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.


One thought on “Journalism: A profession or trade?

  1. I was a journalist who was apprenticed on the job. I am now a chair Professor of Journalism with a PhD. What system works best? It depends : on how good the person you work with to learn is, or how good the journalism school is.

    Some apprentice masters are terrific. However the best journalism schools employ savvy ex journos who also do research on journalism. in that way, their real life teaching is enhanced by academic reflection.


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