J-School Confidential
December 28, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

An oldie, but a goodie: Michael Lewis goes to Columbia's School of Journalism to see what such schools actually do to prepare their students.
posted by reenum (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I used to live in the dorm next door to the J-school, and from what I gleaned spending a lot of time sitting on the j-school steps smoking, mostly the J kids just sat on the steps smoking, but in tweed jackets and scarves.

Come to think of it, it was weird how few people I ever actually saw go into that building...
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:39 PM on December 28, 2010

The crowning moment of awesome in the story:
"Those of you who don't own spell checkers, get one," Isaacs bellowed. "Those nits! Those nits are what make the total. That's what journalism is! It's getting the details right. Get everything right! Precisely, 100 percent right. If you can't get everything right, you better question whether this is the right place for you. As Flaubert said, God is in the details."

Actually, he didn't. Mies van der Rohe did.
posted by schmod at 12:53 PM on December 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

The best journalists are almost the antithesis of professionals. The horror of disrepute, the preternatural respect for authority and the fear of controversy that so benefit the professional are absolute handicaps for a journalist. I doff my cap to those who have survived the experience of journalism school and still write good journalism. They deserve every Distinguished Alumni Award they receive, and more.
I liked that part. And the part where he starts writing the stolen goods story that nobody else will.

But the rest is like a puzzle that doesn't come together until you read the very last line: Lewis thinks that the school is corrupt, a waste of money, a discredit to the profession.

We are shown that there are nitpicky professors, wordy course descriptions (have you ever had to write one? It's like SEO-meets-institutional guideline spaghetti), poor placement, inexperienced students, and less-than-impressed employers.

But. Every school has this story or some variant of it. The entire university system has been torn down to its foundations and scrutinized piece by piece, with the conclusion being:
The best ________ are almost the antithesis of professionals.
This has been on the skeptics' radar since way before 1993.

That Lewis went for the easy story at the easy school and didn't dig for some history much beyond "Pulitzer was bipolar, you get the rest" is disappointing.
posted by circular at 1:10 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, he didn't. Mies van der Rohe did.

It's actually up for debate. Technically, they both likely said it or a variation, the debate (of course) being who said it actually, with one being before the other and therefore "first". Never mind the Tao and other philosophical works cover the tenacity of small problems and perfection years before both of them.

Lewis has a very large glass house to be throwing stones from, what with his infamous iceland article and subsequent backlash.
posted by jscott at 1:33 PM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Maybe it's because I come from a professional academic background, but it seems to me that the solution isn't scrapping J-schools but actually making them rigorous places of scholarship. In other words I agree that a seven month MA is a joke, but the answer isn't scrapping the MA it's making it a 3 year MA that is hard to get.
posted by oddman at 1:39 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

jscott's second link made me laugh out loud several times, most notably item #4.
posted by eugenen at 1:39 PM on December 28, 2010

Ever since Liar’s Poker, I’ve enjoy Michael Lewis a lot. But, just as jscott points out that there's been some controversy about his Iceland story, the extent to which he missed the real story in Moneyball cracks me up. His basic premise was that you don’t need to draft power hitters, you can draft patient hitters who will then turn into power hitters. It’s a little baffling how he missed the fact that the real success of the Oakland As (his poster-boy franchise for this approach) was the open-air drug market that substituted for a locker room. Sorry for the derail, I (as expected) enjoyed this article.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 1:58 PM on December 28, 2010

I also enjoyed the NYmag comments on his Iceland article--but Vanity Fair's response on page 4 of their comments seems to address the criticisms pretty thoroughly.
posted by col_pogo at 2:43 PM on December 28, 2010

Hi-fucking-larious. I didn't check the date until well after reading it and thinking, "Oh, man, nut graphs!" in the same way Homer Simpson laughs at the black comedian saying, "White people drive like this: 'Dee dee dee!'" It's true! It's so true!

I finished a J-school graduate program in 2009, and that's exactly what I got. Nut graphs, trade-school mentality, all that. Now, granted, that's kind of why I was there; I had an undergrad degree in something totally separate, and I wasn't paying for it myself (mostly). But it only highlighted the differences between us and our thesis-track compatriots, doing "real" research as they moved toward PhD programs in mass communication. (In that field, at least, we remain very highly ranked.)

At the time, a new pro-track coordinator was just coming on board, but as I recall there was very little guidance as to what we could do, or planned to do. The tracks were fairly rigid: reporting? strategic communication? science writing? (We actually had two discrete graduate science writing programs in separate areas of campus.) I'd worked in a PR office for a few years as an administrative assistant, but when I came in wanting to do internal media relations, the program didn't really know what to do with me. I said, "Why should it matter? I just want to make sure I'm writing the way the industry expects and learn how to deal with colleagues."

I picked and chose and ended up doing well, but I was never sure about the etiquette and ethics of submitting freelance work. I had never worked on daily deadline. Most of the exciting opportunities and experiences where one might learn that sort of thing went to the undergrads, working on the campus papers or taking part in advertising competitions. Those of us coming late to the party didn't really know where to go or how to get there; I chose a mix of data-driven courses that got me halfway to a thesis anyway.

