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Oct. 20, 2021, 3:51 p.m.

It’s time to create an alternative path into a journalism career

American journalists look less and less like the country they cover — in terms of race, class, and background. We need to expand the pool of people who can enter the industry, and an idea from K-12 education might help.

I.

Some journalism debates will never die. “Are bloggers journalists?” “Is objectivity achievable, just a goal to strive toward, or dumb?” And the classic: “Journalism school: worthwhile investment or giant scam?”

It’s that last one that flared up a few weeks back with the publication of a story in The Wall Street Journal that noted, correctly, that journalism school costs a lot of money, but journalists don’t make a lot of money.

Many students leave even the most prestigious private graduate programs, such as those at Northwestern University, Columbia University and the University of Southern California, with earnings too low to let them make progress paying off their loans, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Education Department figures released this year.

At Northwestern, students who recently earned a master’s degree in journalism and took out federal loans borrowed a median $54,900 — more than three times as much as their undergraduate counterparts did. That is the biggest gap of any university with available data. Worse still, the master’s degree holders make less money. Early-career earnings for those with master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern are about $1,500 lower than for its undergraduate students, data show.

(That clinches it, people: Your latest wild get-rich-quick scheme — getting a graduate degree in journalism from a private university — probably isn’t going to work.)

Tuition for the one-year master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications increased by 17% in the past 10 years, adjusted for inflation, to $67,900 this school year, university records show. At the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, tuition for the 9½-month program rose by 26%, adjusted for inflation, to $70,300.

Including fees and living expenses, total costs for each program top $100,000…

Graduate students at private journalism schools borrow heavily to attend the programs. At USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, master’s graduates from 2015 and 2016, the latest cohorts for which both loan balances and earnings are available, had median debt of $67,700. The median loan burden was $56,700 at Columbia.

It would be hard to describe these numbers as surprising, and many of the reactions to them were also standard fare. There were The Successful Journalists Who Didn’t Go To Journalism School And Think It’s Insane. The Successful Journalists Who Went to J-School But Back When Prices Were Reasonable. The J-School Grads Who Hate The Price But Felt They Had To Go Nonetheless. The Young Journalists Who Still Worry It’s Essential For A Good Career. And, of course, there were…The Mizzou Grads.

There are good points to be made on all sides here. Journalism has a diversity problem. Actually, it has diversity problems, plural: racial diversity, class diversity, gender diversity, geographic diversity, and more.

And there are really only two major ways such problems can be addressed. You can change who gets to enter the profession, or you can change what happens to them once they’re already in it.

That second one is mostly the turf of bosses — editors, recruiters, executives, and the other people who determine how newsrooms work. But who gets to become a journalist? That’s a place where journalism education has a giant role to play — to serve either as an enabler or a barrier for those trying to enter the field.

And costing more than $100,000 is a pretty good sign that you’re a barrier.

Can that change? I think there might be a way to take an idea from K-12 education to help journalism open its doors a little bit wider.

II.

Let’s talk about how working journalists become working journalists.

As it stands now, there are four major paths to getting your first full-time job in the American news business. (I will acknowledge upfront that these are simplifications, that people’s real-world careers often take elements from several of them, and that some lucky unicorns will make it in the business without following any of them.)

Two of them are paths people typically choose before they can legally buy a beer:

  • The Journalism Undergrad Path. These are people who knew pretty early on that they were interested in journalism as a career, so they made it their major. They took a dozen or so journalism courses, taught by trained professionals, and eventually walked across a stage wearing a funny hat and clutching a diploma that said JOURNALISM.
  • The School Newspaper Path. These are people who have a bachelor’s degree, but in something other than journalism. Maybe it’s in something that’s at least a little journalism-adjacent, like history, economics, or English, or maybe it’s something totally random. But they did some journalism work as undergrads, usually at the student paper, often reaching a top job there. They got a little pro work experience at a summer internship or two, and they’re ready to apply for staff jobs at graduation.

