The prestigious graduate school of journalism at
Columbia University, the sainted press critic A. J. Liebling once wrote,
had “all the intellectual status of a training school for future
employees of the A&P.” Columbia president Lee Bollinger may not
have harbored so subversive a view last summer when he suspended the search
for a new dean and called for communal reflection on the school’s
purpose. But some have begun to think the unthinkable.
“The biggest losers in J-school abolition . . . would
be (in order) the janitors who maintain the physical plants, the faculties,
and the Annenbergs and Gannetts who’ve purchased naming rights to the
buildings,” maintains Shafer, a Slate
class="text59"> columnist who is a former editor of the weekly
class="text18">Washington City Paper and
never went to J-school himself.
A 1996 survey, he notes, found that only 10 percent of
newspaper editors and reporters had graduate degrees in journalism (though
54 percent held undergraduate degrees in journalism or communications).
“In the 17 years that I hired and fired,” Shafer says,
“none of the J-school graduates who worked for me did better work
than the many English majors I’ve employed.” Medsger, a
freelance writer, found in 1996 that 59 percent of the journalists who had
won a Pulitzer Prize in the preceding 10 years had never studied journalism
in college or graduate school.
The schools do serve a limited function, Shafer
concludes: They help would-be journalists who are clueless about how to
proceed and have $10,000 or so to spend explore their interest and land a
“substantial” journalism job. But he urges Bollinger to warn
prospective students that “you can get as good a journalism education
via an internship or by working a year on a small-town daily.”
For the most part, however, “media
outlets” no longer “mentor and cultivate young journalists in
the best traditions of the craft at the lower reaches of the professional
ladder,” argues Schell, the dean of the journalism school at the
University of California, Berkeley, who also enjoyed a successful career in
the field without benefit of a journalism degree. That function now belongs
to the journalism schools.
Schell agrees with Bollinger on the need to transcend
the trade school model. He argues that M.A. programs must last two years
instead of the usual one, and that the schools must “broaden their
curricula” to include history, culture,
science, and other subjects that a journalist—or any educated
person—ought to know about.