Friday, August 01, 2003

Aggie journalism

As an A&M journalism graduate, I'm saddened by the news that my alma mater is planning to shutter the journalism program as a way to avoid budget cuts elsewhere. I'm still hopeful, however, that the decision could be rescinded before they actually close the doors in a few years.

Since the announcement, there have been a lot of denigrating comments going around the Web about the quality of the A&M journalism program, as if that is the reason it is being shut down. I graduated in 1989 and don't have a clue about how the program is doing since I left. But like most things, the real issue is $$$.
For anyone familiar with academic institutions, the news that the department has had a lot of turnover amongst its faculty and staff recently makes it clear why it has become a target for closure. What that probably means is there are not that many tenured professors currently in the department compared to the other programs and it is therefore easier for the administration to shut it down.

But back to the denigrating comments. This one in particular from the normally level-headed folks at TAPPED (the blog for The American Prospect magazine) has got my dander up.

"When it comes to undergraduate journalism programs -- and most other pre-professional undergraduate programs -- Tapped says: Scrap away. We can't think of a bigger waste of four years of college than to study journalism there. Journalism isn't an academic subject; it's a trade, one that almost anyone with the basic skill set -- clear writing and aggressive reporting -- can pick up in six months at a small metro daily. Really good journalism isn't easy, of course, but you don't get to be a good journalist by studying "journalism" in college. Better to study economics, or history, or English literature, or philosophy, or one of the other liberal arts."

So journalism is just a trade, a blue-collar endeavor, anyone can do it, no skills needed, six-months of on-the-job training and you're on par with a four-year college grad, etc., etc., yadda-yadda-yadda.

I've heard all of this before. And fine. I've known lots of excellent journalists who got English degrees or history degrees in college. I don't have a problem with that. But I also know from experience that journalism can be a tough profession, especially when you are just starting out, and most papers - especially the smaller dailies - have notoriously high turnaround rates. If I were an editor looking to hire a new young reporter, I would be more inclined to hire a journalism graduate rather than some other liberal arts degree simply because I would feel that this person is more devoted to the profession and would be more likely to stick around over the long-term.

As for the value of a journalism degree, it is essentially a Liberal Arts degree. You learn basic reporting and interviewing skills, you study media law and libel suits. You get some basic experience before going out into the workforce. Of course, you don't need a journalism degree to be a reporter - but a waste of time? Sorry, but I disagree.

Using the same logic employed by Tapped, I suppose we should shut down all of the business schools in the nation since you obviously don't need a business degree in order to become a successful businessman. But there is the chance that you could be a better businessman than you would have been otherwise by obtaining the degree, and the same is true of journalism.

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