Is dropping journalism school the key to success?

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photo by Neville Elder / Getty

Malcolm Gladwell, a reporter for the New Yorker who has three bestselling books to his name, was recently quoted in an interview for Time magazine as saying that students should not pursue journalism degrees.

Time: If you had a single piece of advice to offer young journalists, what would it be?
The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

I came to Drake as a double major in Journalism and Physics. You wouldn’t believe the weird looks I get when I tell people my combination, and I’ve handled responses ranging from, “That’s so cool!” to “Why the hell would you want to do that!” to “Dude, that’s weird… I’m sorry, but that’s just weird.”

My whole idea from the beginning was to create a combination of majors that could provide me with experience in a niche, possibly giving me the edge over the generalist reporters Gladwell describes. It’s a path that I’ve been pretty uncertain about taking because it seemed, well, strange. Unique. This article makes me feel awesome while simultaneously making me ponder about the money and time I’ve spent in a journalism program.

So I’m wondering, how do you think your education at Drake has been? Do you think developing niche skills such as Jonathon Weils with Enron will help reporters stay in the biz? Are you a double major, and if so, how are you hoping to combine it?

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10 responses to “Is dropping journalism school the key to success?

  1. Hey Matt, great question to pose. I think he’s right that a niche is going to be key to finding lasting work in the media of tomorrow. (I think your approach is great … add Chinese and you’d really be set).

    However there will always be the need for generalists both in “news” and the vast, nebulous private/public sectors. Think about small towns or regions — they will need people who can cover local government and local education and maybe crime, too. Writing, a healthy combination of objectivity and critical thinking will always be necessary. That’s what J-schools provide. But we might not call them J-schools in the future. The name will probably change. Content production!

  2. marybessbolling

    Gladwell got it right – a double major in two seemingly unrelated areas of study can lead to enhanced job security. Finding a niche in any profession will keep you employed.

    But, dropping a journalism major will not help your cause. You may lower your blood pressure considerably by dropping one of your two incredibly unrelated fields of study, but you’d miss out on the tools journalists will acquire in this period of colossal transition. Just think of how much you’ve learned in J70 alone so far this year.

    Could you keep up with all the updates in social media, discussions of the future of journalism and tricks to remembering the difference between lay and lie if you weren’t a J major? Doubtful.

    • I completely agree with Mary Bess.

      I have a minor in Politics, and will probably turn it into a major eventually, but I would never give up the J-school degree. My thought process in studying another area has always been the same as Gladwell’s: WHAT you write about is important. However, in order to write WELL about your specific field, you have to have that journalism background. It’s great if you can “read a balance sheet” as Gladwell mentions, but what if you can’t correctly punctuate a sentence?

  3. I have actually thought a lot about this: I’m getting better and better at writing about whatever topic is thrown at me (ex: Drake Mag & Synesthesia – what?), but when will it become a problem that I don’t have another, completely unique major, another topic I’m an expert in? What is going to set me apart in this über-competitive field?

    My original major is magazines and I recently added English as a double. Though this relates to magazines, I find that it exposes me to so many different writing styles and subjects, I become a more knowledgeable and well-rounded writer. Is this enough?

    Overall, I think journalism is a major because it prepares people well. Second majors are even a step above, but I would never drop magazines. Ditto to Mary Bess.

  4. It sounds like the consensus is that we still feel our journalism degrees are worth their weight. But, I think we cannot ignore that, aside from adding a double major, we must find ways to diversify our resumes.

    What I love about the Drake J-School is how easy it is to double major because you already need 21 credit hours in an area of concentration. I think this is a place where students could easily build up the credits to add another unique major.

    The other thing we should be aware of, though, is that other majors and programs are building writing skills into their curriculum. The Drake CBPA implemented new measures this semester to integrate more writing into its courses. As other programs integrate writing, I think it tends to slightly devalue the journalism degree to some employers. But, I’m confident that accountants and actuarial science professionals won’t be replacing journalists as newspaper reporters anytime soon.

    However, I think Gladwell addresses an important point: do what you can to make yourself a unique applicant for a variety of jobs.

  5. I think it’s a great idea to have a double major. Like many of you have mentioned, it creates a niche for you that other journalists might not be able to write about intelligently. However, I don’t think that it is a good idea to drop a journalism degree altogether, and Mary Bess mentioned this as well. I think it is still important to go to j-school. Not only do you learn to write like a journalist, you also have those journalistic ethics pounded into your brain. This is important. I don’t think people can naturally write like a journalist. In fact, I don’t think people can naturally write in general. You can be talented, but there is always more to learn. Even professional writers are constantly learning. Journalism school helps aspiring journalists get the tools they need to be successful. It gets them started. There is always room for improvement. But if you never got these beginner tips, where would you be?

  6. I think my education at Drake as been absolutely invaluable. I also think I should have taken a double major, focusing somewhere else. But I also know that if I were to have taken that double major, my second major would be in English. So where does that leave me?

    As far as the double-major in physics and journalism, bravo. It’s brave, it’s unique and it’s going to further your career no matter which way you cut it. Once again, bravo.

  7. I find this post both interesting and scary. I love journalism and I want to do the best job I can in it, so that’s why I’m a journalism major. I believe having a double or minor can help, but to make it in the industry (for the most part) I think you really need a strong journalism-school background. Although I’ll never be able to look at a stats sheet and break an Enron scandal, I will now how to do everything else needed well and efficiently. This means that instead of wasting time using a wrong style guide or learning how to properly interview I can be writing an article for tomorrow’s newspaper, and be earning a paycheck doing what I love and know how to do.

  8. To hear this from a journalist I admire greatly was a bit unsettling. At first. Here would be my counter to Gladwell.

    Journalism school will provide a solid foundation for your career. It’s up to you and any of your future employers to build the proverbial house.

    For example: I currently work for Meredith Integrated Marketing, where I often have to write copy about topics like housekeeping or raising kids. I am obviously not an expert in either field, but I became one out of necessity. The same goes for any reporter worth their salt.

    If I got hired at a financial magazine, you better believe I’d rapidly learn the lay of the land. I would have to. Employers have to trust that our background in general journalism will prepare us to tackle more specific subjects.

  9. One of the terms we talked about today in class made me want to comment on this post. Professor Van Wyke noted that reporters should be a “dilettante” (not 100 percent sure the spelling is correct), or a person who dabbles superficially in a lot of different areas. Lucas talked about how he became an expert on housekeeping and raising kids for his publication, Erin mentioned the CBPA school, and Ann discussed her minor in politics. What majors/minors do you think are the best ones to combine with a journalism degree?

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