Does the value of a journalism degree match its price?

by Margaret Looney
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

When the state of journalism can change faster than it takes to earn a degree in it, spending money for tuition can feel like a risky proposition.

Journalism schools are trying to prepare promising students for a career that may not exist in the same shape or form in which it was taught.

Columbia University’s Graduate School for Journalism received criticism for its choice of a new dean. In a USA Today opinion piece, Michael Wolff said the Ivy League university's program flunked the "relevancy test” by choosing old-school journalist Steve Coll to replace Nicholas Lemann. Wolff considered the choice of Coll represented a missed opportunity to show the school’s openness to change.

Twitter newbie Coll hails from a traditional background in news, working for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, “two organizations that were once powerful voices but are now substantially less so,” Wolff writes.

Despite the master's program's jaw-dropping $58,000 annual tuition, many young journalists continue to apply because they can’t find a job in the field. This is a hefty sum to pay when many institutions can't guarantee their curriculum will adequately prepare them for the shifting media landscape.

“The disgrace is not just that the school takes students' or their parents' money to train them for a livelihood that it reasonably can predict will not exist. But it is also an intellectual failure,” Wolff writes. “The information marketplace is going through a historic transformation, involving form, distribution, business basis and cognitive effect, and yet Columbia has just hired a practitioner to lead it with little or no career experience in any of these epochal changes.”

Perhaps a more fluid curriculum with a digitally savvy faculty will make schools more adaptable to these disruptive trends, especially if schools stay flexible enough to rethink a syllabus as new storytelling tools and techniques arise.

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has been a staunch advocate for journalism education that keeps pace with the rapidly evolving field. He's asked how high schools' goals should aim and whether they’re changing quickly enough. (Disclosure: Knight Foundation provides funding to IJNet.)

Observing that only a few schools are undergoing these “transformational trends,” he now wonders if they’re even listening.

Not all journalism programs are resisting change, though. Some are equipping students with the know-how to create not just a great story, but also a business, through entrepreneurial journalism courses.

On his blog, James Breiner, director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in China, points out a number of programs teaching students how to build their own news outlets when they can’t find an existing one to write for.

For instance, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University requires students to create new publications from scratch, considering the content, audience and business model. The City University of New York strives to be “an incubator of new media projects,” equipping digital journalists with the tools to develop a capstone business plan or new media prototype.

Journalism is changing fast, and though it’s difficult for academic institutions to change at the same rapid pace, they no longer have a choice.

With the industry in so much flux, do you think it's worth it to get a journalism degree?

_Image CC-licensed via SalFalko._

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney covers the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.