The Useless Credential

By Darryl McGrath

I graduated from the Columbia University Journalism School in 1986, but based on how this week went, it feels like it was yesterday.

On Monday afternoon, I opened my mailbox to find a letter from the journalism school dean, Nicholas Lemann, asking for money. I’ve e-mailed or written the development office folks at least three times asking them to leave me alone, but the letters keep coming.

Monday night, I got a second e-mail from two members of the school’s Mentor Committee. They want graduates to act as advisers, “to help students get a handle on different aspects of the industry and to form professional relationships with working journalists.” The follow-up e-mail told me there were just five days remaining to sign up for the fun and fulfilling job of mentoring journalism school students.

Don’t count on me becoming a mentor. When I taught journalism at the State University of New York, I advised students to think very carefully before they applied to the journalism school. Do the math, I told them, before you take out a loan for tens of thousands of dollars in a business that has a de facto salary cap for reporters, and not a very generous one at that.

On Tuesday morning, I had one of my frequent chats with the Citibank student loan office. There’s a woman there whom I know only as Norma, who seems to have become my personal case manager. She’s got a sense of humor, and she completely understands how a person can end up still paying a student loan 18 years after graduating, especially when that person went into journalism.

The Columbia Journalism School has been so much a part of my life this week that, what the heck, maybe tomorrow I’ll also find out it’s giving me an alumni award. If so, that will be the first tangible benefit I can claim for a master’s degree that cost the equivalent of a hefty down payment on a very good house, but has been met with dismissive shrugs by just about every editor who’s ever seen it on my résumé.

So what is a Columbia journalism degree worth these days? In my case, probably about $30,000, which is my best estimate of how much that original $18,000 loan will total by the time the fees and interest are included.

I read much of the commentary and debate about the J-school, as its graduates affectionately call it, during the angst-ridden, hand-wringing period two years ago when its friends and foes alike asked, “What is the school’s place in the contemporary and changing world of journalism?” But I never heard anyone ask, “What is this degree’s monetary worth in the profession of journalism as we know it today?”

I avoided weighing in on that debate, but there are a few things I would tell Dean Lemann if he ever invited me for a cup of coffee and a chat, instead of asking for money that I can’t possibly fork over to his school. And while we’re on the subject of the dean, it is worth noting that his letter this week lamented the fact that “alumni surveys reveal that our graduates are forced to make career decisions based on the debt they accumulate at Columbia.”

If Lemann recognizes that, I hope he also recognizes that it would be insane for this program to expand to two years, an idea that some folks floated during the “Where-are-we-going?” debate. According to Lemann’s recent fundraising letter to alumni, tuition and living expenses for the journalism school exceed $56,000, which is more than many journalists will ever earn for an annual salary in their entire career. Is anyone talking about this? That’s a far bigger concern than the school’s mission.

But back to the hypothetical chat over a cup of coffee. I would tell the dean that this business does not know what to do with career reporters, the people in their 40s who realized years ago they were never going to make it to the New York Times or win a Pulitzer, but nevertheless loved chasing stories and exposing public corruption and giving a voice to the downtrodden. (Yes, I’m still that idealistic.) We are the journalists who never wanted to move into the higher-paying jobs, like editing and management or newsroom Internet technology, because we absolutely loved being reporters. But as we got older, we realized that very few newspapers wanted to pay a salary that would allow us to continue doing what we do best: report. The journalism school did little to prepare me for this reality.

Walk into most newsrooms today, and most of the reporters are young and single. They are willing to undergo psychological testing as part of their application process (a procedure that I have always thought screened out exactly the kind of quirky mind that you need to be a good reporter) and they work vast amounts of unpaid overtime. They also accept low starting salaries, because this business has remained ferociously competitive even while it remains ridiculously underpaid.

I would tell Dean Lemann that throughout my career, I never met an editor who appeared to value a Columbia journalism degree. That’s directly opposite what the school told me to expect. I did meet plenty of editors who railed against the screw-ups they hired from Columbia - the reporters who didn’t know how to cover breaking news or develop sources or work a beat.

