~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, March 28th 2013
Any institution charging students $60,000 for a vocational degree deserves a certain amount of scrutiny. But when Michael Wolff turned his sights on Columbia Journalism School for appointing a new dean who has never tweeted, he misfired.
The dean in question is Steve Coll (pictured), who will replace Nicholas Lemann in July. Both men have worked for the Washington Post and the New Yorker. Both have written several books. Neither is known for their digital acumen. But under Lemann, the school made strides in improving the digital curriculum by hiring Emily Bell from the Guardian to direct the new Tow Center for digital journalism and forging a partnership with the engineering school to grant dual degrees in journalism and computer science.
Right now, Columbia J-school is building a new institute for media innovation with money pledged by the late Helen Gurley Brown, who edited Cosmopolitan for many years. Mark Hansen, who started his career in research and development and now specialises in data and computing, will lead the new institute.
Even if Coll is as conservative as Wolff fears, there are people in his team with fearsome résumés, dedicated to the digital and technological future of the profession. What’s worrying is that after taking down the incoming dean on the strength of a poor Twitter presence, Wolff rubbishes the entire school for being "anti-market".
I took the digital-media master's degree at Columbia last year after trying, and failing, to find a journalism job in Britain. (Wolff is right there: a tougher job market is forcing more young journalists back into education.) I didn’t find an answer to the big question everyone in this beleaguered trade is asking: what’s next? I did find hundreds of talented students dedicated to the idea of a strong, free press, and a shapeshifting faculty that grounded us in the important stuff while offering the tools to push ahead.
I studied law and ethics. I trudged around the streets of a Bronx district for three months finding local stories about ordinary people in places where hardly anyone looks anymore. But I also burnished my CV and my imagination with plenty of new skills including how to code webpages, visualise data and shoot documentaries. And then, thanks to the school’s first-rate careers department, I finally found a job.
That $60,000 pricetag is still mighty offputting. But I’m yet to regret my debt burden or the many months I spent odd-jobbing to raise cash. In fact, I don’t know anyone from my class who is still unemployed or harbouring regrets. If no one is sure what journalism might become, then there are worse ideas than giving some 400 students a year the time and the tools to try and work it out.
Hazel Sheffield's most recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Smart, salty and gone and Why New York cabs won't stop. A freelance journalist, Hazel blogs at hazelsheffield.com and tweets at @hazelsheffield