just would have no idea what such a person is talking about! The only way I can interpret it-- and which [...?...] because this is someone who is completely anti-intellectual and thinks that there's no reflection at all needed about what it is journalists do. If that's the case, it's not the way most accomplished journalists think about it, certainly.
GLEN GUZZO: I believe that today's journalists are smarter than ever.
DAVID SERCHUK: Glen Guzzo is the editor of the Denver Post.
GLEN GUZZO: I think you've seen more analysis in newspapers with each decade.
DAVID SERCHUK: The Sacramento Bee's Rick Rodriguez agreed that J School grads often bring specialized knowledge to the field.
RICK RODRIGUEZ: More and more you're seeing folks specialize in, in business or technology reporting that, that has bled out of the newsroom, so I guess there's a tradeoff. They're becoming very proficient in that one area, but maybe then that leaves them with little or no experience in talking to, to everyday people.
DAVID SERCHUK: But real life experience is getting harder to come by. This year's J School grads will move into a media world hobbled by hiring freezes. This was made clear to Columbia student Amanda Levin during the graduate school's annual jobs fair late last March. Four of Levin's eight interviews canceled on her, and for those news organizations that stayed, the situation was bleak.
AMANDA LEVIN: Although they were accepting resumes, they explained that they were laying off people so there were no prospects.
DAVID SERCHUK: Levin's Columbia classmates fared little better. MAN: It's, it's like walking into a room of artificiality. It's, it's a bit, like, depressing but at the same time I, I think it's hilarious. I mean I'm really - [LAUGHS] I'm not going to get a job today. But - and -I don't think anyone is here. MAN: Everyone is downsizing; you know all this talk about recession and things that those; so there's no job. No job! No job! No job! They should just put up a notice and say No Jobs for Graduate Students! Period.
DAVID SERCHUK: But if these students feel their expensive degrees may not lead to jobs, period, why would anyone go? In a word? Alumni. For if journalism schools can't provide jobs, they can provide the next best thing. Access to a network that may eventually get you jobs.
WOMAN: From what I've heard the alumni network is really amazing, and I think there are like a lot - we have a lot of books of alumni listings and you can just call them and say hey, I'm a J student; I need a job and I know you went to Columbia-- do you want to hook me up? [LAUGHS]
DAVID SERCHUK: Of course people also go to improve their writing. Rebecca Nolan, with her emphasis on practicality, says she did pick up at least one valuable writing tip. She learned how to use commas correctly. For On the Media, I'm David Serchuk.