It’s important to note that these two paths are often — not always, but often — taken by people from different class backgrounds. The nation’s elite private colleges generally don’t offer undergraduates a journalism major. Only two of the top 25 national universities in U.S. News’ rankings offer a journalism major. In the Ivy League, only Columbia has a j-school, and it’s for grad students only.

Meanwhile, you can get a journalism degree from just about any flagship state university, as well as a lot of other public colleges. While there are lots of rich kids who go to a state school — and at least some (not enough) poor and working-class kids who get a full-ride to an elite private school — there’s still often a significant class difference between the School Newspaper and Journalism Undergrad types.

Then there are two other paths available to people who didn’t focus their lives on journalism when they were of college age — either because they weren’t interested at the time or circumstances made it impossible:

  • The Freelance-Til-You-Make-It Path. While it can be hard to get a staff job at a news organization, just about anyone with talent and drive can figure out a way to sell somebody on a freelance pitch, once. Do a good job on that one and maybe you get to pitch another one. Then another one, to a different outlet. Repeat often enough — even while you’re working a day job in another field — and you’ve built up some relationships with editors and left behind you a line of excellent clips that can get you a full-time job.
  • The J-School Master’s Degree Path. You start a career outside journalism, but at some point, for some reason, you decide you want a change. You decide it’s important enough to you to step out of your normal life and spend a year or two focused on learning the craft of journalism. You enroll in a master’s degree program at a journalism school, pay what is usually a lot of money, and then enter the job market after graduation.

For the Journalism Undergrad and J-School Master’s Degree paths, the primary credential you bring to an employer is your education. For the School Newspaper Path and Freelance-Til-You-Make-It paths, your primary credential is your work.

How many journalists take each path? It’s hard to say with any precision. Surveys have typically shown that a little less than 40% of working journalists were journalism majors as undergrads; add in mass communications and other related fields and you get to around 50%. About 20% of journalists have a master’s degree — but that includes those with a master’s in some other field.

Notice that a couple potential routes are missing. (Again, some people make it into journalism these ways, of course, but not as many.)

  • The No-College Path. “Newspapering,” back when that was the term, used to be a job that required no educational credential at all. In the early 20th century, some newspaper editors decried the over-educated products of these newfangled journalism schools, saying they liked their reporters less high-falutin’. But that path is all but shut today. A 2016 survey of working American journalists found that only 1.5% had never gone to college. Another 4.8% had gone to college but left before getting a degree. That’s it — nearly 94% of journalists have at least a bachelor’s degree. And 21% have a master’s or doctorate.

Education is great! But remember, only about one-third of American adults have a bachelor’s degree. Those who don’t are much more likely to be poor and non-white than those who do. If a bachelor’s degree is a functional requirement to cover a city council meeting, you’re destined to have a less representative pool of candidates to draw from.

  • The Low-Resources Path. These are people who decided as adults they were interested in journalism — but who don’t have the kind of money to drop everything for a master’s. Spending a year or two without a paycheck, then graduating with the burden of student debt? It’s just not realistic. These are also often people who don’t have the free time or energy to build a career out of freelancing. They have kids, or responsibilities to care for family members. They juggle two jobs to make rent and pay for childcare. Their options for getting into journalism will always be narrower than what a childless 26-year-old Cornell grad with some family money to fall back on can try.

By making some of these routes so difficult to take, journalism loses out on a lot of talented people — people who would be great reporters or editors. And more importantly, those talented people look a lot more like America than the news business does — meaning they wouldn’t just tell more stories, they’d tell different stories.

This is a problem that’s been raised by journalists of color or from less privileged backgrounds whenever the “Is j-school worth it?” debate comes around. Rachelle Hampton nailed it in Slate in 2018 when she wrote: “Until Journalism Is a Real Meritocracy, J-School Is a Necessary Evil for Minorities.”

Critics of J-school also focus on the fact that the tools of the trade are mostly learned on the job, rendering journalism schools pointless. “Let internships be your J-school,” advises New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb. [Hamilton] Nolan reminds us that while one of the main selling points of journalism schools is that it will help graduates get a decent job in the industry, that claim is demonstrably false because “plenty of successful working journalists never went to J-school.” Which is true! But 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. 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.

