How journalism school is like overdraft fees

By Felix Salmon
July 15, 2009

Overdraft fees and lottery tickets are both in their own way taxes on ignorance, or at least a lack of sophistication — which is one reason why both should be carefully regulated. Richard Sine, today, adds another item to the list: J-school tuition fees. He has a clear message for deans of journalism schools around the country:

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 think it’s fair to say that going to journalism school increases your chances of getting a job in journalism. If J-school graduates are almost by definition financially naive — if they weren’t financially naive they’d never have spent so much money on J-school — then maybe J-school is only serving to increase the number of innumerates working in journalism. Which is a sobering thought.


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“if they weren’t financially naive they’d never have spent so much money on J-school”

I think you should apply this to many forms of study. Too few students consider opportunity costs. Those are a very large component of the cost of education and must, at least by the financially savvy, be considered as part of the cost of pursuing a particular degree.

The greatest lie is that education for the sake of education is good.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

Who needs intelligence when there’s education available, anyway?

Posted by otto | Report as abusive

There is a reason why I still read you – you are provocative and thought-provoking. I am a journalist more successful than most, and have never taken an English or journalism course past high school. It’s not a requirement, folks!

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

College in general is wildly expensive, so couldn’t you say that anyone who goes to college is financially illiterate? For a lot of high school students the pressure to go to college is strong enough to make the financial issues seem unimportant, since NOT going to college sounds like such a disaster.

As with many things in life, financial literacy is something that comes with experience. For example, maybe some people have to actually eat an overdraft fee before they start taking their checking accounts seriously. So I don’t think it’s true that just because someone plunked down tuition for a journalism degree that means they are doomed to a life of financial unsophistication.

J-schools give access to media organizations, who do hiring. A paid job in journalism is better than doing it for free. (As my mom said when I was graduating and deciding whether to take a not-so-perfect media job or be an unemployed j-school graduate, “pay your bills.”)

A good j-school can provide a testing ground where you figure out if you even like being a journalist. A lot of people go to j-school and decide to do something different with their lives. The skills you get there won’t go to waste. (how to write, research, edit, organize & evaluate information, multi-media, etc.)

Journalism is a craft. Self-taught people are great and I commend them. But most of us need direction. A j-school can provide access to knowledge and skills.

My only complaint about going to j-school was that I felt I was learning a trade, rather than getting an education. If I were to do it again, I’d get a first degree in something more knowledge based, like history or political science. Or, I may still get a second degree now in that. I actually DO believe education for the sake of education is good. A literate society is wiser than an illiterate one. Making money isn’t everything.

Considering all the j-schools out there these days, and considering the pay you’ll get, I completely agree that an expensive j-school is silly. That said, I guess people go to the expensive ones so they can get jobs at the New York Times, right? My less expensive, yet highly praised, j-school wasn’t training us to be journalism elites.

Posted by katie | Report as abusive

Journalism would go into the hands of the elite if the trend is allowed to go in this manner . However this can be minimised once the employment in the Journlaism sector seeks the quality in the individual rather than the qualification he had . The person taken into the organisaton could then be sent for the short term journalism courses from time to time while in service . Lets put a thought into it.
With regards

A similar argument applies to news organisations themselves. If you pay graduates less than a living wage (as most do, at least here in the UK), then you’ll only get candidates whose parents can afford to support them, not the widest range of skilled applicants. This practice also perpetuates the narrow outlook of the media, by restricting access to the middle class (in the British sense).

Posted by Ginger Yellow | Report as abusive

I object! Lottery tickets are NOT taxes on ignorance. Each one is a very real opportunity to win a fortune. The odds of winning are so astronomically low it’s almost as if no one should win. And yet eventually someone always does. I play to have that chance. You can’t score if you don’t take a shot and you can’t win if you don’t play.

Posted by PLANE | Report as abusive


Innumerates? Who says they can’t add?

Let’s put it this way. If you’re seeking to maximize income, J-School is an unsound investment. Of course, if you’re seeking to maximize income, journalism is a poor choice of careers. So let’s start off by assuming that people who are entering journalism have other things they value more highly than their net worth.

