Stacked up next to lessons on queering Shakespeare, feminist interpretive dance, and non-binary archery, studying journalism is only mildly less ridiculous than many courses offered by the academy today. Yet each time my alma mater’s increasingly woke newsletter arrives in the mail I’m stunned these programs still exist. I think, these poor students are being led so far astray, as I was, by studying journalism. Today, more than ever, it is harming, not helping, their future career.
I came out of school in 2005, before iPhones, before Big Social Media, before journalism was completely dead, when reading the news on your computer was unpleasant and people mostly still bought print. It was possible, then, to dream up a six-figure salary on staff at a magazine if you were good and tenacious, or so I thought. I can’t imagine what these students today think they’re vying for. Online social prestige and free pizza at the BuzzFeed Annual Fundraising Gala doesn’t pay the bills, kiddos.
The industry was so different when I was in school, journalism was my safety-major. I took it on in addition to studying English and creative writing, reasoning if that novelist thing didn’t work out, I could always just be a journalist, I guess. But, as many young fiction-lovers do, I came to appreciate real life as more bizarre and worthwhile of a good story than anything a writer could invent in his head.
I shot straight for the big leagues. After completing my last exam, I skipped the graduation ceremony and hitched a ride to New York City, with nothing but two bags, some books, and $900 in the bank, arriving in the middle of the night to crash on my ex-boyfriend’s sofa, who was living in Brooklyn at the time. We got in a fight the next evening, and I was out on the street, but that’s another story. 14 years later and I still haven’t left, for better or worse.
It’s a tale as old as time, sparkle-eyed kid from the hinterlands comes to town with a dollar and a dream. I worked my way into media circles, a nobody from nowhere, and noticed all the powerful editors and writers I met seemed to have one thing in common: none of them went to journalism school. Their origin stories, how they broke into the business, would come to exactly mirror my own, just a couple years later. They lucked into it. Each had stories like my friend Pat. Pat, not his real name, ran a fashion label and one day sat down to, willy-nilly, write a piece about the experience. It got picked up by a major newspaper and almost overnight he was no longer making clothes but covering fashion for the biggest newspapers and glossies. That’s what happened to me. I was working in a restaurant. One day I fired off a story to a random email address at the New York Times, and it got published. That was my first byline and the start of my career. In fact, even though I wasted four years in J-school, that was also the start of my education.
You see, journalism school is playtime. Newspapers and blogs are written at the reading comprehension level of invertebrates. In the same way you can teach yourself to build a spice rack, you can learn how to craft prose like a journalist and in your own time, you don’t need school for that. The dirty secret is, anyone can be a reporter, it isn’t rocket science. Often the most successful journalists aren’t intelligent people or good writers. Where meritocracy factors in, the industry elevates those with an innate, rat-like cunning, something that can’t be taught. When I was in school, we thought journalists were a noble people commanding integrity. We didn’t have social media to expose daily the true idiocy, laziness, and incompetence of those once-fearsome brands in news.
There are two exceptions to attending J-school, and those involve the Ivy League and/or your bloodline. Poor, stupid, innocent me left school believing enough grit, talent and passion was all you needed to eventually land a staff job at the New York Times, or any other major media outlet. I forget I was descended from hill people and no one told me the only thing that matters to land those jobs is who your parents are. Hi, Chris Cuomo!
Staff jobs are even more rare and precious today than a few years ago. I’d been freelancing for the New York Times’s Metro Section for a couple years, believing I was doing everything right and on course for, maybe, a job one day, when I noticed a new staff byline quietly appear in the pages. His stories stood out because they were so lackluster, the writing was shockingly juvenile, but this new hire had a very familiar surname. Just a quick search revealed he was the fresh out of Ivy League, 22-year-old son of one of the biggest editors in the business, who ran a national magazine just up the street. Breeze around the family trees of countless journalists who have staff jobs at major publications and you’ll find not only media industry incest, but a preference for family members of Hollywood celebrities, politicians, fiction writers and anyone of culturally-noble blood. Sorry, plebs, as the pool continues to shrink, they’ll always have first dibs.
Gender and skin color are the second areas where your DNA matters in landing a media job. If you are lucky enough to have been born a black woman, or transgender Muslim immigrant, by all means work that angle and include a photograph on your resume. I’d be lying if I said my gay privilege didn’t help me along the way. But there is no more worthless exploit on earth for a middle-class white male than studying journalism at a state school. Your career is never going to happen that way, ever.
Second dibs on those rare jobs goes to the Ivy League. If you are attending Columbia, Yale or Harvard you can disregard this column, and not because you’re getting a valuable education. You may not be the son of Nora Ephron, but attending one of these schools will display exactly the sort of natural born privilege and easy access to elite institutions that fits in perfectly at snotty, siloed places like the Times.
