The great J-school debate, revisited

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What exactly is the value of a journalism degree? Are J-schools really preparing students for the media jobs of the future? The questions aren’t new, but they’ve come up again in connection with the selection of a new dean for Columbia’s prestigious graduate school of journalism.

If you haven’t read it, Michael Wolff’s take in USA Today is about as blunt as it gets. He chastises the school for hiring Steve Coll as dean, calling him “another New Yorker writer, one who…has never tweeted in his life.” As Wolff sees it, Columbia is utterly out of touch with today’s news business and its needs.

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: 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.

Not entirely true, writes David Carr in the New York Times, who gives Columbia credit for “aggressive moves into new forms of journalistic expression.”  But he too slams journalism education in general as a con game. “Having seen many journalism programs up close, I can say that most are escalators to nowhere,” Carr says.

Harsh, right? But not the whole story. Just ask the recruiters who show up every year at Columbia’s J-school and others looking for new hires. According to Crain’s NY Business digital skills gained from reputable schools may be the edge that journalists need to compete in a shrinking job market.”

So maybe the J-schools are doing something right. If so, why would Columbia’s new dean say he’s thinking about adding a year to the school’s one-year master’s program? The school currently has a second year program focused on specific topics, but it’s optional. The core MS program at Columbia costs close to $85,000, as it is, including tuition, fees and living expenses. Even if you accept that the one-year program is worth that kind of money, I have to wonder what would make a two-year masters worth twice as much. Weigh in, please.


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