In defence of journalism schools

Originally published in Media Magazine, Winter 2003.

Journalism schools have always been viewed with skepticism in a craft where being a skeptic is a basic job requirement

And it’s easy to write them off. After all, a good liberal education rounded off with a dose of life experience is a pretty good way to get started, and much of what we do can be learned on the job

But the schools have an important role nonetheless, especially today when the practice of journalism is more challenging and complicated than ever. For sure I have a built-in bias, in that I graduated with a BJ from Carleton and teach part time at Ryerson. But my reasons go much deeper than mere pride or self interest

When journalism schools are doing their job well, they form a backbone of professional formation we would be foolish to give up

Take the subject I write about here: computer-assisted reporting. You can certainly learn the mechanics of using database and spreadsheet programs at a business college, but those technical skills won’t teach you how to use them to unearth stories

The way journalists use these tools is unlike the way anyone else uses them

Only a journalism school can teach those methods because why would anyone else bother? And without the complementary interviewing, writing and reporting skills, the ability to use CAR isn’t much use

The same goes for other specialized skills such as pursuing investigations or photojournalism. A J school is the only place that can bring it all together

Another reason to have journalism schools is to gather in one place talented professionals who have worked in the field, as well as academics who have undertaken the professional study of journalism

When paired with the use of sessional lecturers drawn from newsrooms, a rich and challenging intellectual environment is created that can only serve to advance our craft and give the students a real head start as they begin their careers

Many students find mentors among the journalism faculties, people they go back to again and again long after they have graduated.Not insignificantly, the schools also bring like-minded people together. I don’t need to tell you that journalism is unlike just about any other line of work.We don’t play by the same rules as the rest of society. Instead of conformity, we treasure individuality. Rather than aiming to please authority, we challenge it

And we live by constant deadlines. The journalism school is the perfect place to simulate that environment while instilling our shared values

Finally, having journalism schools makes a statement that what we do matters and we care enough about it to nurture it for the next generation

Students today have more choices than they have ever had, from the broadly academic environment at Carleton, to the practical orientation at Ryerson, to the skill-focused programs at many community colleges. Tens of thousands of students and graduates can’t be so horribly wrong

Which isn’t to say J-schools shouldn’t be working to keep up with the constantly-changing business and regularly renewing their faculties. For while the schools are indispensable when they are good, they also have the potential to be very bad when they slide into formulas, complacency or mediocrity

And while the schools will continue to graduate talented journalists, many others will come to our business by other means. Which is fine, because in the end what makes journalism strong is its diversity, not some ideological commitment to journalism schools

I am proud to say that I have a BJ from Carleton, and am honoured to have studied under the likes of the late and great Phyllis Wilson, who taught us to love writing, especially when we spelled names correctly; the late Wilfrid Kesterton, who fostered my lifelong fascination with media law; and the very much alive and kicking Peter Johansen, who had everything to teach about common decency and taking the time to get it right

These people helped me get started in the best job there is, bar none, and I can only thank them for it