Should I go to college for journalism if I want to be a journalist?
August 30, 2010 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Should I go to college for journalism if I want to be a journalist? I'm really interested in radio and photo documentaries.

I've been attempting to make my own radio and photo documentaries on my own time & dime for the past year and a half or so.

This is something that I really love doing, and unlike some previous hobbies I've had, I feel like it's something that I could see myself doing as a career.

My main goal is to eventually work somewhere where I could go into the field and take both photographs and audio and then edit them together into one cohesive story. I've been attempting to do this myself, but I struggle with finding stories that make good radio/photo stories or with simply working up the courage to bother strangers so I can talk to them with a microphone or take their picture.

I'm a senior in high school this year, next year I go to college, but I'm curious whether that would be the best way to spend my time and money. I've looked at places like the SALT Institute and that seems really appealing to me.

So I ask you, hivemind, if I want to be a journalist, is it essential I have a degree in journalism? Should I get a degree in something else that would be helpful as a journalist? What are the alternatives? Should I just build a portfolio, and try to get published?

(P.S. Suggestions for colleges with good journalism departments would be appreciated)

Thanks so much for your help and insight!
posted by ejfox to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Great journalists aren't that way because they went to J-school. They are that way because they know their subject amazingly well. Some can do this because they understand human nature, others because they're subject matter experts. Go get a degree in a topic you love, then find a way to write, shoot, and make documentaries about that topic. Everything else will flow from that.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:10 AM on August 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I went to journalism school and I think it was a great education in general (I'm not a journalist now). However, I agree with NotMyselfRightNow that j-school doesn't make great journalists. Most of the outstanding journalists I've known have not had journalism degrees. History seemed common. Some didn't have degrees at all. The most important thing is do actually be doing the kind of work you want to do -- create projects for yourself and complete them. Keeping doing the work. Practice makes perfect, and it's also how you build up a portfolio/reel. You don't need to be in j-school to do that (and very few of your j-school classes will likely have you doing the kind of work you want to do).

If you do want to go to j-school, I can endorse University of Oregon. I loved it there and the journalism school is great.
posted by sharding at 9:16 AM on August 30, 2010

Do not go to journalism school. I am in j-school. I love my university, but I wish I had switched into the liberal arts school, or even the film school. You can be just as good of a journalist (if not better) if you don't go to journalism school. Go somewhere with a good TV station or a good radio station and work for them. I haven't learned anything in journalism school I couldn't have learned on my own, and I've been prevented from taking cooler classes because I didn't have room in my schedule.

Granted, my university does a good job of encouraging well-rounded journalists, and I've had a lot of opportunity and I have a minor, but I still wish I had majored in anything else. A journalism degree won't help you that much in becoming a journalist (except for the connections, but even those aren't consistent or foolproof), and a good writer/filmmaker/etc. without a journalism degree will do just fine in journalism.

I often think journalism students are blinded by the rigors of "proper journalism."
posted by good day merlock at 9:22 AM on August 30, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell majored in Canadian history. You don't need to be a journalism major to be a journalist. You just need a portfolio and experience. Go seek those out.
posted by Don Gately at 9:26 AM on August 30, 2010

I went to journalism school, and I'm a journalist now, though in a different sort of field (design). I don't regret going to journalism school at all - I had a great time there and it was the perfect fit for me. The school I went to had sequences for different types - broadcast, online, radio/tv, PR/advertising and print. This way, print majors didn't have to sit through classes on video editing and advertising majors didn't have to sit through classes on investigative reporting.

