Why I’m Glad I Went to Journalism Grad School

I wrote this post because about this time last year, I wanted advice from someone who’d been to journalism grad school to tell me if it was worth it. If anyone still has any questions on this topic after reading about my experiences, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them.

On Saturday, I finished my first semester of graduate school at NYU. A year from now, I’ll be graduating with a masters in journalism and a certificate business and economic reporting. Many people, including my parents, have asked me lately whether I made the right choice in going to graduate school for journalism.

My answer? “Absolutely.”

Source: Tumblr

Source: Tumblr

It’s easy, really. I can think of 5 reasons off the top of my head why grad school was the right choice for me. I’ll lay them out below for you, but let me preface by saying that most people will say journalists don’t need to go to grad school. I asked two of my undergraduate professors to write me recommendations for my grad applications, which they happily did, but not before warning me that grad schools like to see journalists with a bit of experience. That most people who go to grad school for journalism are at least 25, if not older.

And a lot of professional journalists I spoke to, from my professors to co-workers, told me it just wasn’t necessary.

Well, I’m 22. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a year ago today. I majored in journalism and mass communications and minored in French. During my last year and a half of college, and then for seven months post-graduation, I interned at QSR and FSR magazines (business-to-business publications that cover the foodservice industry). That was the extent of my professional journalism experience, excluding campus magazines.

My dad encouraged me to apply to graduate school because he says an undergraduate degree isn’t enough for people who want to be competitive in their fields. I’m not sure I completely agree with that, but I took his advice. In the meantime, though, I scavenged the internet looking for advice from fellow journalists: Was grad school worth it?

The only post I found was this impassioned plea to treat journalism grad school like Thanksgiving turkey that’s two weeks old: toss it without regret and don’t look back.

What I really wanted to do at the time I applied was work in magazines. I didn’t care which, but I loved the feel of a completed issue, the shimmer of those glossed pages, the picas behind a beautiful spread, and most of all, seeing my name in print. Not online. Print.

I applied to two schools: New York University and Northwestern. Northwestern’s Medill school of journalism offers four graduate concentrations: reporting, magazine writing/editing, interactive publishing, and videography/broadcast. I didn’t really stretch my limits in here: I applied for the magazine writing/editing program.

NYU has 10 specializations in its graduate journalism institute, including an option in magazine. Look, I could’ve applied for magazine here, too. But I decided to try something new. To push my boundaries. QSR and FSR are business publications. I’d written about sales in the food industry, bankruptcy, marketing, the impact of health care laws, branding. I came to regard numbers and figures as friends, living organisms on balance sheets that urged me to write about them. I felt more accomplished researching global food sales than I did about most of the writing assignments I had in college.

So, I applied to NYU’s specialization in Business & Economic Reporting. Let me say, I have no business background. The worst grade I got in college was a C, and that was in Econ 101. Business has always been a struggle for me. I wanted to be better. I wanted to conquer it. I loved that NYU’s program was interdisciplinary, with half of the credits being earned at the Stern School of Business. And these weren’t the undergrad’s intro to business courses. We’d be taking MBA courses. Scary, but also a challenge.

I got in to both schools. I heard back from NYU first. It was March 13, the same day the publisher at QSR offered me a full-time job there.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect to get into grad school at all. I had been looking for jobs as associate editors at magazines in DC and NYC. The pay was going to be about $28,000-36,000. I’d applied to about 50 and heard back from zero.

And suddenly, on March 13, QSR placed exactly such a job in my lap. I didn’t have to apply or relocate. I could stay at a publication I loved with coworkers I loved. On the other hand, NYU offered to whisk me off to Manhattan, pay for part of my education, and give me a competitive advantage only 15 students get a year.

I’m here to say, nine months after I got that acceptance letter, that I made the right choice. I chose grad school. And if you’re even thinking about it a little, if you’re just getting out of college and want to set yourself apart, here’s why you, too, should consider grad school:

  1. Competitive Advantage
    There’s no doubt that having a journalism concentration puts you above the rest. At UNC, my concentration was “reporting.” Pretty vague if you ask me. Reporting on what? Cheese?

    Everyone says journalists are in less demand. I’m so tired of hearing that. I’m so tired of being told how publications are downsizing, the online revolution is shoving print newspapers aside, and journalists are about as in-demand as Ron Paul at a GOP debate.

    Stop listening to that crap and hear this: employers want good journalists. People who know what they’re talking about. There’s actual, real demand for business journalists right now.

    I know not everyone reading this wants to go into business. I totally understand. But I’m telling you that if you have a field you like to report on, whether it’s law or science or sports, go learn about it in school. Because if you know what you’re talking about, you’ll get hired.

