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Nov. 18, 2021, 11 a.m.
Business Models
Reporting & Production

Journalism school is broken and expensive. Jessica Huseman will teach you for cheap(er).

“If I was queen for a day, what I would honestly do is fire every journalism professor and hire adjuncts working in the field. That’s, like, my dream.”

In the fall of 2014, Jessica Huseman was starting her master’s in investigative journalism at Columbia University. She remembers having dinner with her cohort and “feeling like an idiot.”

“We were all sitting around and [program director Sheila Coronel] was like, ‘Let’s go around and talk about what you’re most excited to learn this year,'” Huseman, now the editorial director of Votebeat, recalled. “The first person goes, ‘I really want to get better at FOIA.’ And I was like, ‘The fuck is a FOIA?'”

There, she realized she hadn’t even been introduced the concept of filing a records request until she had enrolled at an Ivy League university, despite the fact that she had a journalism degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

J-school — with its high price tag and its usually low-paying postgraduate prospects — is often out of the question for lots of people who want to enter the field. Huseman’s own experience shows that journalism schools vary in what they teach, and not everyone graduates from their j-school feeling like they learned what they needed to.

Huseman knows she can’t fix every journalism school (“If I was queen for a day, what I would honestly do is fire every journalism professor and hire adjuncts working in the field. That’s, like, my dream”). Too much university bureaucracy.

So instead, she’s filling in the educational gaps on on her own at a fraction of the price of what j-school costs.

This past September, Huseman launched The Friendly State News, a company that provides low-cost trainings to newsrooms and freelance journalists who want to learn concrete skills.

The idea for The Friendly State News started with a tweet. Huseman had taught journalism courses at New York University and Columbia. Earlier this year, she realized that within all of her course materials, she had an easy FOIA workshop ready to go.

“I tweeted out and was like ‘Hi, does your newsroom need to learn how to file a public records request? Reach out I’ll do it for 500 bucks.’ And I had four newsrooms email me. Within an hour. And I booked all of them,” Huseman said.

Those first four newsrooms were a blockchain and cryptocurrency-focused newsroom (they paid her in real money, I confirmed), and newsrooms in Kentucky, Arizona, and California.

Three months later, the blockchain newsroom emailed her with a series of investigations they produced based on the records they sought out.

“I’ve been frustrated with the price of journalism education and the way that it’s structured and I think this is possible to scale in a really healthy way,” Huseman said. “Journalism education needs to be brought back to some sort of practical reality. I don’t know that current journalism education, in many circumstances, serves the needs of journalists currently working today.”

By paying the Friendly State News $500, a newsroom gets Huseman for two hours (virtually, unless they’re local to her in Dallas) during which she’ll teach interested staffers how to file public records requests and how to use them efficiently in reporting. She also provides the newsroom with FOIA request templates that it can reuse. She offers the same training to student newsrooms for $250.

She also offers newsroom coaching on investigative projects (“You get all the credit. Don’t give up ownership to partner with a national newsroom,” the website says). Twice a month, she holds trainings for freelancers that cost $15 per person. The focuses of these freelancer trainings change, but November’s are an introduction to freedom of information, and Microsoft Excel for beginners.

That’s what journalism education should do: give you concrete skills that you can actually use, Huseman said. But that’s not often what the syllabus lays out or accomplishes and many professors may possess those skills themselves, but aren’t equipped to teach them. Huseman, on the other hand, is still a full-time journalist and has been covering voting access and how elections are administered for at least five years. She’s an expert in freedom of information (also known as navigating county government bureaucracy) and therefore well equipped to teach it.

Because the news business is always changing and is more or less in a state of disarray, it’s hard for journalism schools to keep up and make sure they’re preparing students to enter the workforce. Huseman saw firsthand that at her own alma mater, SMU, little had changed since she was a student.

In 2018, when Huseman was a national politics reporter for ProPublica, she led a fundraising campaign for the school’s student newspaper The Daily Campus. It was going to be folded into the university’s journalism program because it didn’t have the money anymore to operate on its own.

During this fundraising effort, she asked some of the students at the paper about whether or not they felt like they were learning the skills they wanted to in the classroom.

“Is there an investigative journalism class?” Huseman asked one student.

“Well, there was last semester, but it didn’t make it this semester,” the student replied.

“I was like, ‘Okay, can I see the curriculum?’ and there was nothing on it,” Huseman said. “They didn’t learn how to file a FOIA in an investigative journalism class. [The student] didn’t even know what one was because [the school] had a local investigative journalist partner with a professor who was not an investigative journalist to just tell war stories every single class. People who don’t know how to teach think that that’s how you teach.”

For all of that, how much does a journalism degree from SMU cost, you ask?  The school doesn’t offer a graduate degree in journalism so for one year of undergraduate education in the 2021-2022 academic year, tuition is estimated to be about $81,000 for a student living on campus.

At the risk of starting another Twitter Discourse, whether or not journalism school is worth the price tag depends on why you’re going to journalism school, what you’re looking to get out of it, and if the programs in your price range will get you to master new skills and set you up to get a job in this turbulent industry.

For context, here’s the tuition breakdown of some graduate journalism schools in the United States.

Columbia:

Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (my alma mater):

Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism:

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism:

Financial aid does help, but these prices, along with the cost of living in expensive places, are insane considering students want to go into a field that can’t afford to pay them as much as they spent on the degree they got to get into the industry.

“Journalism is fundamentally a skill that you can measure,” Huseman said. “There are elements of journalism that are incredibly subjective. But there are underlying skill sets that you need to be a reporter, like the ability to do some basic data analysis and file a FOIA. If you’re able to take the skills of journalism, break them down into their elements, and then treat them as an individual skill that you can develop and then measure at the end, then the educational outcomes will be better.”

In order to be able to reach more journalists, The Friendly State News is working on obtaining its nonprofit status to be able to accept tax-deductible donations. With more money, Huseman will be able to expand the course offerings and hire other journalists to teach those course. No one works for free.

Right now, anyone interested in sponsoring a workshop for newsrooms or freelancers can do so on the website. Over the next year, Huseman is planning on hiring a couple of people to co-develop training programs for using Pacer, census data, and SQL. Once those are ready to go, she’ll co-teach those classes online, for between $15 and $30, depending on how many lessons are in each course.

She also wants to develop “reporting recipes,” or resources that journalists can share with others. Journalists would upload their resources or tools to the site and others can pay a fee to download and use them in their own work.

Once the Friendly State News has nonprofit status, Huseman wants to establish a pool for freelancers and smaller, hyperlocal news outlets to apply for grants to get money to pay for public records they may not otherwise be able to afford.

“Journalism students have been forced to take the little seeds of ideas that are planted by journalists and educators and figure out how to apply them to their own lives, and a lot of it gets lost in translation,” Huseman said. “[Class time should] focus on the underlying skills rather than telling war stories. We need to start breaking journalism down to its fundamental skills and stop focusing on these vanity things [like] where we throw Bob Woodward on a stage.”

POSTED     Nov. 18, 2021, 11 a.m.
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