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Journalism is Thinkology. Now How Do You Teach That?
By Les Gura

The great journalism education debate of 2002 is joined, and, appropriately in this day and age, is being gnawed over by all manner of academics, writers and general kibbitzers on Web sites throughout the internet. What should journalism schools be teaching? What should people who intend to enter the field know? More importantly, just who should be the dean of Columbia University's venerable Graduate School of Journalism?

Do we care? Does it matter? What's the lede, here, folks?

When I was 22, in my first weeks as a reporter at the Fontana Herald-News, a small daily newspaper in Southern California, I had to cover the death of a worker at the Kaiser Steel plant. The man had fallen to his death from a platform 60 feet above ground. As I read the report of the incident in front of sheriff's detectives handling the case, I got the bright idea to inquire as to the actual cause of death. I was thinking perhaps the man had had a heart attack on his way down. I'd heard about that sort of thing somewhere.

"So did he die from the fall?'' I asked the detective sergeant.

"No,'' the sarge replied, in perfect deadpan as I started to open my notebook. "From the sudden stop.''

"I sure did need Columbia. I needed it to open my eyes to the real possibilities of what the profession of journalism is and can be."

Nothing I had encountered in four years of journalism at NYU, including a year as editor of the campus paper, the Washington Square News, could have prepared me for that moment. Nor taught me as much. Red-faced, I laughed right along with the detectives that morning. They got me. It was a life lesson.

So much of what we do as reporters and writers is shaped by our wits. What was it that the Wizard of Oz awarded to the Scarecrow? A degree in "thinkology.'' That's what the best of us do well in our profession. Think.

But it's a strange profession, because anyone can do it with a certain amount of learning. The form of journalism, the craft of it, even the fine points and clever tricks-of-the-trade, can be taught to varying degrees. The guts of the profession, though, is putting it all together. It's weaving a story that is fair and well-written, demonstrating the reporter's knowledge of subject matter and confidence to decide what the story is. That's impossible to teach.

My second stop in the world of higher education was Columbia, where I obtained my master's degree in journalism in 1987.

"Did you need it?"

I've probably encountered that question more than any other when asked about Columbia over the years. The logical answer is "no,'' I didn't need it. I have always had enough talent and ability, the force that had made me pursue writing since a young age, that led me through undergraduate college and two real-world jobs. The smart answer is "yes,'' I sure did need Columbia. I needed it to open my eyes to the real possibilities of what the profession of journalism is and can be. I needed it to recharge. I needed it to know what it would be like to have whopping loans hanging over my head.

OK, maybe I didn't need it for that.


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