I don't think it would be absolutely positively essential to go to journalism school. BUT - it's becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to get jobs these days, and if you're just starting out, it doesn't hurt to have a strong portfolio (which working for the school paper/radio station/tv station can help) and a good educational background in your field. I would at least consider a journalism minor if you choose another route.
posted by kerning at 9:40 AM on August 30, 2010

Best answer: I've watched a few friends consider and/or attend journalism school and something I've noticed is that some of them start to think that a single program will give them the opportunities they need to become successful journalists--basically, that a single program will "make" them employable journalists. I think this is a dangerous way to think about this career. The successful journalists I know took full advantage of pretty much every single opportunity afforded by their undergrad or graduate journalism program (if they attended one) but also sought out as many other opportunities as they possibly could. I'm thinking, particularly, of a friend who graduated with a journalism undergrad degree but also worked doggedly on her college paper, tracked down every journalist who would give her an informational interview, took every opportunity/internship she could find, etc. She's had success finding the types of jobs she wanted.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:00 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do NOT go to journalism school. Complete waste of time. An academic approach to journalism is by definition behind the curve. Journalism at the university level reflects, it does not lead. Recognize the difference.

Moreover, J-school is a backward way of tackling the issue. If you want to write about, say, widgets, go get a widget degree, but start writing about widgets right now. You have access to a blog. Start writing. Tell me about widgets in your house, your life, your town.

(P.S. Suggestions for colleges with good journalism departments would be appreciated)

Really, seriously? Don't go. But if you MUST ... Columbia, Northwestern and Missouri. Those are the only ones this ex-journalist would consider. There are no "second place" schools in this debate.

And even then ... Jesus, I know Northwestern grads working in some shithole papers with a career that was dead on arrival...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:12 AM on August 30, 2010

Don't go to j-school, especially for undergrad. Nthing everyone who says that an academic approach to journalism does not make a good journalist. Maybe you could consider grad school for journalism, but places like Columbia will run you around $60k a year.

If you're really interested in doing radio or something like that, go to undergrad for something broader that will give you more options, but do a semester at the Salt Institute or something like that.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:18 AM on August 30, 2010

Best answer: Ive been a journalist for 22 years, and I teach a college journalism class (at a university without a journalism department - it's an English Dept. elective). In my position, I've gotten this question dozens of times, and I've gotten to follow the career arc of students who had to decide what to do.

My advice: major in something else, giving you a concentration in a specific area or areas that you really want to sink your teeth into. Minor in journalism, or take a few class to get the basics, as long as those classes include a thorough grounding in the digital forms as well.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I lost touch with most of the students who left my school in favor of one that had a four-year journalism program. But for what it's worth, the ones who left that I still talk to are, almost to a person, non-journalism-employed.

Lots of would-be journalists who took my class aren't journalists either. The U.S. market is shrinking, as you know.

The students who passed through my class and are working journalists today are the smart young adults who had usable knowledge plus the ability to produce accurate, compelling reports in words, pictures and digital video packages. From my perspective, getting smart about how the world works was the harder part.

Learning how to ask good questions and produce effective reports for public consumption flowed from that. Given the right foundation, reporting skills can be learned relatively quickly. The best way I have seen is a few journalism classes, plus enough repetition in producing stories to make the process more routine.

Most successful students I have known found that repetition by doing internships, working for college press or starting their own digital media effort. Good luck.
posted by Andrew Galarneau at 10:34 AM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Plus remember to read for typos. I've. Sheesh.
posted by Andrew Galarneau at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2010

Don't major in journalism. Major in something you enjoy as a topic, and work on the college paper/radio station/TV station/web station/whatever, including the scuttiest of scut work -- know how it all works from the ground up, build your skills, and build your clips. My friends in journalism, several of whom have fairly prestigious jobs, several with major national papers or TV stations, did NOT major in journalism. My school didn't even offer a journalism major. They worked on the student daily (which had no faculty supervision, so it was entirely student-produced, which I think helps with the clips to an extent when it's a high-quality paper, because it can't be the work of a professional faculty member) or student radio, got great clips, and got interviews and jobs that way.

Some went to get a masters in journalism (most at Northwestern) a few years later; some went to get a masters in public policy somewhere if they did a lot of government reporting. But for everyone I know in media, J-school came later, if at all.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:42 AM on August 30, 2010

As a j-school graduate who has not been successful in the field, I don't recommend going either. It almost comes across as a cop-out degree nowadays. (When people ask me what I got my degree in and I tell them, their looks are all the same. Cocked eyebrow, if there are glasses involved they're peering at me over the tops of them, like "Come on. Really?")