    We’ve had recruiters come in all semester, from Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Bloomberg, and Reuters, just to name a few. They all said the same thing: they want to hire people who know how to analyze the stock market. Who know how to look at a balance sheet and report on its numbers with confidence. Who can tell you exactly what the hell a put and call option is and how people use them.

    I’ve learned much of that in just a semester at NYU. I know I’ll learn loads more in the next year. So please, if you’re frightened by people who tell you your bachelor’s degree in journalism is worthless, don’t listen. Think about what you really love to report on, or what you want to improve on, and specialize in it.

    Ten months ago, I couldn’t get a response back from magazines such as Travel + Leisure and Fitness, and in the four months since I’ve started at NYU, I’ve become an online contributor to Forbes and been offered internships at two prominent business publications. So you tell me who really loses in that scenario. I don’t think it’s grad school.

  2. You’ll Get Lots of Experience
    One gripe journalists have about graduate school is that in our field, experience is more important. It’s better to say you’ve interned or worked at publications A, B, and C rather than throw a line on your resume that says you have a Masters.

    Well, what do you think we’re doing while we work toward our masters? Taking field trips to the zoo?

    No. Getting your masters is getting experience. You’re writing at least one story a week. And you’re getting to critique, analyze, and improve it with the guidance of your professors. And if you’re smart, you’re publishing it. Maybe it’s on your own blog/website, maybe you shop it around to local publications, and maybe you send it in to big names and see what happens.

    Either way, you’re improving your skill in an environment where you get good feedback. You’ll learn how to conduct better interviews, how to find those elusive sources, how to accumulate statistics and data and use that to strengthen your reporting.

    Maybe you did just that in your undergrad, or maybe you already do it. That is fantastic. These are great skills to have. But you’ll walk out of your masters with far better clips than the ones you have from your undergrad. So not only will you have extremely solid clips, you’ll set yourself apart from those who have just good clips because you’ll have a masters to go along with it.

    Improvement is key, especially as a writer, because our fulfillment comes from the finished essay. The saucy rhetoric, clever turns of phrase, meticulous wording, and harrowing word choices define us. I’m not sure that taking a job right away would’ve resulted in a drastic improvement as a writer. But I’m thinking by the time I leave New York University, I’ll be much better than I was going in—and the intrinsic value of that, coupled with the NYU name, will certainly make the degree worth it.

  3. The Salary is Better/Networking
    I’ve heard that going to graduate school is a waste because you’ll pay a lot for it and come out making the same salary that you’d make with a bachelor’s degree. I tend to disagree.

    This is because going to graduate school opens a lot of doors for you. I’m sure you’ve heard that journalism is a lot about networking and who you know. Who do you think has better connections than seasoned journalists in New York, aka my professors? They have hook-ups at every major business publication in the city. They have the capacity to open doors for us, introduce us to people, and help get us hired.

    I wasn’t being sought out by Forbes and Inc. magazines this time last year. But I am now. I don’t think I would’ve gotten through to the third round of the internship application at Bloomberg unless I had NYU’s name attached to my application. One of my fellow colleagues at NYU was rejected from Bloomberg—within 24 hours of sending in her application—as an undergraduate last year. She made it to the third round this year. What changed in the interim? Grad school.

    Oh, and starting salary at Bloomberg for reporters is about $60,000-80,000, depending on where you are located. The upper bound for reporters there is between $126,000-163,000.

    Of course, Bloomberg is at the upper tier of business journalism jobs. But I do believe the average starting salary is at least in the $50,000 range. I’d pay off my NYU degree in under two years and keep making a respectable salary.

  4. New York!
    Obviously, not everyone who goes to journalism grad school comes to NY. Totes understood. But if you’re going to grad school in this field, why not go to a big city? Somewhere journalism is anchored, where you’ll have a lot of opportunities?

    In my application process, I started out with the idea to apply to eight different grad programs all over the nation. I thought about UNC, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, and several other big-name journalism schools. But a friend of mine correctly pointed out that if I was going to do grad school right, I needed to go somewhere where journalism thrives.

    Not everyone wants to live in New York. But if you do, grad school is the perfect opportunity to do so. You’re not entirely expected to finance yourself, so it’s OK to take out loans and live a little. (I’m not saying be irresponsible and sign yourself up for something you can’t afford, either.) You get the year or two in that big city, be it NYC, Chicago, DC, or anywhere else. You make connections you can’t make from home. You basically are allowed to live and grow and succeed and challenge yourself and meet new people in a new setting. If it sounds like I’m describing college, I don’t mean to. Grad school lets you entertain a better version of yourself as a professional.

    If you were to ask me my least and most favorite things about living in NYC, I’d tell you that my least favorite is grocery shopping (lines out the door at Trader Joe’s? No thanks.) and my most favorite is BER, this program at NYU where I’ve met a lot of great people, made very good friends, gotten mentorship from esteemed journalists, tangled with MBA classes at one of the top business schools in the country that I never would’ve thought I was capable of, and fulfilled my passion more in four months than I did in four years as an undergrad.