You’re conflating two very different problems. The first is the problem of unequal access. J-School functions as a job-placement service; students pay an enormous sum, and their schools help them find employment. That’s an easier path for students with substantial resources, and they’re crowding out those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But that’s as much symptom as cause, I fear – as the social prestige of journalists has risen tremendously in the postwar era, relatively privileged young people have flocked to the field. Get rid of the J-Schools, and you won’t solve that problem – contemporary journalism still pays poorly relative to education and talent, demands long hours, and offers relatively little in the way of job security. For the most part, you’re going to find people who can afford to take the risk entering into it.

The second issue is that journalists, almost by definition, value other things more highly than money. With their skill sets, they could certainly earn more in other arenas. That’s not often true of business people; most bankers, for example, chose the field because they wanted to make money. So you end up with a cultural chasm. Many of the most talented journalists cover things like politics or government – beats on which they believe they can ‘make a difference.’ They don’t pay much attention to markets or money, either in their personal or professional lives. Reuters, Portfolio, and other business-centered organizations are obvious exceptions. But on most broadcast outlets, in most newspapers and magazines, business is not the prestige beat. That aspiring journalist shell out more to attend J-School than they can likely recoup in higher wages is symptom, not cause; it simply reaffirms that they’re willing to make significant financial sacrifices to pursue their chosen craft.

I’m not sure how you solve that problem. As we’re now learning, good coverage of the business world can have a more significant effect than covering City Hall. I think some news organizations are noticing that, and noticing that their readership feels that way, too. And, given the dearth of journalism jobs, some very talented young reporters are gravitating to the business beat as a way to make their mark. But it’ll take time for the culture to change.

Posted by Cynic | Report as abusive

This is ridiculous. “Journalism” school doesn’t cost more than “Biology” school. You pay top dollar to go to a particular school, not for a particular course of study! My college roommate paid the same amount to go to school as I did, but we studied different subjects. So is he more financially savvy than I am?? This is absurd. Clearly, Ricky just has a problem with journos for whatever reason… probably got shot down by a pretty one or something. What a nunce.

Posted by PhillyGuy | Report as abusive

Ginger Yellow said,
“A similar argument applies to news organisations themselves. If you pay graduates less than a living wage then you’ll only get candidates whose parents can afford to support them, not the widest range of skilled applicants. This practice also perpetuates the narrow outlook of the media, by restricting access to the middle class.”

Another insane argument. Do you think social workers do what they do for the money? Do you think they all have rich parents who support them? Right… most journos are ideologic people, like social workers, who do it for reasons other than money… or rich parents! Ridiculous!

Posted by PhillyGuy | Report as abusive

First, nobody goes to journalism school to study journalism anymore. Most j-school students study advertising, PR, broadcast journalism (which can be argued either way), online media, etc. Second, journalism is just like any another other major like philosophy. You don’t necessarily pay extra to go to j-school. You just major in it. And third, journalism is probably one of the more practical liberal arts degrees that is general enough to get you into multiple industries. Based on the # of comments your posts get, it looks you should have went to j-school to learn how to be a more compelling writer.

Posted by jschool grad | Report as abusive

katie made a point not articulated in the initial post, through inexplicably, she meant to argue against the idea j-school is a waste:

“My only complaint about going to j-school was that I felt I was learning a trade, rather than getting an education.”

That I think is the point of the difference between studying journalism in college and studying most other things. J-school is teaching a trade. It’s teaching a set of skills to do a particular job and then providing the job placement for an entry-level position in that field. Journalism is a dying industry. If someone does this as a specialized master’s degree program, this is a waste of money; if someone just majors in journalism as an undergraduate, it’s a waste of a college education. This is not even considering the quality of a j-school education from the point of view of its quality.

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

well… I for one never taken journalism school. Don’t need to… I am a domainer and webdeveloper… currently I’m looking forward into the development of ” ” (aka “epogger”) for a microblogger… Bill O’Reilly eat your heart out :P