Journalism Students Ask: Why Am I Here? ; J-School Is More Popular Than Ever. but Is It Necessary?

Article excerpt

Heather Saucier learned the lesson of the "nut graf" the hard way. (In journalism jargon, the "nut graf" is a paragraph near the top of a story that concisely lays out its thesis.)

Ms. Saucier was still in college, working as an intern for the now-defunct Houston Post. She filed a piece on the city's troublesome squirrel population. The story was fine, her editor said, "But you're missing a nut graf."

She'd already written about squirrels chewing through telephone wires and gnawing on wood, so she dashed off a short paragraph about their diet: nuts.

Some would argue that Saucier learned this essential of the journalistic craft in the best possible fashion - on the job. Others, however, might point to Saucier's story as an example of one of the oddities of journalism: So many enter the field with so little formal instruction.

Whatever the answer, Saucier stayed her course. But as time went on, she considered returning to school. After five years as a features writer, her stories regularly took third place in competitions. She wanted "to be a first-place writer," though, and thought "there has to be something I don't know that I can learn."

In journalism graduate school, she says, content was held in higher esteem than style. And she discovered what had been missing from her work - substance.

It's one of the most circular and enduring debates in journalism: whether to bother with a graduate degree that certainly doesn't guarantee a job, and, unlike law or medicine, has never been required.

Nearly a century after the first journalism school opened in 1908, schools are in flux - Columbia University's vaunted program, where Saucier earned her degree, is in the final stages of an overhaul.

Debates over the value and purpose of such programs are perpetual. Should they focus on skills - or theory? Some argue their value lies largely in forging contacts to help crack open the door to a closed insider's game. Then there are those successful newspeople who insist their value is nil.

And yet - paradoxically, perhaps - even as tuition rises and the time spent earning a degree expands, enrollment at journalism schools is up.

Bolstered by a larger demographic shift in the numbers of students attending graduate school, last year students earning master's in journalism and mass communication hit an all-time high of 11,703, according to an annual survey by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

It's a tough job, journalism. The pay is low. Competition is fierce. And a spate of ethics scandals hasn't endeared the profession to the public.

The median salary of a person holding a master's degree in journalism and mass communication is a little over $32,000. While a year spent earning a degree at Columbia in New York City or Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill. - both private schools and two of the country's best - can cost up to $60,000, including living expenses.

Still, the allure - whether romantic visions of mellifluous prose, foreign correspondents confronting war zones, or oldtime newspapermen felling corrupt governments - remains strong. And journalists, both working and aspiring, talk of journalism as less a job than a calling.

"I always tell people that I didn't pick journalism. I think journalism picked me," says Roya Aziz, in her third - and, she hopes, final - year of earning a dual degree in journalism and international studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Many are drawn to the field by a love of writing; others yearn for the role of guardian of democracy. …