Journalism: A profession or trade?

I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback on my previous post whether a journalism degree is still worth the cost. It seems that many others are also wondering not only whether the cost is worth it, but whether what you’re getting for that cost is valuable as well.

I tied this in with a recent discussion across several Linkedin professional groups, asking whether journalism today is still considered a profession, or whether it is more of a skilled trade. Many respondents believe that journalism has always been a trade, and several thought an apprenticeship program may serve budding  journalists better than a 4-year college degree.

I think we can all agree that, in the days of the penny press, The Front Page and Citizen Kane, journalism was indeed a trade, where up-and-coming reporters worked as copy boys and runners for seasoned writers, learning from the masters and honing their own craft. Somewhere in the New Frontier era, colleges grew journalism curriculums and handed out diplomas. The Woodward-Bernstein era brought renewed interest in journalism and millions flocked to college to obtain j-diplomas. As newspapers became a big business, diplomas became mandatory to get into the field, and that’s when people started  looking at journalism as a profession (It probably didn’t help, as in my case, to have college textbooks with names like “The Professional Journalist”).

But, unlike other professions like lawyers, doctors and accountants, journalists do not have to go through an accreditation process that holds them to a level of standards and ethics. “Accreditation,” in a sense, came through the organization a journalist worked for.  A New York Times reporter, for example, would have higher standards in the face of the clients and customers as, say, a reporter for the National Inquirer.

 While news organizations have similar standards, there was a disparity among organizations in how those standards are applied and how violators were handled. We saw this in the 1990s with the revelation of plagiarism and misconduct at prestigious places such as the Times. There is no uniform, independent organization that holds a journalist’s feet to the fire, like there are for doctors and lawyers.

In that respect, journalists cannot be considered a true professional.  But it can certainly be considered a trade. Writing, reporting and editing are crafts that use tools which everyone can use. But there are several intangibles that cannot be taught in a class or a laboratory. I know how to use a saw, hammer and sander, but I cannot build furniture with the quality and detail of a master craftsman. Likewise, anyone can use a pencil, paper or computer keyboard, but there are certain skills — both tangible and intangible  — that separate the wordsmiths from the hacks.

The question remains whether these intangible skills is best nurtured in a classroom or a real world environment. And, while apprenticeships seem to be a more logical and cost-effect method of learning these skills, how many newsrooms today have the time and resources to become training fields for the journalists of tomorrow?

Finally, with the rise of “citizen journalist”-based hyperlocals and the “anyone can write a blog” era, is it time for the trade to have an independent accreditation board, by which members would be held accountable to a level of standards and penalties assessed for members who don’t?

More on this in my next post.

Is the cost of a journalism degree worth it?

Of course, we do not go into journalism for the money.

But, unfortunately, passion and commitment to be a watchdog for the public good won’t pay the bills.

We’ve watched the painful evolution (many would argue erosion) of the news industry over the past five years, and what we’re seeing is a profession that is losing value as the combination of advancing technology, changing readership habits and cheaper labor pools have left thousands of trained, experienced journalists without a decent way to eke out a living.

Couple that with the increasing costs of higher education today and you have to wonder: Is a journalism degree worth it anymore?

(An aside: This started as a discussion with a colleague about Congress cracking down on for-profit colleges, which federal studies say have a higher default rate on student loans. Under federal proposals tom make the schools more accountable for their practices, my friend – who is employed at a for-profit — noted the amount he paid for his education from Northwestern University’s Medill School would not pass what the feds are proposing for the for-profits.)

Is spending well over $100,000 for a 4-year degrees that promises an average starting salary in the mid-$30,000’s  (and more likely less in much of the country) worth the investment? In particular, will the cost of the nation’s premiere schools such as Medill ever pay off (especially noting a recent Sun-Times story listing a one-year master’s program at Medill for around $84,000)?

Some may argue that a degree from Medill or Columbia or other prestigious schools may have more clout in the business than other schools. But as traditional newsrooms get leaner and meaner, will we be seeing more of those graduates finding their first jobs at places like Patch or, where average pay is below the figures mentioned above?

Journalism many years ago was treated as a trade, where scribes worked their ways from the copy boy to reporter to editor, honing their crafts in the real world and learning from mentors. Somewhere along the way colleges developed degreed journalism programs and the craft evolved into a profession. However, unlike other professions, journalism had no accrediting boards to certify and regulate a set of standards and ethics among its members (like a bar association or AMA) — that was left to the individual newspapers.

As the industry struggles to find a new ground, journalism schools continue to adjust their programs to meet potential future needs. One trend we’re beginning to see is median companies partnering with schools  to provide real world laboratories through their hyperlocal sites. AOL’s has created Patch U. to provide its growing hyperlocal network as a real world laboratory for  budding journalists, and the Tribune Co. has recently made similar arrangements with local colleges for its Triblocal hyperlocal products.

These programs, however, harken back to the “trade” days when a journalists cut his teeth through real work, instead of in a classroom or laboratory. If a student completes a couple of years training at Patch U., will that make his diploma from State College moot? The answer to that lies in whether that experience could replace a journalism degree when the new journo is ready to make the next step.

The other question is where that step will be — if there will be any.