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Aug. 2, 2018, 10:40 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Should you major in journalism? Here are stories from eight working journalists who didn’t

“If you decide that maybe journalism school isn’t a great fit for you, then take every opportunity to build up the skills that you will need in journalism outside of your curriculum.”

The first time Emily Kask, 24, tried journalism school, it didn’t work out. She’d never thrived in an academic environment, and she felt a complete lack of support from school administrators and mentors. Kask then transferred to Western Kentucky University, which had a strong multimedia program where she could work on her photography. There, she spent so much time reporting and working on projects that grades in academic classes started to suffer. By chance, she found a hippie commune in Tennessee. After winning a small grant to cover that lifestyle — and live it — she left school for a semester to hop trains. At semester’s end, she had sold her first byline to The New York Times, and returned to class, where she was absolutely miserable.

“It got to the point where I just wouldn’t go to class,” she told me on the phone, while driving around rural Kentucky and Tennessee on assignment. “Instead, I would go and hop trains to Nashville.” After she was put on academic suspension, Kask decided not to return.

Two years later, though, she is still working. Today, she freelances out of New Orleans when she’s not on assignment somewhere in Appalachia. She’s earned a gold medal in the “interpretive eye” category in the College Photographer of the Year competition, and interned around the country for sports and news publications.

I had always assumed that a journalism major was a necessary part of a young journalist’s career. I’d heard it not just from professors, but employers and alumni. And clearly plenty of people are taking this advice: The number of new graduates with a degree in journalism or a related field (though the related fields are broad) is on the rise, according to the National Center for Education Statisticseven as many journalism jobs vanish.

Journalism school, since its inception at my alma mater the University of Missouri (which opened the country’s first journalism school in 1908), has long been a subject of debate. Is journalism a job that requires a four-year journalism degree to do? What about graduate degrees? (Nieman Lab asked our readers for their thoughts and experiences, which can be found here.)

The debate over attending j-school — whether that means getting an undergraduate degree in journalism or shelling out for a graduate degree — also touches on race and class, as Rachelle Hampton pointed out in a piece for Slate earlier this year. “A lot of successful working journalists did go to j-school — and not because they thought it meant they would be able to skip getting internships,” she wrote. “They went so they could get internships, because that’s what the state of journalism requires for people without the social connections to break into the industry — especially those who are low-income or of color.” Journalism school can provide connections and portfolio padding for young reporters looking for a way in.

I spoke with eight working journalists who didn’t major in journalism about the decisions they made — and asked what advice they had to offer to others.

Find the degree

“Somebody said to me while I was looking at colleges that I should really consider majoring in something I was interested in, and just keep writing on the side,” said Sammy Mack, 34, a public health reporter for WLRN in Miami. “That’s what I did. I went and studied public health, and I did internships on the side, and I took all the writing classes I could. My college didn’t even have a journalism program.” She graduated with her BA from Tulane University School of Health and Tropical Medicine in 2006

Mark Puente, 48, is an accountability reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. He majored in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 2005. Before that, he was a trucker.

Puente said that a degree outside of journalism improved his critical thinking and allowed him to learn more about the field he was interested in.

Students who are considering whether to major in journalism should ask themselves, “What else would I do? What else am I passionate about?” Mack suggested. “If you decide that maybe journalism school isn’t a great fit for you, then take every opportunity to build up the skills that you will need in journalism outside of your curriculum.”

Get the skills

Gwendolyn Wu, 21, graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara, in June. She earned a double major in sociology and history, and will start her first full-time reporting job next month at the San Francisco Chronicle. She says she didn’t feel as if a journalism major was missing from her resume. In cover letters, she pointed out her versatile skill set, which includes a lot of research and fact-checking. “A lot of hiring editors asked me about my research experience.”

She also has a background rich with resourcefulness. Wu was an editor at her college paper, which lacked a faculty advisor until she was a junior. That experience taught her a lot about leadership in the newsroom, including issues like retractions and handling sensitive campus issues. “When other people ask me how I did all those things, you know, without those resources you have in j-school…I don’t know,” she said. “I just did them.”

Kask also cited the student paper as an important part of her education. “It was the only good, solid experience I had.”

Angie Chuang, 44, is an associate professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. While she majored in English at Stanford, Chuang took only one journalism class, and didn’t like it. But as an undergrad, Chuang was very active in her student paper as the entertainment editor. Today, she advises students in j-school on a case-by-case basis. Those who might not need the major are students who already have a firm grasp of writing, she said, and a good sense “what makes a story, who are majoring in something that have skills translatable to practical newsroom experience.”

Multimedia skills are also important for today’s reporters to learn. “Some people can get those skills just by watching YouTube tutorials. Others need to be in a classroom to learn that,” Chuang said. Students who might especially benefit from j-school, Chuang continued, are those who are little more anxious about their ability to hustle and get clips.

Manufacture a community

Brittany King, 25, wanted to be a journalist for as long as she could remember, but being one of the only brown people in her journalism classes at the University of Missouri was tough. “I felt very unsupported as a woman of color…It just wasn’t a good fit,” she said. So she swapped to a mass communications major and graduated in 2015, and now freelances outside of working part-time for publications in Indianapolis.

King had to find things for herself that j-school students might take for granted. She had to find a mentor to work with her outside of the j-school, make connections within her program, and find people to write recommendation letters. Some of the elements that can grease wheels and jumpstart a career weren’t readily available to her.

Working more…

J-school is expensive. So is jumping into the industry from the outside. Wudan Yan is an independent journalist who quit her PhD program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in cancer biology research to pursue a career in journalism. “I would email the managing editors at magazines that I really admired, and see if they were looking for interns or a copy editing or fact-checking, or any of these basic things, just so I could get a seat at the table.” After being taken on and working for a while, she’d pitch stories.

Libby Solomon, 24, who has a BA in global studies from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, took only one feature-writing class in college. She got a job as an editorial assistant at a small paper — “copy-pasting events from an online calendar, correcting the glitches the computer made.” It wasn’t exactly what she wanted, but she knew she had to get her foot in the door somehow. Solomon got really good at editing commas out of the calendar, so she started writing features on the side, putting in extra hours to pitch and write stories.

“I got really lucky with an editor who saw I had potential and knew I wanted to write.” Once she had proven that she knew her way around a story, she was taken on as a reporter. But she also saw students who’d gone to j-school jumping straight in, and felt as if their careers were already months ahead of her own.

…for less.

Journalism jobs tend to be centered on the coasts, where the cost of living is high.

“You can’t live on an intern salary in New York City or San Francisco or Boston or DC,” Yan said. “I think it’s really crucial to have some kind of [other] support.” Yan made money by tutoring full-time and also had a partner to help with financial and emotional struggles. “Leaving a career, coming into a new one, trying to build up contacts and also a basis for freelance work… that’s really challenging.”

“I might have made some different choices if I really understood what my student debt was going to be,” Mack said. She stressed, “I also could not do this alone. I have family support. I have a partner who also works, not in journalism. There are things that I can do because of that network.”

“Having a supportive partner or spouse is completely necessary,” according to Puente. It was his wife who pushed the change from being a truck driver in the first place, and gave him the impetus to pursue his interests.

Not impossible

“Each person has to figure out what’s best for them, for their circumstances at the time, and the resources they have to make that decision,” Chuang said. “For some students, it’s just not the right time for j-school.” A few years working and figuring things out won’t hurt an application, she said. If the student can demonstrate those years were well-spent and that they gained insight into what they want their future to be, that will only benefit them.

It’s all specific to what kind of person the journalist is. “People should take the path that’s specific to who they are,” Kask said, “I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t take those wild risks. That’s what’s worked for me.”

Photo of empty classroom byNathan Dumlao from Unsplash.

POSTED     Aug. 2, 2018, 10:40 a.m.
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