February 12, 2004

He Don't Need No Education ...

Pink Floyd might have been singing about Dave Weigel, a senior in Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

Weigel is completely disaffected with his Medill classes - at least the theoretical ones he mentions - preferring instead the more visceral satisfaction of editing the 5,000-copy Northwestern Chronicle, a student newspaper that bills itself as "one of the country's longest-running conservative college weeklies," but whose content seems less neo-con and more old-campus, albeit written with a modern overlay of sass. Here, for example, is the headline on a story about a sorority member who wants to raise student spirit: "They call her Ms. Football, How Sara Whitaker plans to raise school spirit, beat the flu, and put your ass in the bleachers." It's a fun read.

Weigel writes in his blog today:

"I'm mostly bitter about my remaining commitments at NU. After four years of disrespecting me and belittling my newspaper, the school is about to lose me. I am struggling through two final journalism classes, and while I enjoy my final political science seminar, the Medill classes are a pointless slog, full of busywork (MS Access tests, "media analyses" of November 2002 AIDS coverage) that is truly painful to sit through. And I don't speak lightly. Sitting through a lecture on the merits of South African journalism after having sacrificed 24 hours to produce an actual newspaper causes me pain. I grip my pen, capped, and jab it into my thigh so as to stay awake." (Emphasis added.)

I am not disparaging Medill's journalism program - and there certainly may be more to Weigel's discontent than is apparent from his blog - but his alienation from the school raises this question: Why is a young journalist like Dave Weigel, who seems reasonably smart, who certainly has energy, drive and desire, who's tech savvy, so unhappy with the journalism education he (or his parents) paid almost $30,000 a year for?

Is Weigel an anomaly? Should the school be concerned about the grumblings of one sleep-deprived student? Or does he represent a wider dissatisfaction among journalism school students, one that may be behind the reason so few of them actually go into journalism after education?

I hesitate to raise any question about the purpose of journalism education because there is no encompassing answer and it opens an irresolvable debate. I do believe, though, that journalism graduates should leave campus equipped with:

 Enough basic reporting and editing skills to step into a job and grow as they accumulate experience;
 A substantial amount of journalism history and theory, including an understanding of the ethical boundaries and civic purposes of journalism;
 Exposure to evolving forms of participatory journalism and awareness about how they are changing the traditions of the profession;
 And, most of all, a sense of vision and purpose about the journalistic possibilities that await them.

Does Weigel have all that? If he does, maybe he should quit complaining. If not, maybe Medill should listen to him.

 NYU: Zoned for Debate What's the Right Way to Train Journalists...Today?

Posted by Tim Porter at February 12, 2004 09:05 AM

I spent a year in a journalism master's program, which admittedly is a different beast than an undergraduate program. But I found the experience quite disillusioning, and didn't bother finishing. The program was disconnected from the actual practice of journalism. Frankly, I think aspiring journalists are much better off with a liberal arts degree, and perhaps a minor in journalism. Too many editors and reporters know much about their craft but very little about the world around them. This is reflected in stories that have little connection to readers' lives.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on February 12, 2004 01:16 PM
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