in Journalism

Why Michael Wolff is Wrong about Columbia Journalism School

2013 03 25 wrong2

I’ve been meaning, for several months, to provide an update on my experiences here at Columbia Journalism School.

I didn’t expect that my impetus to write would come today in the form of a Michael Wolff column in USA TODAY. But here goes.

Wolff argues that the J-School’s recent appointment of Steve Coll as the new dean, set to take over from Nicholas Lemann this summer, shows that the school is hopelessly misguided.

A hidebound Columbia is failing to modernize, and is neglecting to prepare its students for a bleak job market in the digital world — all while charging massive tuition and fees.

Coll is a “boring” writer, Wolff says, who comes from the decidedly old school worlds of The New Yorker and The Washington Post. And, perhaps even worse, Coll has never Tweeted.

(Wolff neglects to mention that Coll has won two Pulitzer Prizes and has written a total of seven books on topics ranging from the SEC to the Grand Trunk Road to the CIA’s history in Afghanistan.)

I would like to outline what I see as the errors and shortcomings in Wolff’s column.

1. Wolff is wrong about Columbia’s curriculum.

Wolff writes:

Journalism school, especially Columbia’s vaunted program, is often anti-market in outlook. Much of what the market wants, journalism training doesn’t give it. You surely won’t learn at Columbia how to be a tabloid reporter, or an opinionated Fox News host, or an online aggregator, or a brand-name columnist full of brio or bile, or a social or mobile visionary or quant.

This is incorrect. The Journalism School offers classes in online aggregation. It offers instruction in social media. It offers classes in on-air reporting and opinion writing.

And the J-School offers classes in coding — which I should know, because I’m taking a course called “Formats, Protocols & Algorithms: A sampling of journalistic computing.” My classmates and I are learning about Python, APIs, and more.

As for quantitative skills, I took financial accounting last semester and am now studying corporate finance. I have also taken a class in Excel techniques, as well as an investigative skills class in which I learned, among other topics, how best to make use of Freedom of Information Act requests.

2. Wolff is wrong about the school’s approach to career preparedness.

He continues:

Rather, journalism school tends to teach you, admirably or quixotically, many less economically valuable skills: methodological reporting, sourcing protocols, research procedures, and a grounding in ethical and civic responsibility. The ideal goal continues to be to get you a job on The New York Times or The Washington Post, two organizations trying to fire more people than they hire.

First, I’m quite certain that the vast majority of those hiring in the news world do, in fact, value sourcing protocols and ethics.

And second, even glancing at the J-School’s Career Services page reveals an emphasis on preparing students to graduate with the digital and technical skills that employers want.

3. Wolf is wrong in arguing that the school is ignoring the digital news revolution.

He writes:

After many years of avoiding the inevitable, [Columbia] expanded its digital program — curiously hiring a Web editor from London to run it. It now has courses about using data in reporting. But to say it resists the outside world would be kindly.

And:

In a logical if imaginary world, there is no reason why Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism should not be as vital to the building of the front end of new information forms and relationships as Stanford computing students have been to creating the back end.

Perhaps Wolff missed the January 2012 announcement, available on the Columbia Web site, containing the news that Columbia and Stanford’s engineering school are collaborating to form the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

To quote the Columbia news item: The Institute “will recognize the increasingly important connection between journalism and technology, bringing the best from the East and West Coasts.”

And perhaps Wolff hasn’t seen the report by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, released last fall, called “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

4. Wolff is wrong about Columbia’s professors.

He says:

Many of the school’s teachers continue to be journalists who have lost their jobs, or who have barely had them in the first place, or who are book writers or magazine writers — which hardly represents a job market. Indeed, as the news business shrinks, teaching becomes one of its few growth areas.

My professors have included working journalists from Reuters, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, among other news organizations. And my non-journalist professors have largely been at the top of their academic fields.

To be sure, Wolff has a larger point: The news industry is in a state of ongoing flux. That’s clear.

And as always, it’s fair to debate the merits of attending journalism school, especially an expensive one like Columbia.

But my feeling is that most of my classmates understand the difficult realities inherent in today’s market, yet have come to Columbia to gain in-depth knowledge, to work closely with seasoned pros, and to become better reporters. (And yes, perhaps I’m biased, as I’ve chosen to take a year off from work in order to attend the J-School.)

Despite technological changes, however, I would argue this: Basic reporting techniques, like research and fact checking, remain timeless.

(Image via xkcd.com.)