But of course this was smack in the middle of the journalism implosion, in which people ran around screaming about the death of print but forgot that stories could still exist in other forms. STORIES, people. You remember those?

In the end, then, that's what we got out of it. The people there to follow the leader pretty much did. Some of them focused more on the technological side, editing videos and putting blogs together. Those of us who loved finding and telling stories still do. Being curious made every day interesting, and continues to do so.

For the most part, I think we all ended up okay.
posted by Madamina at 2:57 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

But of course this was smack in the middle of the journalism implosion, in which people ran around screaming about the death of print but forgot that stories could still exist in other forms. STORIES, people. You remember those?

Yep, I remember 'em. I remember the last awards banquet I went to, how another paper in my fleet got like 18 major awards for stories and series, all of them written by J-school interns working for free. That made a big impression on all the other papers in our group, who couldn't wait to sign them up some interns, just as soon as they could get rid of all those troublesome staff writers.

Stories are great. Tell me the one again about how I might make enough to live on?
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:04 PM on December 28, 2010

Well, I neglected the part about how the local alt-weekly, firing half its editors while (stop me if you've heard this one) screaming about the death of print, didn't even give me an e-mail back when I pitched them things that they'd practically solicited in person.

Or how their photographers clearly don't communicate with their shitty new writers. Example: a cover photo of 12 bartenders at the new hipster joint as the writer fills a 2000-word article with a. a single chat with the owner about himself, himself and himself, and b. two lines from a guy who says, "Yeah, the owner's pretty cool."

So, yeah, I'm happy I stuck to my guns and didn't go reporting, because even though I stayed in the office I started in (after 15 interviews that went nowhere), at least I'm not still pounding down the walls of Insurance Trade Association Monthly.

Who ALSO didn't call me back.
posted by Madamina at 8:10 PM on December 28, 2010

I am still shocked that the article was written so long ago, and yet still has a ringing message today.
posted by jermspeaks at 9:41 PM on December 28, 2010

oddman: Maybe it's because I come from a professional academic background, but it seems to me that the solution isn't scrapping J-schools but actually making them rigorous places of scholarship. In other words I agree that a seven month MA is a joke, but the answer isn't scrapping the MA it's making it a 3 year MA that is hard to get.

Well, rigourous scholarship is a fine thing. But then you're not training journalists; you're training scholars.

People think that the natural opposite of a journalist is a politician, or possibly a PR agent. But it's neither: The opposite of a journalist is a scholar. They are yin-and-yang worlds whose practitioners have diametrically opposed instincts and priorities.

Scholars love learning for the sake of the advancement of knowledge. Journalists love learning for the sake of telling people about shit that is awesome. Scholars trust books. Journalists trust people. Scholars would love to somehow read everything. Journalists would love to somehow call everyone. Scholars trust time, review, and process. Journalists see the value of expediency and harbour a grudge against copy desk. Scholars take perverse pride in how obscure their chosen subject is. Journalists take perverse pride in finding ways to make complex stories appealing to the average squirrel.

Academics spend their lives trying to climb the steps of that damned tower of theirs. But journalists are tradespeople who happen to deal in ideas. Neither here nor there: the non-commissioned officers of the elite. You can see it in this piece: The profession prides itself on its blue-collar streak, its pragmatism, its distrust of the hoity-toity and the too-clever-by-half. Even the most tweedy and cerebral journalists share the profession's applied streak: how relevant is this? Is it sexy? Will anyone want to read it? Is it a good yarn? Can you have it done by Thursday?

I like the idea of rigorous training; in its own right, I even admire rigorous scholarship. Journalists need ongoing education and development to stave off early-onset hackdom. But asking a journalist to spend years in intensive scholarship is like asking an carpenter to spend years writing essays about the nature of chairs. Nobody enjoys it, and at the end of the day there's still nothing to sit on.
posted by bicyclefish at 11:37 PM on December 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

What a coincidence, my local paper misspelled Vassar just today!
posted by naoko at 3:38 PM on December 29, 2010

As a journalist, it's my experience that it is useful to know some of what they teach on J-school. Because sometimes Clio saddles you with an editor who graduated from J-school, and who has decided to punish every writer he edits with inverted pyramids, and just isn't impressed by your casually tossing off the names of Greek muses in your text.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:53 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ugh - I was in a Master's in Journalism program for one week in 2003 before I smelled something fishy. Dropped out and became a CPA, you know, since THAT was such a reputable field in the early part of the decade.

Can I just share to an audience that will understand (I hope) that my first baby girl was born in July and she's named after Michael Lewis's daughter, Tallulah. He's married to Tabitha Soren (red head. MTV.) and blogged about fatherhood on Slate way back in the day. Whenever someone asks about my Tallulah's name I'll just say "oh, an author..." If they seem reasonably nerdy, I'll throw out Liar's Poker and Slate, but seriously, not once have I gotten a glimmer of recognition. I aspire to have nerdier friends.
posted by MediaMer at 5:11 PM on December 29, 2010

« Older "If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit...   |   If we had no winter, the spring would not be so... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments