So you're starting college (or going back after working awhile) and want to pursue a journalism career. Should you major in journalism? Take a few journalism courses and get a degree in something else? Or steer clear of the j-school altogether?
Getting a Journalism Degree - the Pros
By majoring in journalism you get a solid foundation in the fundamental skills of the trade. You also get access to specialized, upper-level journalism courses. Want to be a sportswriter? A film critic? Many j-schools offer specialized classes in these areas. Most also offer training in the kind of multimedia skills that are increasingly in demand. Many also have internship programs for their students.
Majoring in journalism also gives you access to mentors, namely the j-school faculty, who have worked in the profession and can offer valuable advice. And since many schools include faculty who are working journalists, you'll have the chance to network with professionals in the field.
Getting a Journalism Degree - the Cons
Many in the news business will tell you that the basic skills of reporting, writing and interviewing are best learned not in a classroom but by covering real stories for the college newspaper. That's how many journalists learned their craft, and in fact, some of the biggest stars in the business never took a journalism course in their life.
Also, journalists are increasingly being asked not just to be good reporters and writers, but to also have specialized knowledge in a particular field. So by getting a journalism degree you may limiting your opportunity to do that, unless you plan on going to grad school.
Let's say your dream is to become a foreign correspondent in France. Many would argue that you'd be better served by studying French language and culture, while picking up the necessary journalism skills along the way. In fact, Tom, a friend of mine who became a Moscow correspondent for The Associated Press did just that: He majored in Russian studies in college, but put in plenty of time at the student paper, building up his skills and his clip portfolio.
Of course, it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. You could get a double major in journalism and something else. You could take just a few journalism courses. And there's always grad school.
In the end, you should find a plan that works for you. If you want access to everything that a journalism school has to offer (mentors, internships, etc.) and want to take plenty of time to hone your journalism skills, then j-school is for you.
But if you think you can learn how to report and write by jumping in headfirst, either by freelancing or working at the student paper, then you may be better served by learning your journalism skills on-the-job, and majoring in something else entirely.
So Who's More Employable?
It all comes down to this: Who's more likely to get a journalism job after graduation, a journalism major or someone with a degree in another area?
Generally, j-school grads may find it easier to land that first news job right out of college. That's because the journalism degree gives employers a sense that the graduate has learned the fundamental skills of the profession.
On the other hand, as journalists move forward in their careers and start to seek out more specialized and prestigious jobs, many find that a degree in an area outside of journalism gives them a leg up on the competition (like my friend Tom, who majored in Russian).
Put another way, the longer you've been working in the news business the less your college degree matters. What counts most at that point is your knowledge and job experience.