As a black woman I didn’t have a choice not to go to J-school — and that’s a sentiment shared among many of my classmates. Journalism is an industry rife with nepotism, where career trajectories are determined more often by the people that you know rather than the quality of your work. When journalists of color make up less than 17 percent of American newsrooms and 75 percent of white people have no nonwhite friends, making connections in the industry after graduation is a luxury afforded to very few people of color. Breaking into these elite spaces is a necessity, and journalism school not only gives you access to professors with connections but also the future journalists who could put you in contact with your next hiring manager. As important as journalism internships are — and they are important — screeds advocating against J-school rarely acknowledge that a fair amount of journalists who look like me need the institutional legitimacy of places like Northwestern to even get an internship. And for people who can’t afford to work a low-paid or unpaid internship after college, getting your foot in the door as early as possible is paramount.

III.

In a previous life, I wrote about K-12 education for The Dallas Morning News. One of the defining characteristics of the Dallas area is growth: There’s always another acre of corn fields ready to be turned into subdivisions and strip malls. (The school district in suburban Frisco had about 7,200 students when I moved to Dallas 21 years ago. Today it has 66,000.) Lots of new students means lots of new teachers, and Texas had to figure out where to find them.

There’s a traditional path for people who want to become a teacher: You go to college and major in education. Do that, pass a teacher certification exam, and you’re officially a teacher.1

But what if you didn’t realize you wanted to become a teacher until later? Maybe law school didn’t pan out, but you always loved history. Or you became an engineer but realized you really just wanted to teach kids physics. Or maybe you got a job at a preschool and decided you want to move up to teaching kindergarten. You have a bachelor’s degree, but you’ve never taken an education course in your life. What then?

There’s a path for you. It’s called alternative certification and it’s meant for career switchers who have the content knowledge but not the teaching experience. For people who hadn’t figured out their career path at age 19, in other words.

Alt-cert programs have been very successful in two important ways. They’ve brought a lot of talented teachers into education. And they’ve been a big part of increasing the field’s diversity.

As of 2019, American K-12 teachers who’d taken the traditional route to certification were 82.2% white, 7.9% Hispanic, and 5.3% Black. Those who’d taken took the alternative route were significantly more diverse: 66.5% white, 15.5% Hispanic, and 12.9% Black.

In other words, alt-cert teachers are more than twice as likely to be Black or Hispanic than traditionally certified ones.

At one point in Texas, 9% of all K-12 teachers were non-white, but 41% of those who came through alt-cert programs were.

Alt-cert teachers were also significantly more likely (22% vs. 13.8%) to be teaching math or science — in-demand jobs that schools usually have the most problems filling. They were also more likely (32% vs. 22%) to be men, who are less likely to plan a teaching career straight out of high school.

To be clear, there are plenty of legitimate complaints about alternative certification programs. First of all, there are a ton of them, they’re not amazingly well regulated, and some are better than others. (Just like education schools, I might add.) Some of them are for-profit, not nonprofit. Some require little-to-no training as a teacher before dumping someone into a classroom. Schools need to keep an eye on them to make sure they’re meeting minimum standards and producing sound rookie teachers.

But there’s no doubt that alt-cert programs have, on net, been a big win for schools. “Go back to college and get another B.A.” just isn’t going to be a reasonable choice for most adult career switchers. And research has generally shown there’s not much difference between how much a student learns with an alt-cert teacher versus a trad-cert one. (Some suggest alt-certs are slightly better at teaching math but slightly worse at teaching English, for instance.) And whatever differences there are at the start, they tend to fade quickly as both kinds of teachers gain experience.

There are, of course, lots of differences between teaching and journalism. Being a journalist doesn’t require a license from the state (thankfully) or any official credential. The labor demand for journalists is a lot weaker than for teachers.

