Thursday, June 02, 2005

Good Advice

James Lileks' Bleat is always good, but today's has something great. His daughter's school is having a party, and he joins a conversation with fellow parents:

One mom was talking about trying to get a niece to attend the U of W at Madison. What field of study? I inquired. Journalism.

Oh. Hmm. Well – what sort? Print? You know, I’d advise against it. Better to take English classes, learn how to write, then write a lot. It’s not a profession that requires four years of college, let alone a master’s degree.

They looked at me with a certain amount of amused confusion, so I said, apologetically, that was I was actually in the business, and degrees mattered less than clips and skill. J-school taught you how to teach J-school. How to go to think tanks and peer down your nose at the messy scrum of daily papers. Not to say it was a waste of time, heavens no. But journalism per se can be mastered quite quickly, and if it can’t, you don’t have it. If you regard “journalism” to mean “colorful writing that yearns to be recognized by awards committees for its sensitive yet tough portrayal of the life of a 14 year old meth addict,” then English is still the way to go. I look back at the classic papers of the 30s in this town, and marvel; the authors weren’t college men, I suspect, but had the requisite instincts and judgments to make the front page irresistible. You can hone judgment, but you can’t teach instinct. The first question in any J-school application ought to be “do you want to change the world?” And anyone who answers yes gets kindly turned away. Your job is to describe the way the world changes. Not pretend you’re there to nudge it along towards utopia.

If only that last part was enforced we'd be served far better by our news media. Wanting to change the world is exactly what's wrong with the American, and international, press.

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