That’s why I’m glad I went to graduate journalism school.

Advertisements

Interview With a Journalist: Sam Anderson, Critic at Large for The New York Times Magazine

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times magazine. Sitting by the glass windows in the cafeteria of the Times building in Midtown, we discussed Sam’s cover story about the Oklahoma City Thunder and the magic surrounding it and its community. It was a great conversation about journalism today, sports, being a reporter, and the struggles and tremendous payoffs associated with the career.

The story:
“A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America” by Sam Anderson. It was the cover story of The New York Times magazine during the week of Nov. 8, 2012.

Sam writes about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA team that competed against the Miami Heat in the Championship last summer. The OCT lost in Game 5, but its rise to fame was mysterious and marvelous nonetheless, and Sam went to Oklahoma to find the potion behind the magic. His story was both broad, decrypting the melting pot of Oklahoma’s citizens and its history as a state, as well as specific, zeroing in on such specifics as the personality of star Kevin Durant and even his teammate’s beard.

The author:
Originally from Oregon, Sam earned his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University. He stayed there to obtain his Master’s degree in English, and then moved to New York after being accepted to the PhD program in English at New York University—which he left when offered his first writing job toward the end of the program. Sam has written for various publications, including Slate and New York magazine. He is currently the critic at large for The New York Times magazine.

Sam says he thinks of himself as more of an essayist than a journalist.

The idea and pitch:
Sam says his editors at the magazine came up with the pitch. His editor, Lauren Kern, wrote him a one-line email that said, “Do you have any interest in writing about the Oklahoma City Thunder?”

The assignment was a bit of a departure from Sam’s usual work as critic at large.

“Left to my own devices, I tend to choose really weird and obscure subjects that no one reading a national magazine is really interested in,” he says. His piece prior to the Oklahoma City Thunder profile was on buffalo mozzarella.

He usually focuses on essays, which often are not source-dependent and require little interstate traveling.

But he knew immediately that the Oklahoma City Thunder was something he wanted to write about.

He said the only guidance he got on the OCT story came from Hugo Lindgren, editor of the magazine, who said, “There seems to be something strange and amazing happening in Oklahoma City. Why don’t you go down and see what it is.”

The research:
Sam has been a fan of the NBA since he was 10. Growing up in Oregon, his team was the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I waste a lot of time reading about basketball, watching highlights and stuff,” he says. “So, one great thing about a story like this is, suddenly all that wasted time is kind of justified because it gives you this vast background knowledge.”

Sam remembers watching Kevin Durant in college and being blown away by him. He followed him through the NBA draft—even as Sam’s Trail Blazers picked another rookie over him. Sam forgave Portland for its decision to pass on Durant, ultimately: “Eventually, he sort of won me over. If you watch basketball at all, it’s hard not to love the Thunder.”

He also rewatched a bunch of the Thunder’s games before he flew out, so he’d have better detail to draw from in his story. He also used his knowledge to prove to the players, when he interviewed them later, that he really understood the nuances of the game and had done his due diligence.

The reporting:
Sam took two trips to Oklahoma for the story. The biggest hurdle, he quickly discovered, was earning the trust of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s management and public relations team.

“It was a little like pulling teeth to arrange this with the team, to arrange access,” he recalls. “I called up and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a hotshot New York Times magazine guy, and this is this small town basketball team, they’re gong to open their arms and welcome me in, give me access to everything.’

“And it was kind of the opposite.”

The OCT’s public relations point person was very skeptical of Sam’s intentions. When Sam said he wanted to write a portrait of the team and act as a fly on the wall, the PR person was not receptive to it at all. He gave Sam resistance every step of the way. When the team finally OK’d his story, accepting that Sam wanted to mirror the state’s history with the Thunder’s rise, the PR guy tried to put off Sam’s visit to the city. Finally, after having his trip pushed back multiple times, Sam booked a flight and told them determinedly, “All right, I’m coming. I’ll be there next week.”

Not that touching down on the tarmac in Oklahoma solved all his problems. His whole access to the team hinged on convincing the PR guy that his intentions were benign.

“When I met that PR guy the first time, he was so nervous,” Sam says. “He was so obviously nervous that I was going to write, like, a hatchet job, that I was this cynical, East Coast guy coming in to pop the bubble of the fairy tale of the Thunder.

“Finally, I was getting this vibe from him, finally I just said to him, ‘Listen. I’m not here to write a hatchet job. That’s not the kind of writing I do. That’s not my interest in this case. It’s not my personality. You know, relax.’ I don’t know if that helped or not; I don’t think it did,” he adds with a laugh.

