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Some Ruminations on Journalism Schools As Columbia Turns
By Orville Schell

Given the controversy that has been generated by Columbia's postponed search for a new dean and as the counterpart at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, I thought it would be helpful for myself, and possibly instructive for others as well, if I tried to think through and set down some thoughts about why those of us who are at other schools are doing what we are doing.

Never having attended journalism school, the notion of "journalism education" was one that I came to me relatively late in life. My own progress towards becoming a "man of the journalistic cloth" was a more circuitous one than getting a master's degree from a journalism school. I studied Far Eastern History as an undergraduate at Harvard, drifted out to Asia to learn Chinese where a solicitous editor at the Boston Globe miraculously offered me a sometimes column as "Our Man In Asia." Fortified with that assignment, I progressed on to cover the war in Indochina, and then ended up in a Ph.D program in Chinese history here at Berkeley. But the experience of actually writing journalism and being taken seriously for what I had to say in print left an indelible imprint and inoculated me with a deep interest in the immediacy of the craft. By the time I had finished my Ph.D orals, I knew I did not want to be an academic. Instead, I went back to Asia to write as a free-lancer.

Frankly speaking, I am not sure that at this point I was a very good writer, but at least I was doing it. It was not until I was invited to travel to China during the end of the Cultural Revolution and the editor of the New Yorker asked me if I would like to write for the magazine, that I truly began to come of age as a journalist. This was a fortuity that began a long and wonderful association with the magazine. Looking back on those years, I now understand that it was at this time that I really began to "learn" to write. It was a laborious and piecemeal process and was accomplished by working with the same brilliant editor, Sara Lippincott, for about ten years. In the various series I did with her for the magazine, we worked for literally thousands of hours, often doing scores of drafts, until whatever piece we were working on was "done."

Why am I recounting this? Because this was my "journalism education." Without even knowing that such things as journalism schools existed, I was, in fact, in one. These early experiences helped me enter into the profession and successfully work my way up the professional ladder.

So, one may logically ask, why is this experience not the perfect commercial against journalism school? Even more, one may be moved to ask: What is Schell now doing as dean of a journalism school? Is he not living proof that such schools are unnecessary?

Not really. Things have changed since my odyssey began in the late 1960s, and these changes have cast the whole media profession and young people's progress through it in a very different light. And, these changes have direct relevance to the argument over "journalism education" that has now been raised in the wake of President Bollinger's decision to halt Columbia's search for a new dean.

What has changed within our lifetimes is the ability of "media outlets" (as they have come to be known) to mentor and cultivate young journalists in the best traditions of the craft.

What has changed within our lifetimes is the ability of "media outlets" (as they have come to be known) to mentor and cultivate young journalists in the best traditions of the craft at the lower reaches of the professional ladder. It would be almost unthinkable these days for a paper like the Boston Globe to offer an occasional column to a young student roaming around the world. It is almost equally as unthinkable that editors at a prominent national magazine would take a young, and still very green, journalist and spend so much time with him or her, not only to get an article or long series ship-shape for publication, but in the process, to provide a kind of invaluable master/apprentice education in reporting and writing.

In many ways, this incredibly privileged experience that I was fortunate enough to enjoy animates a variety of things we are trying to do here at Berkeley. Toward this end, for example, we have set up a program called The Editing Workshop. It brings together five of the nation's very best newspaper, magazine and book editors to work with our students here at school for a whole semester. They hold no formal classes, but instead have one-on-one meetings, talk on the phone or e-mail each other the way a good editor would connect with a writer at a good magazine or publishing house. The final object is to get pieces published. It is a time-consuming and expensive proposition, but it has become very popular among print students. The cost notwithstanding, I don't know how else to teach what it is that we are trying to teach with this program.

What is now increasingly absent in the media, it seems to me, are commitments at the lower rungs on the ladder to not only move young journalists up-wards and onwards, but to help imbue them with good practices, high ethical standards, and a sense of doing dignified work. Particularly at some good news dailies there still are a handful of excellent paid internship programs. But largely gone is the copyboy-to-editor pathway… however mythological it may have actually been in practice. Few media outlets seem to have time to serve as seed-beds for the next generation. Indeed, I remember the editor of one of America's best dailies telling our students at Berkeley that his paper "cherry-picked five years out." In other words, he was not so concerned how young journalists were trained, but wanted to hire them once they did get trained. The paper itself did not have a real program for paid internships for young journalists, and showed little inclination to establish one. So, if one looks at the way successive generations of journalists pass along best practices to young aspirants, one would have to say that certain links in that chain now seem very tenuous.

The metaphor of a food chain is perhaps apt here, because the higher stages are utterly dependent on the lower stages. (For example, figuratively speaking, whales depend on krill, or phyto-plankton and everything in between.) One of the challenges of our current moment in media history is to promote the health of that chain. Nothing in, nothing out. If poor practices are absorbed at the bottom, poor practices will be evidenced at the higher reaches of the chain. And as the gale force winds of the market blow against media outlets and what gets covered (and how comprehensively it gets covered) becomes ever more dependent on the bottom line, we not only confront the prospect of missing links, but fewer and fewer jobs which dignify the name of "good journalism," no matter what level we are looking at.

Nothing in, nothing out. If poor practices are absorbed at the bottom, poor practices will be evidenced at the higher reaches of the chain.

But that is really another story. My concern here is to describe how and why I think a journalism school — if conceived properly and sustained by the requisite resources — justifies its existence. (After all, is not the question that President Bollinger and his 33 media commissioners are asking this one: What kind of a journalism school makes sense?)

It is my view that the kind of journalism school that does make sense is the kind that seeks to rebuild some of the missing links on the journalism food chain, whether they relate to print, photography, new media, radio and television or documentary film. Journalism schools can, I believe, fully justify their existences by striving to become workshop-like places where older and more seasoned journalists team up with younger journalists to do actual projects that get published, aired or exhibited. In this sense, schools might aspire to be almost medieval in their conception, in other words, to buddy small numbers of students up with faculty who are still active in the profession to take on projects of a local, national and foreign scope, which can then be injected into the "real" media. In this effort, the division between students and professors should be blurred as much as possible. A school should aspire to bring less experienced and more experienced journalists together in a collegiate fashion as might happen in a newsroom or magazine editorial office, only with a wider spread in experience and ability.


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