And let’s be honest: Quality control is more important for teachers than for journalists. Having a bad teacher for just one or two years can throw off a kid’s entire education. A classroom teacher might only affect 30 kids a year, but that impact can be intense and long-lasting.

Meanwhile, having a D-minus general assignment reporter working for your local daily newspaper isn’t ideal, obviously, but it’s unlikely to destroy any reader’s life. If someone can’t hack it in a newsroom, they’ll either move on or be asked to.

Remember what Rachelle Hampton wrote: “A fair amount of journalists who look like me need the institutional legitimacy of places like Northwestern to even get an internship.” Journalism might not require any official license, but it’s almost impossible to get into without the “institutional legitimacy” that comes from some sort of credential. And if you decide you want to be a journalist after the age of 22 or so, a j-school master’s is one of the few ways institutional legitimacy is available to you.

IV.

So, what would an “alternative certification” program that makes sense for journalism look like?

The most famous teacher alt-cert program is Teach for America, so one might think of the analogous Report for America, which currently places hundreds of young journalists into local newsrooms around the country, picking up part of the tab.

I think Report for America is terrific, and they should be vigorously applauded for placing reporters who are waaaay more diverse than the newsrooms they’re entering — or, frankly, than who those newsrooms would be hiring on their own. (45% of the current group are people of color.)

But RFA is aimed at someone with more experience than your typical j-school master’s student. “Corps members are typically emerging journalists with fewer than 8 years’ experience,” the site’s FAQ says. “We want people who can have an impact on Day One, which means some meaningful journalism experience.”

There are j-schools that offer programs more contained than a full master’s degree, like CUNY’s J+. But those are typically aimed more at “working journalists…who want to advance in their careers” rather than someone lower on the experience ladder. And a certificate for completing a single course isn’t likely to be the line on your resume that makes the hiring editor take notice.

It’s very true (and The Mizzou Grads would like you to remember) that you can’t look at journalism education solely through the lens of a Columbia or a Northwestern. There are public universities that can get you a credential at a more reasonable price — especially if you don’t need to move to campus. An online master’s from Mizzou will cost you about $34,000 in tuition. Arizona State’s Cronkite School will run you $19,964; West Virginia, $18,010.

Still, that’s a financial commitment — and a structured-time commitment — that’s hard for a lot of people. And while some colleges have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to lean more into online programs, most will charge you roughly the same for an online master’s as for an in-person one. (The online master’s in journalism innovation at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, for example, runs $64,812.) And many still expect you to take a full schedule of classes, making maintaining your day job more difficult.

For an alt-cert program in journalism to work, it would need to be:

  • Cheap. I’m talking low-four digits, not low-six digits.
  • Be available anywhere. Don’t make people uproot their lives.
  • Be flexible in terms of time. So people can keep their jobs and the schedules of their lives.
  • Allow for some degree of networking. Faces to go with names.
  • Have some amount of institutional prestige. If hiring editors don’t view it as a valuable credential, it’s not worth it.

I have a model in mind.

The degree program that you probably associate with the Harvard Business School is, of course, the MBA. The HBS estimate for how much that two-year program will cost you is an eye-watering $223,084. (That’s $146,880 in tuition, $15,664 in “required fees,” and an estimated $60,540 in indirect expenses — basically, cost of living.) Around 9,000 people apply for admission in a typical year, and they end up with an incoming class of a bit over 900.

That’s a price tag that would put any j-school to shame. It’s a very-high-end program, with very-high-end costs and very-high-end benefits.

But HBS also offers another program — one that actually enrolls many more students each year than its MBA. It’s called the Harvard Business School Credential of Readiness, or CORe. It’s delivered entirely online; it includes courses on business analytics, financial accounting, and economics. It’s not meant to be your full-time job; HBS estimates it’ll require between 8 and 15 hours of work a week, and it’s offered over time periods ranging from 10 to 17 weeks.

And it all only costs a flat $2,250.

