News holes are shrinking, staffs are being slashed (coupled with what some say is the worst hiring slump in 50 years), and Fox News is the country’s top-rated cable news channel—all of which give even the most obstinate optimist reason to grieve for the ailing profession. Yet journalism school has never been more popular. For those entering a profession that requires the weighing of all available facts before coming to a conclusion, choosing J-school for graduate education right now seems so, well, uninformed. (Of course, I enrolled at Columbia’s J-school in the summer of 2000, when the worry wasn’t whether we’d get a job, but whether we we’d be among those making upward of $50K right out of the door.) The desire to wait out the current economic troubles in the shade of the ivory tower is understandable, but J-school? Studying law’s gotta look good right now.
Moreover, there’s a sizable group of working journalists who view journalism school as unnecessary, and who believe the time spent at such places could be better spent paying dues at a small-town paper. But if nothing will deter you from what could be decades of debt and a year or so spent navel gazing, networking, and, OK, sometimes even learning, and you want to study in New York City, then you have two options: NYU or Columbia. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but as NYU journalism professor Pamela Newkirk says, “I don’t think it’s constructive to compare both schools, because they’re serving two different groups of students.” Nevertheless a comparison is needed, as they are the two most prominent and proximate media-capital trade schools.
Columbia’s J-school is widely recognized as the high church of the craft, home to the Pulitzer Prize, the duPont Award, the National Magazine Award, and other such accolades. Many of the profession’s best and best credentialed are alumni (as well as some of the evilest—Pat Buchanan, we renounce you), and that is perhaps the strongest argument for attending. Sure, what you know is important, and Columbia offers some great courses, but a lot of people know a lot about journalism, and so who you know is also important, and Columbia is very good for filling up your phone book.
Columbia’s curriculum has caused much hubbub lately, after the university’s outspoken new president, Lee Bollinger, last year suspended a dean search and assembled a roundtable of media luminaries to reassess “what a modern journalism school should look like.” They examined the current year-long curriculum (a core reporting course as well as a smattering of focused workshops and lectures) and nine months later suggested possible changes to Bollinger. He is expected to choose a new dean soon (The New Yorker‘s Nicholas Lemann is one of the names being bandied about), after which, according to acting dean David Klatell, the school will announce any changes to the current course requirements. At issue is whether the school’s relentless focus on the basics leaves enough room for theory.
Klatell confirms that one probable option is to create an experimental two-year program for a small number of students, with the extra year spent in intensive study of engineering, law, or economics. “It would be several years off even if it happened,” says Klatell, adding, as if to reassure worried faculty and alumni (and they are many and vocal) that change would come slowly and carefully.
NYU, on the other hand, has a journalism program for both undergrads and grads, and some view that as a detriment: “To have faculty who don’t spend half their time worried about college sophomores frees everyone up to be more demanding of themselves as well as of their students,” Klatell says. But NYU journalism faculty members view their school’s mission as placing journalism within a wider context, focusing more on history and theory. Chairman Jay Rosen says that his department’s main strengths lie in its specialized programs, like Cultural Reporting and Criticism, but he admits that NYU has been undergoing a constant reassessment of its curriculum for the last decade or so—another sign that J-school education doesn’t yet know what it wants to be when it grows up. Recent grad Matt Miller focused on the business specialization, racked up four internships at outlets like Newsday and Fortune while in school, and landed a job as an associate editor at U.S. Banker magazine in January. “In this economy, you have to basically take as many opportunities as you can and keep the clip portfolio growing,” he says.
And while NYU student Meline Toumani, who was accepted to both schools but chose NYU, says her choice was the right one, she cops to doubts about her decision to attend journalism school: “I think we all walk around thinking, ‘Was this the right investment?’ ” Or, to put it another way, just what is journalism school for?
Lee Bollinger and his council of journalism Jedis have spent the better part of a year trying to answer that question, and it seems they’re not much closer to an answer than they were when they started. But maybe just asking is important enough.