My last all-out search for a full-time reporting job, in 1999, was a real awakening. I interviewed at papers in the Midwest and the Southwest, most of them Pulitzer Prize-winners with national reputations. I had the distinct feeling that no one really knew what to do with a 41-year-old woman who still wanted to be a reporter. The other reporters assigned to host me during the obligatory get-to-know-us lunches during these interview trips were mostly in their 20s and even they seemed to be wondering what I was doing there.

One editor at the Des Moines Register who interviewed me during this job search almost laughed when I told him, in response to a direct question, that I wanted a starting salary of $50,000. He was thinking maybe $41,000. Another reporter I know was hired at one of these Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspapers, and she did start at $41,000. And when she told the hiring editor that $41,000 was too low for someone with her considerable skills and experience, he pretty much told her she could take it or go fly a kite.

I left full-time newsroom reporting in 2001 and started freelancing. But the journalism school, and the student loan that paid for my year there, are still very much a part of my life.

So I hope that those two members of the Mentor Committee find other willing graduates who can provide a more optimistic outlook to journalism students. In my first decade out of Columbia, I was a veritable poster child for the program, helping to raise money, appearing on discussion panels and participating in alumni functions. But I’m a little more hardened now about the prospects that journalism students face.

I also hope that Dean Lemann or someone at the development office reads this, and finally takes my name off the fundraising list. Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t Columbia University create a central fund, with each of its graduate and professional schools assessed a contribution to that fund drawn from that school’s endowment, and based on that particular school’s ability to pay and the earning power of its graduates? Law and business would be assessed more than journalism. Then, divide this fund among all the many graduate programs at Columbia, according to need. A number of states have done this to finance their public school systems, and it’s a more realistic solution for getting some desperately needed financial aid to the journalism school than expecting someone like me to open my checkbook.

That’s because throughout my many moves and job changes, my Citibank student loan has been the one constant in my journalism career. And when I finally get rid of it, I don’t think I’ll ever again write a check for the journalism school. Multiple deferments and months where I simply stopped paying the loan because I had no other choice added up and took their toll. And so here I am, in late 2004, calculating the cost of my Columbia Journalism master’s degree in a way that I could never have envisioned in 1985.

Darryl McGrath is a writer in Albany, N.Y.

Take This Prize and Shove It

By Phillip Blanchard

Ten seconds. Count it: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Ten seconds was roughly how long it lasted. Nobody had a stopwatch, nothing can be proven definitively, but that's the consensus. ... Ten seconds is barely a flicker. It's a long, deep breath. It's no time at all. It's an eternity.

So began a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune last year. You may be familiar with them because they won a Pulitzer Prize this spring.

We know that such writing is dreadful. We could spend all afternoon identifying the many things wrong with that paragraph.

We don’t know how the copy desk reacted when confronted with it, but it’s reasonable to assume there was a wince, followed by a mental rewriting, then the sinking feeling you get when you know something is awful and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But it’s not every day we get a bundle of stories intended for the Pulitzer entry. Most of the stuff we handle will be forgotten in a few days. It’s a sad fact of life that we can fix stories not intended to win prizes.

It is a myth that newspaper writing was better long ago; take a stroll through the pre-Watergate archives if you don’t believe me. But it’s getting worse now,and we all know why: Contest judges like “writerly” efforts, but most judges really don’t know what good news writing is. The detrimental influence of contests, from the mighty Pulitzers to the most modest award from a farm bureau, cannot be overstated. I have heard writers and editors muse about winning Pulitzers before a word was written.

Many copy editors long for recognition, which helps explain the fairly recent proliferation of headline contests. There are copy editors who emulate their writing colleagues and pursue prizes. Their headlines show it. Most prize-winners are groaners; others might be worthy of praise if they did not commit the worst sin of headline writing by drawing attention from the stories they adorn.

An occasional contributor to the Testy Copy Editors Web site, whose name you would all recognize but who is a man who lives the modesty he preaches, wrote: "One of the great things about being a copy editor is freedom from vulgar desire for public recognition." He expressed a sentiment that is dwindling. The great Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in “Headlines and Deadlines,” which is the best copy-editing manual ever written but is sadly dated and fallen out of use, did it better: “The business of writing and editing news is a cooperative undertaking,demanding the best of many brains. There is no place for pride of authorship.”

Who believes that these days?