Now, would someone learn as much in 17 weeks of CORe as in two years of the MBA program? Of course not. But that MBA will cost you literally 100 times CORe’s tuition. And CORe can reach a ton more people; in its first five years, it enrolled nearly 28,000 students, or six times as many as the MBA program over that span. And you can do CORe from anywhere in the world instead of uprooting your life for the privilege of paying Cambridge rent for two years.

It would be crazy if Harvard only offered a $2,250 online course. But it also doesn’t make sense for it to only run a program that can only impact 930 new people each year.

Is CORe as meaningful on a resume as an HBS MBA? Of course it isn’t. But “I took 150 hours of Harvard Business School courses in Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting, passed a final exam, and received High Honors” is far from meaningless. That will stand out in a stack of PDFs.

Is the networking available to a CORe graduate as valuable as to an MBA grad? No, but they do build in structures for working with your peers that students seem to find genuinely valuable.

Something like that is, I think, what journalism education needs: a new low-cost credential that can open up possibilities for a lot of the people for whom traditional paths don’t work.

V.

Who’s going to start a CORe for journalism?

An existing journalism school would be an obvious option. Maybe the Columbias and Northwesterns would be hesitant to invest in something that could disrupt their biggest and most important offering. But if Harvard Business School can do it without any harm being done to the prestige of the MBA program, I don’t see why a top j-school wouldn’t be able to.

There are a few j-schools that have stood out to me for their hustle, their willingness to try new things — Arizona State, CUNY, and Northeastern come to mind, and I’m sure there are plenty I don’t know about. They’d be logical choices. So would an HBCU like Howard, which has been making big news of late.

And perhaps it could use an external source of esteem-signaling to emphasize the quality of the program. Would a major foundation — Knight most obviously, but also the Fords, Carnegies, MacArthurs, and so on — be willing to fund such a program and attach its name to it? Call it the Knight-Cronkite program — or the Carnegie-Medill, or the Hewlett-Annenberg, or whatever.

Perhaps a major news organization would want to attach its name and resources to a worthy effort to diversify journalism’s ranks. It’s not uncommon in Europe for news organizations to be more directly connected to journalism training; think of the BBC Academy or the Henri-Nannen-Schule, which is run by the German publishers Gruner + Jahr, Spiegel, and Zeit.

Some might worry that creating this sort of lower-cost option would be like creating two class-based tracks — one for the rich, one for the poor. I’m sympathetic to that concern. But no one is saying shut down all the master’s programs — they’d still be an option, as much of an option as they are today. There would just be another choice for the resource-constrained. And that’s why it’s important that it be built for high quality from the start, not by some sketchy online-ed company.

I can’t pretend that this wouldn’t require a lot of work to build. But designing a strong born-online program — with a defined set of courses and a repeatable design — is a lot easier than, say, building an entire department or college from scratch.

And let’s be frank: The news industry’s record on building and supporting a diverse workforce is pathetic. I mean, newsrooms aren’t even willing to talk about how white they are anymore! And their record on hiring people from low-income and working-class backgrounds is no better.

(It’s surprisingly hard to get data on the class backgrounds of American journalists, but I suspect our situation is a lot like the U.K.’s. There, in the general population, there are roughly 3 working-class adults for every 1 upper-middle-class or higher adult. But in the journalism and publishing industry, it’s reversed: roughly 3 employees from upper-middle-plus backgrounds for every 1 from a working-class background.)

The more that journalism is reserved to an elite, the less representative it is of the country we live in — and the easier it is for everyone else not to trust us. The World Wide Web was supposed to democratize publishing — giving every citizen the ability to do something previously limited to those with printing presses or broadcast towers. But professional journalism has become less representative and more driven by an educational and class elite than it was in the days of ink-stained wretches.

Some (not all) journalism schools have done good work trying to push back against that trend. But maybe it’s time for the profession to build a new path into the industry — not just try to tweak the old ones.

  1. I fully acknowledge this process varies from state to state and I’m no doubt leaving out some other step required where you live. Generalities, y’all. ↩︎
POSTED     Oct. 20, 2021, 3:51 p.m.
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