By Bill Cotterell
With the exception of military test pilots, reporters probably spend more time talking shop than folks in any other line of work.
That’s why Emory University’s decision to close its journalism program in two years has caused quite a stir in the trade. Close a j-school? Oh, no, how can this be?
I may be alone among my ink-stained ilk in thinking this is no big deal. It’s not good news, certainly, especially for faculty and staff. But it’s not bad news, either. Nothing against Emory, and nothing against the nearly 160 students who went to Atlanta to study news. It’s just that news judgment, reporting and editing don’t need to be taught in college.
Emory also is closing its physical education and visual arts programs. But the journalism school’s demise gets the most ink because reporters tend to think people care more about events that affect us.
I will admit that I took a couple of journalism courses at Miami-Dade Junior College in 1965 and 1966. It was simpler then, writing on cave walls with crushed berries and animal blood, when something like 70 percent of people read newspapers every day. Now, students learn multi-media skills and race to the Internet the way I once rushed to phone booths when I started with United Press International and beating the Associated Press by two minutes was cause to celebrate.
The easy college credits were nice. But I learned more as a copyboy at The Miami Herald from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
I wouldn’t want a self-taught doctor, or a lawyer who learned the law as a hobby, so would I want reporters who didn’t go to journalism school?
I don’t know. Are they smart and curious?
Lucy Morgan of the Tampa Bay Times is the best reporter in Tallahassee. I’m not going to qualify that with “among the” or “one of the” — she’s the best I’ve known in 44 years, and she didn’t finish college. She’s smart, tough and inquisitive, all qualities you don’t learn in a school book or download onto an iPad.
One example does not a rule make, but I’d estimate that the majority of really top reporters I’ve worked with over the years either didn’t have a journalism degree, or overcame it.
Journalism education is a lot like driver’s ed. Once you learn the basics, it’s pretty much trial and error.
Watergate and “All the President’s Men” brought a surge of students into journalism schools a generation ago. And movies and TV shows consider reporters handy characters for advancing a plot, glamorizing the trade. By the way, when did we all get so pretty? I’ve never run into Russell Crowe or Rachel McAdams on the job.
But newspapers are cutting back and most local broadcasters are making do with one or two inexperienced reporters. They can download junk news off the Internet or fluff up public-relations handouts to fill time and space.
Dreaming up publicity gimmicks and putting smiling faces on real events is how a lot of these fledgling journalism students will wind up, at least those who land jobs. But for a university to excel in the teaching of PR is like boasting that its law school produces the best mob lawyers.
NPR reported early this year that there are more journalism students than there are jobs — not just vacancies, all jobs — in newsrooms across America. It’s not that we don’t need more j-school grads today, though we don’t. It’s that we need more reporters with knowledge of economics, politics, science, business, history and the liberal arts. And they need to love reading.
Far too many of the young reporters I’ve worked with over the past 20 years seem to get their vocabularies from TV and their spelling from text messages. Many regard reading as a chore, maybe even an infringement on their First Amendment rights as j-school grads.
Journalism education is nice, but beyond the basics, not necessary. Anyone who’s smart, cares about news and works hard can learn the five Ws — who what, when, where and why — in a couple weeks. Then, if they learn from their mistakes, they can get good at telling you what’s really going on.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted by email here.