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
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
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. …