Saturday, December 22, 2007

Hiring/J-degree: Wichita Falls Times Record News

Part of a series in which professionals answer the question that students often ask me: Do you need a journalism degree to get hired in the field?

Many thanks to Lynn Walker, Night City Editor of the Wichita Falls Times Record News, for his answers.

When you hire a reporter or a copy editor, how important is it for an applicant to have a journalism degree?

Why do you look for a journalism degree, or what do you look for instead of that?

Is the picture different for entry-level applicants vs. experienced applicants?

Virtually all of our hires in the editorial department over the past few years have been entry-level positions. Most of them have been people with journalism or related-field degrees. Most of them have come from our local college, Midwestern State University. Many have begun working for us part time while they were attending school. Typically, our copy desk employees start as part timers and assume full time jobs when they get their degrees.

We have hired a few reporters from non-local J schools. It is our experience that they move closer to their homes once they have picked up a little experience here.

Of course, very little hiring is happening now. Like most newspapers, our staff is in a period of contraction rather than expansion.

Not having a degree in journalism would not preclude someone from getting hired here if they brought other desirable credentials to the table. For example, we recently had a young man on our staff who had a divinity degree from Princeton. He is just an exceptionally bright and able young man who picked up journalism skills very quickly. Our present police beat reporter has a business degree and came to us through working part time in sports because he is a sports nut.

The importance of a journalism degree -- to the extent that it's still important -- is that it demonstrates the candidate has an interest in the field and enough smarts to graduate from college. Beyond that, in my opinion, most journalism degrees are virtually worthless. Few who possess them bring any substantive skills to the job and are usually hard-pressed to write a junior high school essay, much less a newspaper article. I think this is a failure on all levels of the educational system rather than an indictment of students' intelligence. They pick up almost all the skills they need on the job.

Of course, there are still some strong journalism schools out there -- University of Missouri is the first to come to my mind -- but most simply do not teach students the skills they need.

If I were to advise an aspiring journalist, I would recommend a non-journalism major in a specialty field -- economics, finance, medicine, environmental, etc. -- and a minor in journalism. I believe a good internship at a solid newspaper is also extremely valuable.

What would you say the skills are that the reporters have to learn on the job? The most crucial ones, at least -- the first ones you have to teach them.

Is it reporting ethics or skills, or more mechanical things like writing to length, hitting a deadline, or even more basic such as simply determining what the story is, writing it coherently and using spellcheck before they turn it in?

First, a caveat: There is a danger of tarring every applicant with an overly broad brush. That's neither accurate nor fair. What I'm talking about is trends.

The most notable is a lack of the most basic writing skills -- sentence construction, the ability to match subject and verb, spelling, punctuation, etc. I'm talking about knowing the difference between than and then, your and you're, that noone is not a substitute for nobody (let alone a word). Proper use of commas has become a lost art. An increasing number of graduates are coming to the job without the rudiments of plain writing.

Certainly most newbies need help with coherent writing, finding a focus, effective storytelling. That's to be expected. You can't expect a 22-year-old graduate to come to you already fine-tuned. But we should expect them to have mastered the essentials of proper writing.

Presumably, a pharmacy graduate goes to the first job knowing the basics of dispensing medicine. We can't make the same presumption in journalism.

The other trend (which you didn't ask about, but I'm going to tell you about anyway) is a lack of fire in the belly. The newer generation of journalists seems to be satisfied to come to work, get an assignment from an old codger like me, turn a journeyman's job at best, and be out of the office by 5 p.m. The industry might be as much to blame as the new journalist in this regard, because that degree of intensity toward the craft is not as encouraged as it once was.