The Periodical Observer
Press & Media
Is J-School a Joke?
"Can J-School Be Saved?" by Jack Shafer, in Slate (Oct. 7, 2002), www.slate.msn.com; "Some Ruminations on Journalism Schools as Columbia Turns" by Orville Schell, and "Getting Journalism Education Out of the Way" by Betty Medsger, in Zoned for Debate (Sept. 16, 2002), www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/journal/forum.
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 columnist who is a former editor of the weekly 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 Jschool 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.
The Jungle of Journalism
"Upton Sinclair and the Contradictions of Capitalist Journalism" by Robert W. McChesney and Ben Scott, in Monthly Review (May 2002), 122 W. 27th St., New York, N.Y. 10001.
Just as his novel The Jungle (1906) led to reform in the meatpacking industry, so Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check (1919), a searing critique of the commercial press, helped bring about the rise of journalistic professionalism and "objectivity." Sinclair, however, was not impressed, and he was right not to be, argue McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Scott, a graduate student at the university.
"American journalism is a class institution serving the rich and spurning the poor," Sinclair declared. Newspaper publishing, once crowded with highly partisan dailies of diverse viewpoints, had become, by the turn of the 20th century, a big business, and much less competitive. Sinclair saw most journalists as little better than prostitutes, the authors write, and he "believed that, ultimately, those
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who own, and hire, and fire, and set budgets determine the values of the medium."
For observers less radical than Sinclair, the rise of professionalism and the construction of a "Chinese wall" separating a newspaper’s editorial and business sides came to be seen as solutions. The authors acknowledge that professionalism "has provided a measure of autonomy for journalists from commercial pressures, and it has placed a premium upon factual accuracy." But Sinclair’s skepticism about "professional journalism’s basic claims of fairness and social neutrality" has been justified by subsequent developments. "In professional journalism," the authors argue, "business is assumed to be the natural steward of society, while labor is seen as a less benevolent force and left politics generally are held in suspicion."
Deregulation of broadcasting and "lax enforcement" of antitrust laws, the authors say, have put "the U.S. media system in the hands of a small number of colossal conglomerates." They pay high prices for media properties and demand high returns. "The logical result has been a reduction in resources for journalism, a decline in costly and controversial investigative reporting, and a softening up of journalistic standards." Business journalism flourishes, while labor coverage has nearly vanished. And media owners have increasingly breached the "Chinese wall." One prominent journalist, quitting his job as editor of The Chicago Tribune, said the "corporate takeover" of the news had killed journalism. He is not alone in that view. The situation today, conclude the authors, is "not entirely unlike the one found by Sinclair and his compatriots 80plus years ago."
The Maxim Way
"Does Size Matter?" by Michael Scherer and "The Curse of Tom Wolfe" by Michael Shapiro, in Columbia Journalism Review (Nov.–Dec. 2002), 200 Alton Pl., Marion, Ohio 43302.
In our breakneck jet-set age, long-form magazine articles have shrunk so much that in some places they’ve poof! disappeared entirely, leaving only contrails of photos, captions, and ads. What remains is the Maxim model, bitesized advice pieces, space-devouring illustrations, and grab ‘n’ go anecdotes, perfect for the "chronically over-stimulated." The day of the high-impact narrative that gets people thinking and talking—and maybe even changes the world—is done.
Slow down a minute, writes Scherer, an assistant editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Lengthy, elaborate pieces are flourishing. Even Maxim, the successful sex ‘n’ sports "lad mag" whose editor sneers at such behemoths, regularly runs 4,000- to 5,000-word pieces.
The conventional wisdom has it that serious magazine journalism is a victim of time-pressured readers, especially young readers who have their eyes glued to the TV. That’s not all wrong. Surveys show, for example, that younger readers spend about 29 minutes reading each issue of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, down from 43 a dozen years ago. Yet researchers at the University of Maryland report that Americans actually have more free time than ever before, and that younger folk—single, childless, and often still in school—have tons of leisure time. Reading remains as popular as ever. And while magazine sales have been flat for 10 years, the number of magazines has jumped 40 percent.
Therein lies a clue to what really ails the long magazine article, Scherer believes: People have far more choices than ever before, not only in magazines but in all media. In some ways, this has fostered illusions about the decline of serious writing. Long articles often do look shorter and sweeter now, but often only because they’ve been fitted with pullquotes, graphs, and other "access points" by editors desperate to claim readers’ attention. New niche-market magazines such as the shopping-obsessed, paragraph-phobic Lucky have been born, but there’s no evidence that they’ve stolen readers from what former New Yorker editor Tina Brown once quaintly called "text-based" magazines.
Shapiro, an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University, doesn’t think long articles are a dead form, either. They’re just not much fun to read, he says. Most now follow the same rubric: "anecdote; set-up graph;
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