I learned a lot in j-school — really

Authored by John Hood

I knew by my teens what I wanted to be when I grew up: a journalist. But I had no intention of going to journalism school. That happened by accident — a fortuitous one, as it turned out.

That’s right: I’m not just a graduate of a journalism school. I’m a proud graduate of what is now called the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While there, I acquired a set of skills, knowledge, and relationships that served me well over a varied career spent in newsrooms, green rooms, and boardrooms.

Does formal instruction in journalism belong on a university campus? You’ll find no shortage of media professionals who denigrate its value. “Whenever I hear someone went to journalism school I immediately assume they are inferior in one way or another,” said Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach. “Journalism schools are good to get a job,” the legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote, “but I don’t know what else they are good for.”

Such skepticism is nothing new. When newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer first offered Columbia University $2 million in 1892 to found the world’s first journalism school, Columbia said no. A decade later, when the university reconsidered its rejection of the gift, other journalists criticized the project. Horace White, former editor of The Chicago Tribune and the New York Post, predicted in 1904 that the new school would be a colossal waste of Pulitzer’s money. “Every experienced journalist will agree that a nose for the news cannot be cultivated at college,” White wrote in The North American Review, for “that is something which can be trained only in a newspaper office.”

Pulitzer responded to White in the next issue of the Review. While recognizing the importance of both natural aptitude and on-the-job training, he argued that former education, delivered primarily by experienced journalists themselves, would help keep that proverbial “nose for the news” from getting permanently out of joint. “One of the chief difficulties of journalism now,” Pulitzer wrote, “is to keep news instinct from running rampant over restraints of accuracy and conscience.”

The Broadway and 116th Street Main Gate outside the Columbia Journalism School

My own experience at UNC served me well. When I arrived on campus in 1984, I had a vague notion I might major in the performing arts, just for fun. Once I learned how little such jobs paid, however, I opted to pursue a public-policy degree. As it happened, however, I was assigned a career counselor who had close ties to the journalism school. He showed me its course offerings, which hooked me, while wisely not showing me the starting salaries of newspaper reporters, which may have made me jerk hard enough to slip the hook.

As it turned out, I never had a tougher English teacher than my news writing professor Phil Meyer, a former Washington correspondent and USA Today columnist who pioneered computer-assisted reporting and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1967 Detroit riot. I never had a more generous mentor than Donald Shaw, a profound scholar whose 1972 paper “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media” is one of the most-cited works in communications research. And I never had a more discerning editor than longtime UNC professor Jim Shumaker, the crusty inspiration for the long-running comic strip “Shoe.”

Most of my journalism classes featured hands-on training, not abstract theory. I learned to report aggressively, write quickly, edit carefully, and opine persuasively. From experienced hands, I learned how to ask penetrating questions, see complicated stories from multiple points of view, and get sources to tell me things they probably shouldn’t have.

Over the nearly four decades since I entered journalism school, I’ve had occasion to use these skills many times — and not just during my first few years reporting on small-town mayors, school superintendents, state legislators, and members of Congress.

When I started appearing regularly on radio and television, I imagined myself back in my editorial-writing class penning a piece that advanced a position diametrically opposed to my own (a common classroom assignment). Then I’d pick apart the piece I just wrote — an excellent way to prep for a show! When I helped found a think tank and built out a policy-research team, I applied what I learned from Professor Meyer about the effective use of statistics. When I founded a magazine and news service, I applied what I learned from Professor Shaw about agenda-setting and reader behavior. Much later, when I became president of a charitable foundation and began serving on numerous nonprofit boards, I approached my governance responsibilities as if I were a reporter covering a new beat. I did lots of background research, asked lots of questions, and rarely took the answers I got at face value.

Did much of the value of my journalism degree derive from the relationships I formed and the contacts I made while pursuing it? Of course! Still, that hardly distinguishes journalism schools from other professional schools.

By no means do I think only j-school graduates should staff news outlets or populate the ranks of advertising, marketing, public relations, and other media companies. Formal training in these fields is neither necessary nor sufficient to succeed in them. And as my own career demonstrates, studying journalism and media can prepare you for a much broader range of occupations and leadership roles.

In his 1904 defense of what would become the Columbia Journalism School, Joseph Pulitzer wrote that “to think rightly, to think instantly, to think incessantly, to think intensely, to seize opportunities when others let them go by — this is the secret success in journalism. To teach this is twenty times more important than to teach Latin and Greek.”

I generally agree with this sentiment, though not with his proposed ratio. While at UNC, I did major in journalism. But I also took four semesters of ancient Greek — you know, just to be safe.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folkcombine epic fantasy with early American history.

Authored by:John Hood


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