Too Cool for J-School

How very gratifying it was to read on Sunday that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes had advised a group of journalism students to change majors, especially after we’d spent the past few weeks helping to raise money for journalism scholarships.

The fund-raising was entirely inadvertent on our part, of course. Every year we write and perform a few skits in the annual Gridiron Show, a satirical musical revue presented by the Wichita chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and featuring a cast of local media workers, and although the show has raised more than $100,000 for scholarships over the past 45 years we’re in it strictly to get a few laughs.

At some point in every three-night run the show introduces the lucky recipients of the scholarship funds, and we always stand in the wings looking at these fresh-faced, wide-eyed young people and wonder what they could possibly be thinking. There’s a temptation to grab them by their starched collars and shake them vigorously, telling them it would be better to get a degree in horse-and-buggy repair or telegraphy than to prepare for a career in the newspaper industry, but we always let it pass and allow them their futile dreams.

It’s not just that newspapers everywhere are losing readers and advertising revenue and any hope for the future at a rapid pace, although that probably should figure into any young person’s career planning. It’s also that journalism schools are the worst possible places to learn how to be a journalist.

Newspapers would be far healthier today if the hired people with economics degrees to write about economics, agriculture degrees to write about agriculture, military training to write about military affairs, and so on. General assignment reporters, we believe, should have a broad general knowledge acquired outside of any school. One of the many peculiar conceits of the modern journalism biz is the notion that journalism is hard, and that anyone who can master the daunting logic of the inverted pyramid should find that everything he writes about is relatively easy. This is why there so much insufferable haughtiness among the press corps, and so many mistakes. One of the better reporters we ever worked with had a divinity degree, and he covered the religion beat for the local paper so naturally he was one of the first to go in a series of lay-offs that have more decimated the staff there. Another reporter we came to respect had majored in mathematics, and we suspect he’s still on the job mainly because the rest of the staff is hopelessly innumerate and relies on him to figure out how big that tax hike is going to be as a percentage of an average income.

Worse yet, journalism schools churn out a hopelessly like-minded bunch of reporters. After 32 years in the news business we’ve yet to meet a journalism major who didn’t have the exact same opinions as the rest. The Gridiron Show, which wouldn’t have told a single Obama joke in the past four years if not for our tireless and much-resented efforts, is an annual reminder of how drearily uniform reporters are in their thinking.

Lest we seem too harsh toward our colleagues, this year’s show also provided a reminder that there are still good people in the media. Saturday night’s performance was stopped shortly after intermission by a calamitous prairie storm that dropped a tornado nearby and flooded the streets surrounding the downtown theater. While we waited out the storm in the theater’s flooding basement several cast members headed off to work, and when we finally made our way to the sparsely-attended cast party we heard our friend Ted Woodward already on the air with KNSS-AM advising us of the safest routes to our destination, another example of his indefatigable work ethic and journalistic integrity.

We’re not sure if Ted’s a journalism major, though.

— Bud Norman


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