By this point, you might be asking, ‘OK, you bitter old faggot, what am I supposed to do then? Blow every editor in Manhattan just to squeak my way in the door?’ If you’re attractive, the answer is yes. That’s a saner strategy than wasting four years studying journalism. But, if we’re being honest, the industry doesn’t have the wealth of Hollywood for transactional sex to be a viable plan for career advancement. Plus, once you see some of these people, you’re really not going to want to touch them. They make Harvey Weinstein look like a beautiful sunset.
So, what else can you do?
If you must go to school, then pick a beat, any beat. Drop out of journalism courses right now and switch your major to that. This will give you a huge advantage on day one against everyone else emerging with their worthless J-school degrees.
Become an expert in something, anything, and the more narrow your expertise, the better. Position yourself as the go-to guy on one topic, the person with all the contacts who knows the subject inside and out, and will be privy to hidden gems that general interest reporters won’t spot. This is what editors are going to do to you anyway, they’re going to put you in a box, as the reporter who knows about X, and when X comes up in the news, they’ll call you. Don’t make them guess, take the initiative to ghettoize yourself. By doing this, you’ll be years ahead of your classmates still playing reporter in J-school.
This beat will not be your entire career. Say you decided to change your major to physics, but you don’t want to spend the next 30 years covering press releases from NASA. You won’t, reporters move across beats and roles all the time. Look at Frank Bruni from the Times, who went from foreign correspondent, to chief restaurant critic, to opinion columnist. But, you may find, after a couple years, you do want to spend your life covering press releases from NASA. If you have that gene of curiosity that all good reporters do, you’ll discover the more embedded you are in one subject, the mundane becomes the wonderful. Some of the best writing out there comes from reporters on some wonkish beat who stumbled upon something unexpected and marvelous.
I was inspired to write this column after a friend’s 15-year-old son — a talented, ambitious, and charming aspiring journalist — called me up to ask if he should chase his dream by going to journalism school or take the practical approach and attend a trade school. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. By making that phone call, he’s already a step ahead of anyone goofing off in worthless workshopping sessions at J-school. Don’t stop with me, I told him, reach out to journalists you like, reporters at your local news station, ask to profile them for your school paper, and keep those contacts alive and nurture those relationships. Check in periodically, send fan mail when they run a story you enjoyed.
As much as I tend to loathe journalists, I give them credit for almost always making themselves available for a cup of coffee and free advice for a young start-up. They probably do this because it strokes their fragile egos to have a glimmering fanboy emerge from the shadows, and, by all means, use their narcissism to your advantage! Don’t be afraid or shy. I promise they’ll be flattered by your interest in their work. And flattery will get you everywhere in media circles.
Without a journalism degree, you probably won’t land an internship at a major publication, at least not at first. But, who cares? Most publications rely on slavery, I mean freelancers, anyway, and those indentured writers could use some part-time help. And a little love. Get yourself a mentor, and don’t slack off or fuck around. In exchange for assisting with research and day-to-day management of your mentor’s career, you will receive the invaluable education and access that J-school will never provide.
I felt like a boomer reminding my friend’s son of these hip new things called personal blogs, where he can continue practicing journalism and honing his skills with absolute freedom, and build up a portfolio of work and an audience, after high school if he chooses to snub the academy to pursue a useful education. But I guess I’m not a boomer if no college student thought of that, either, because, again, why the hell would they be wasting all that money on J-school if they knew the sad and ugly truth of the industry?
In some cases that blog will launch your career and your mentor, if he’s a good one, will be more than happy to read your work and offer critiques. Varys from Game of Thrones started off running a personal blog about media. His blog got him a job at the New York Times and now a show on CNN called Reliable Sources. Varys was just some cranky, basement-dwelling creep before that. Now he dwells in penthouses.
The challenge to this alternative educational route is keeping your head in the game. That’s what your menteeship will provide. J-school may keep you focused for a few years, but, let’s face it, the vast majority of those students will never work as journalists. Skip the degree, but never stop reading, writing, paying attention to everything around you, asking questions, and making friends with people who will want to help you and have the ability to do so.
Writing has always been a rich man’s hobby, unbeknownst to us stupid, poor people who thought we had a shot. Journalism is increasingly that, a part-time leisure activity for the trust-fund class. Most publications aren’t looking for talent or degrees, they’re looking for automatons to churn out clickbait crap the fastest and for the least amount of money. The people engaged in this war on truth and integrity are in no way fulfilled by their work. They’re miserable, empty, and in debt. They were duped. Don’t make the same mistake. If you’re serious, get to work now.