Making Better Journalists

There’s a stupid sort of meta-fanwank that goes on over at Romenesko every couple of months. It goes like this:

Reporter writes in to say “Journalism school didn’t teach me shit. I learned more in ten minutes on the job than I ever learned listening to all those losers bore on in the classroom. Those who can’t, teach! We should abolish journalism school and take children straight from the cradle and put them on the copy desk!”

Academics and aspiring academics go predictably and hilariously apeshit, citing every misdeed perpetrated by every non-J School grad ever, writing in with paeans to their beloved profs that would make Mitch Albom vomit. “This kid needs to learn some respect!” they mutter in the direction of the original letter-writer.

Various factions come out to support each other, mostly with personal anecdotes about what they learned and where they learned it, but usually with little data. This goes on for a couple of weeks, and then it goes away just long enough for everybody to forget they’ve thrashed the question into insensibility, and then some dipshit starts it all up again.

I come down on a very predictable side of the question myself. By the time I was admitted to my university’s journalism school (passing a criminally simple writing/reading comprehension test, like I was applying for ESL classes or something), I already knew most of what they were going to teach me. And my professors knew I knew it. They used to come and find me down in the student newspaper offices, passed out on the crusty, unspeakably nasty corner couch, after pulling one too many all-nighters in which one too many of my reporters (I was 19 and had reporters, it was insane) blew one too many deadlines.

My school also leaned heavy on theory and short on practicality; I had one professor in three years who was actually a working journalist. His classes were heaven. We sat around and drank coffee, he told us all who was banging who at the paper where he worked, he gave us good stories to read and taught us how to open a story and close it, and how to respond to an asshole who didn’t like your line of questioning. Everybody else, eh. The guy teaching “media ethics” had never studied journalism, no lie. Another’s experience consisted of two years at a small weekly in Iowa. Toward the end, I stopped showing up. I did the reading, but sitting next to 16 kids, 14 of whom were going into marketing, wasn’t teaching me anything I wasn’t learning down at the newspaper offices.

I’ve heard extraordinary tales from people who went to great journalism schools and had extraordinary teachers who taught them valuable things. But there’s some things in this life, I’ve always thought, that you have to learn while living it. Namely, that journalism is a life, and I don’t care how many times somebody in a classroom tells you that, until you’re there, until you’re so tired you really are about to just fucking fall right over and the coffee machine blew up and nobody knows where the press conference/pig fuck is being held and one of the photogs you need is drunk and the other one’s MIA and you haven’t showered and you have to take this phone call and your mom’s on her way to the house but you can’t get there because you have to have this story you just have to man you don’t understand you need it done right now today, well, let’s just say it doesn’t hit you until that moment.

And the sooner it hits you, the better. The younger you are when you grow the fuck up and realize that everybody in the nice whitebread office next door got to go home on Sept. 11 but you had to go to work, that Christmas and Easter and weekends and Thanksgiving are no longer givens, that you may have to, as one friend of mine did, no joke, put your notebook in a plastic bag and literally swim to a story, that you’ve got to swallow your urge to barf as they’re peeling a guy out of a car wreck and just get his name, the more time you have to do incredible things. And the best journalism education combines the theory you may never need but just might with the kind of experience that prepares you for that.

Which is a long-ass roundabout way of saying this story warms the cockles of my chilly little heart:

Chelsea’s next assignment: Find students who have had sex in school.

For days, she wandered the halls doing random interviews.

“I tried not to be shy,” Chelsea said. “Last year, when I was a junior, I never could have done it. This year, I’m a lot better talking to people out of the blue. It gets easier desensitizing yourself to being embarrassed. I went up to people I did not know and asked if they knew who had sex in school. I didn’t want to ask them directly. It scares them. I wanted to squeeze as much information out of them; that was my strategy.”

In this manner, she collected a dozen names.

During the next week, at night, at home, Chelsea worked the phones.

“It was easier asking personal questions over the phone,” she said. “My mom disapproved of the vulgarity of it, but for me, it was enjoyable making the calls.”

In the end, the article (“Inside a Public School, a Private Deed”) described sex in the school auditorium (“fifth row of the center section”); in the arts hallway; by the staircase nearest the gym; in a girls’ bathroom (“they flushed their used condom down the toilet”); in the band room, the band uniform room and a band practice room (“it was one of those spur of the moment, have to have you, kinds of things”).

Six times in the last decade, Silver Chips has won the award for Maryland’s best student paper; twice in the last four years it has won the National Scholastic Press Association’s top award.

Hook ’em young and they’re yours for life. And we need more kids like this. If our political discourse in the past five years has taught us anything, it’s that Good God Almighty, we need more kids like this.

A.