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Close the J-Schools

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Shocking news from the halls of academia: Forbes reported earlier this year that enrollment in graduate journalism schools is booming. These kids are paying upwards of $70,000 (the cost of Columbia's J-School, including living expenses) for a ghost's chance of landing a job, at pitiful pay, in an industry that is rapidly collapsing. What's going to be the next hot field in graduate study? Blacksmithing? Bloodletting? Steamship design?

I don't meant to offend anyone from the noble field of steamship design, where there is actually a lot to learn. Journalism is not a profession like engineering, medicine or even law. You can pick up most media skills on the job, or with a few hours of instruction. If you screw up, nobody dies, and nothing collapses. This is why so many — perhaps most — journalism pros have built successful careers without touching J-school, and why many of them considered a J-degree a dubious credential even in the field's heyday.

Most J-school enrollees know this already: They go for the "contacts" thought to be essential in a competitive field. This made sense a few years ago. These days, it's like boarding the Titanic in hopes of meeting the captain. Many of these "contacts" are old-media refugees who made the desperate leap onto J-school faculties in response to buyouts or layoffs. Who are they gonna call when Johnny wants a job? And with all due respect to these good folks — for I, too, love old-school journalism — if their purpose is really to teach, are these bitter-enders really the folks we want teaching our next generation of media professionals?

If I asked you to pay $70,000 to get ahead in some other glamorous, extremely competitive, fairly non-technical profession — say, modeling — you might call me a charlatan. But journalism has become ensconced as an academic discipline at otherwise respectable institutions. Journalism is connected to a social mission. These are good things for J-school deans. Now that the industry is headed off a cliff — leaving them in charge of vocational schools without a vocation — all they have left is the school's imprimatur, the social mission, and — oh yeah — the glamour that keeps students coming through the door. Here's Columbia J-School dean Nicholas Lemann, explaining to Forbes the bewildering increase in applications: "I've never met a single person in 35 years who went into journalism out of pure economic reason."

Maybe a small-town newspaper editor making an offer to a job applicant would feel justified using that line. At least he's offering a job, if a low-paying one. Lemann, however, is hawking an outdated Rolodex with a $70,000 price tag. What Lemann is really saying is this: "We don't promise a well-paying job — or even a job at all. But they're paying us money to come here. What do you expect us to do?"

Here's what you can do: Close down. At the least, J-school deans, you should slash your enrollments. How much? Simple: Assess the degree to which the profession has shrunk, and then reduce your class size accordingly. How else can you assure the media world that you're not just flooding the market with new blood, eager to do the job of laid-off workers at lower pay?

Think you still have a role to play in the ever-changing media landscape? Great. Go forth and teach workshops in copyediting, camerawork, graphic design, the business of publishing, even journalistic ethics. Teach them at night or on weekends, and charge a grand or so for each. That will make them accessible to the hausfrau bloggers, the go-go entrepreneurs, and the neighborhood activists who will shape our media future. That will professionalize the media, if that's what you care to do.

Do not fill up two years of anyone's time with bush-league "news services" (Oh boy! A clip in The Daily Supplement!) or mandatory classes in media history, communications theory or journalism philosophy. Do not charge so much money to walk through the door that the program is open only to the rich, the idle, or the financially illiterate. That's not a journalism school; that's a gold-plated welfare program for your old newsroom buddies, built on the backs of starry-eyed naïfs.

I resisted J-school for several years as I pursued a career in newspapers. Finally, in 2003, I accepted an offer to study business journalism on fellowship. I took half my classes at the business school. The B-schoolers were passionate, driven, and excited about their future; the J-schoolers seemed timid, desultory, and aimless. At the J-school, the prizewinners whose names had lured students to the program were indulged with classes on topics with no practical career use. Meanwhile, the B-schoolers learned how to boost productivity and adapt to changing markets.

It dawned on me that the new business models that may save journalism were much more likely to come from the business school than the journalism school. At times I felt like closing down the J-school and sending most of those kids straight across campus, to the shiny new B-school.

Richard Sine spent a dozen years at newspapers before turning freelance (by choice, not by layoff). He writes about business and personal finance for magazines such as Men's Health and corporate clients such as Fidelity and UPS.