My suggestion is to take classes either at a university or a local college that deal specifically with photography, or find a broadcasting school (in Detroit we have Specs Howard School of Media Arts) and specialize in something.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket, especially so early. Give yourself some time to pick the right major/program/classes.

(FWIW I loved Michigan State's J-School.)
posted by slyboots421 at 10:47 AM on August 30, 2010

The most worthwhile portion of my j-school experience was working on the newspaper, which published M-F and was run by a team of paid editors and journalism students who were required to take two quarters working on it. The only other classes I really got anything out of were copyediting and libel law.

My advice would be to find a school with a good all-around education, and get involved with the student-run media. If you're interested in radio, you'll be better off logging as many hours at the station than you would be in a journalism program. However, if that's your interest, Columbia College here in Chicago (as opposed to Columbia University in NYC) seems to have a strong radio program. Ohio University is known for broadcast journalism and photojournalism, and Northwestern, Missouri and Columbia are tops for print.
posted by me3dia at 10:53 AM on August 30, 2010

No. Unless you can afford to pay for it outright.

Begin interning at radio stations and the like when you can. Start barging in and getting experience now.

People will be charmed by your youth; abuse it while you can.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:07 AM on August 30, 2010

Best answer: If you plan to go to college, you might as well major in something you enjoy. I don't know that I'd advise to completely structure your entire education around journalism, but if the schools you're applying to have a journalism program (or Mass Communications, or the like), you might as well major in that as anything else.

I have friends all over the spectrum on this - people who majored in journalism and now do something else, people who didn't major in journalism who are journalists, people who did/did not major in journalism who did journalism for a while and now don't, etc etc etc.

Basically, studying journalism is a total crapshoot that may or may not actually mean anything for your future career. Though I'd say the same for almost any undergraduate major except maybe for engineering, education, or nursing. If even those.
posted by Sara C. at 2:27 PM on August 30, 2010

Best answer: The most important part about working in documentary is to know how to run the equipment (seriously--there's plenty of people who don't know how to use the camera, but want to make movies.) If you decide on college, make sure you get practical, hands-on experience with all the tools--Protools, FCP, Avid, etc. A major in Broadcast is more useful than a general degree in journalism. Or a major in documentary film.

There are not very many jobs in these fields. Most people have side work.

So, why not start looking for an internship or a volunteer gig where you can actually work with people who do this stuff?

A doc. with still photos is called a slide show. They're good to know how to do, but you're not going to make a living building them.

Don't start with total strangers. Make a doc. about your family or your best friend or the neighbor's pets. Get a Flip camera and a computer editing progam and go nuts. Make lots of shorts, put them on YouTube and see what happens.

Or send them to Current.

Join the IDA. Watch lots of well made documentaries and see what makes them tick.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:18 PM on August 30, 2010

Nthing no, do a degree in a subject like history, anthropology, sociology, political science, hell even science science.

The important thing to remember, if you do go to J-school - and I think you've kind of realised this - is that a journalism degree (or any humanities degree really, but esp journalism) will not get you a journalism job. It's not like an engineer's degree where you finish and - pow! - you're an engineer. There will be thousands - tens of thousands - like you graduating from J degrees when you graduate. The thing that will set you apart from them is what you do outside your degree. Never forget this. I.e. Working on college radio is fine, but lots of graduates have worked on college radio. Fewer have worked on public radio. Fewer still have parlayed that into working in commercial radio. Be smart, be driven, and remember that what happens outside university is just as important to your future as what happens within.

Also - and I really wish to fuck someone had told this to me when I was your age. Don't assume that to be happy, you do what you love all day, every day, for a living. Having security and the means to pursue what you love can be just as satisfying.

I have written about this on Askme before.
posted by smoke at 4:50 PM on August 30, 2010

If you want to be a journalist, major in whatever you want and get internships in the field. Or get your BA in whatever you want, work after, and if you still want to go to j school, get your MA in journalism. And if you do decide on j school, don't bother unless it's Columbia, Missouri, or Northwestern.
posted by kat518 at 7:23 PM on August 30, 2010

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