Journalism as a liberal art

 Journalism students acquire two kinds of competence: specific and general. They write news stories that satisfy current genre requirements, learn to operate the latest production equipment, and are instructed in newsroom values and practices. That’s the stereotype of what J-school is: a prep course for jobs in journalism specifically, and it works for that.

What’s more important, and often overlooked, is that journalism schools are important centers for training nonfiction writers generally. Trainee journalists are constantly testing different ways to present information to the public or to relatively nonspecialist audiences. They learn how to report information, verify it, get it online, improve their writing for tough editors, and avoid getting sued. They bring their online and social media abilities up to date. These are broadly applicable skills. Name another place that can train you in the art of fact the way creative writing programmes can train you in the art of fiction.

Journalism graduates today still get jobs in the field, but the collapse of the newspaper business model means a higher proportion of them will end up doing other things. That is nothing new. Journalism is a high-churn field and few people retired from it even when more people entered it. My journalism school classmates from 20 years ago have for example:

– Written the definitive nonfiction book about pigeons and another book about gated retirement communities
– Handled science communications for large universities and research centers, including a “Science Minute” radio spot
– Been named the first Chief Digital Officer at the university we came from
– Run communications at a global car company
– Served as a public health information officer for a US state

Some have even made the leap to fiction. We have several novelists and the editor in chief at a comic book publisher.

Journalism offers fantastic opportunities to see how the world works and gain exposure, and that’s why many other kinds of writers and editors start there. But don’t forget it is also excellent preparation or in-service training for other fields.