Almost 25 years ago, when I emerged from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University with a shiny new journalism degree, there was a debate in the business about whether a reporter needed such an education to succeed. Some things never change.
My first job was at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. After a couple of stops in California and Syracuse again, I’ve been at Newsday on Long Island for the past 18 years. In addition to many co-workers educated at various journalism schools, I’ve also worked with math majors, English majors, law school grads and a few with no college education at all. It’s been clear to me that you can be a terrific reporter or editor without a journalism education.
That said, I wouldn’t trade my education at all.
I went to a journalism school because even before I got into high school, I knew I wanted to be a reporter – and nothing else. I was going to do anything I could do to make that happen at a high level as quickly as possible. I didn’t consider applying to any university without a respected journalism school.
Like those without journalism educations, many of the most important things I’ve learned I picked up on the job. There is no substitute for just doing it. However, a good journalism school makes you do actual journalism. In my sophomore year, I covered a presidential primary and got my work published. By the end of my junior year, I was working more than 20 hours a week at the Post-Standard in Syracuse. That grew out of an internship I got through the Newhouse school. Without the experience and clips from that part-time job, there is no way I would have started my career at the Times-Picayune.
Besides practicing journalism, the main advantage students have is they learn why they’re making the choices they make and examine what they do before, during and after they do it. They routinely get the kind of guidance they might get from an excellent editor, if she or he had time on a particular day to talk about the craft. You lear
n the trade faster in a j-school.
When I walked into the newsroom in New Orleans, I knew how to write a lead. I knew how to mine the clips and fully report a story. I knew how to make use of public records. I knew how to get people to talk to me. I knew how to observe details and use them. I knew how to function on deadline. Sure, I could have learned all those things on the job, and many people do. But I didn’t have to. I was already a reporter.
However, I didn’t learn everything. There’s no way for a journalism school to replicate covering a beat day in and day out. It’s difficult to teach how to develop sources. Those were things I had to figure out on my own.
J-school isn’t for everyone. My belief in the value of journalism school is probably best expressed by the fact that I teach at the one at Stony Brook University. I see there that students who are focused on being journalists get value from such an education and get a head start in the business, just as I did in the 1980s. But I also see that those who drift into the journalism school, unsure of what they want, get washed out quickly.
Those students would be even more unlikely to see the inside of a newsroom with a degree in anything else.
Just as you go to engineering school if you know you want to be an engineer and just as you go to medical school if you know you want to be a doctor, you go to journalism school if you know you want to be a reporter. If you’re not sure, a liberal arts education is perfect. Journalism school is for journalists.
Since graduating from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication in 1986, Andrew Smith has worked at several newspapers, including Newsday, for the last 18 years. He was part of the staff that won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting on the crash of TWA Flight 800, and he won a White House Correspondents Association prize for national reporting for his work on a series about nuclear waste. He also lectures at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism.