I first came to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis because of its reputation for having a good journalism school and a good swimming team. The people were friendly and it was located relatively close to home. I had been active in high-school journalism, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to study journalism in college.
The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were themselves a media draw. Few other cities in the country could boast of two major daily newspapers, a large alternative publishing community that included magazines such as the Utne Reader, the literary influence of Garrison Keillor and a plethora of public radio stations that could raise thousands of dollars in 15 minutes of a pledge drive.
This rich media market also had another benefit: Many of my instructors at the University of Minnesota were current or former journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners.
Because of the size of the university, the journalism program was able to offer specializations such as broadcast or written media, advertising or mass communications.
Courses included news-writing, magazine publishing, page lay-out, photo-editing, and classes that required us to read some of the great literary journalists of the past and present. Most importantly, there was a heavy emphasis on the quality of writing, a skill that is useful no matter the profession in which we ultimately ended up.
A news-writing course that included twice-weekly quizzes on the A.P. Style Book and Libel Manuel certainly paid off when I passed the A.P. test only three months after graduation. I had not heard about wire services in journalism school, but was instead introduced to the A.P. because the local bureau shared an office with my hometown newspaper (where I worked at the time), and I was invited by the bureau chief to take the test.
Working for the A.P. was a challenge and a great deal of fun. Because of the wider scope of its coverage, I was able to cover everything from the South Dakota Legislature and the landing of Air Force One du
ring a presidential visit to the heart-breaking stories of drought-ravaged communities, which had been overlooked by government officials.
Eventually, I decided to leave journalism and have since pursued a Ph.D. in medieval archaeology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
The change of discipline did not make my journalism skills any less relevant. Proper writing skills made writing my dissertation much faster for me and less painful for my supervisor, as she had to spend much less time editing my grammar and could concentrate on the content.
In addition, the research skills gained through years of working in journalism made finding sources and hunting down information much easier than for those with less experience. I have not abandoned journalism all together but plan to continue in some form in the future, perhaps by writing about archaeology or doing other freelance work. Writing skills are like riding a bike – they may need to be polished after a period of disuse, but the right training guarantees that these skills will stay with you forever.
Individuals serious about pursuing a career in journalism should study at a large university with a journalism program that will allow them to specialize in a particular interest area and to intern with a well-respected media outlet.
The generic English or mass communication degrees offered at smaller colleges, which may offer only one news-writing course among a variety of media classes, do not always give students the strict instruction in writing and production they will need if they hope to succeed in larger media markets.
Journalism can be incredibly fun and allow a person to see a side of society normally hidden from everyday life. For many it becomes a passion as much as a profession, and that is something no university can teach.
Elizabeth Pierce is a 2001 graduate of the University of Minnesota and worked for several years as a journalist. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. in medieval archaeology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.