But the initial visit broke the ice enough so that when Sam made his second trip, the Thunder were willing to arrange interviews for him with the players, the coach, and the general manager, becoming more generous with their time.

He understands the team’s reasoning for being so guarded, especially around a journalist.

“They were very, very, very wary. Which I guess makes a certain amount of sense. They have a lot to lose in a situation like that. Like I said, they are extremely conscious of their image. And I think because they’re so closely identified with the city, because their image is so wholesome, you kind of have to constantly be aware of threats to that,” Sam says.

Sam also had to break through with the general manager, Sam Presti, who upon their first meeting turned into what Sam called the least comfortable human being he’s ever seen from the moment he flipped on the recorder.

As Presti weighed each word in his mind and gave Sam quotes too fluffy or meaningless to use, Sam decided to turn off the recorder.

“And he breathed a literal sigh of relief,” Sam says. “And then we went on to have an actual conversation.”

The men talked for four hours, on background. Upon his second meeting with Presti, Sam didn’t bother to bring his recorder in. Presti grew so comfortable with Sam, that he called him out of the blue a couple days later, and the two had another hour-and-a-half-long conversation.

“That was my first experience with something like that,” he says. “You just have to feel out what makes the person comfortable. I think if I had insisted that we were on record the whole time, I would’ve gotten nothing from him, and he’s so in control of that organization, such a meticulous guy, that if I hadn’t broken through with him, I think, it would’ve been a very different reporting experience for me.”

As for his interviews with the players, Sam—who describes himself as a star-struck fanboy getting to sit down with professional athletes, who to him were almost “these mythological figures, like heroes out of Greek legend”—said his interviews ran the gamut from friendly and forthcoming to closed and unreceptive.

“One guy, Nick Collison (the Thunder’s power forward), was just kind of this blue collar, unglamorous role player, who was really open from the start,” Sam says. “You can just feel it, like, ‘Oh, this is a human sitting next to me. Not just thinking of me as a sport’s reporter who’s trying to get a few quotes, but as just another guy sitting next to him who he’s going to speak with really openly.’ That was an incredible conversation.”

Russell Westbrook (the Thunder’s point guard), on the other hand, has a public dislike of the media, and was appropriately short with Sam. He kept Sam waiting for an hour for the interview, and then took a call at the beginning. Their conversation lasted about 10 minutes.

Sam says it’s interesting to feel out the moment in the interview, regardless of whether it goes well. “It’s always an adventure when I go out into the real world and have conversations,” he says, adding, “It was just an extra weirdness that they were professional basketball players.”

The writing:
Sam’s writing process is always nerve-wracking, hard, long, and frustrating—although this time, it was better than usual, he says.

His newest process is to write a vomit blurt of an email to his editor, this time about various aspects of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I’d literally start with something conversational, like, ‘Do you know about Kevin Durant? Here’s the deal about Kevin Durant!’ And then I’d just start having to articulate the most basic stuff in a way that directly communicates with someone.”

In this patchwork method, Sam wrote the portrait of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It came out to about 12,000 words—he hadn’t been given a word limit by his editor and purposely had not asked for one.

“One of my bugaboos lately that I love to complain about is word limits,” he says. “I feel like magazines are so squished these days, all of the writing that I really love and that I read to train myself to do long-form journalism is so long by today’s standards.”

He says the Thunder profile felt like a big piece to him, so he emailed a note to his editors along with the finished product: “I know this is obscenely long by magazine standards, but I feel like it’s good, I feel like there’s enough here to justify it, and if you’re ever going to let me go crazy and do a 10,000-word-piece, I think this should be the one.”

The final version that went in the magazine was close to 8,000 words.

The response:
The PR guy who initially gave Sam so much trouble called him the day the story came out, gushing with happiness, “Which immediately made me be like, ‘Oh man, did I write this like a puff piece?’” he says with a laugh.

He says the Thunder speaks with one instutional voice, so if the PR guy loved it, general manager Sam Presti also likely did, too.

Response from readers was overwhelmingly positive, too.  He received many long, touching emails from Oklahomans telling him how validating it was that the national media, for once, treated the state as if it was an actual, complex place with people who deserve serious attention.

For example, some people wrote saying, “I have family on the East Coast, but I like in Oklahoma. They’re always making fun of me and saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’ And I’m just going to print out your article and carry it with me and I’ll show it to people who ask that.”

He also felt a resonance to their validation; being from Oregon, he’s been asked before by serious adults whether the state has electricity.

“I do feel like there’s a provincialism to the New York media bubble world that I’ve always felt like an outsider to,” Sam says. “So, I do feel a kind of outsider pride or solidarity with the people of Oklahoma. So, when they feel validated to that, it makes me feel really good because I can identify with that feeling of feeling like you’re really far from the center of culture, like nobody really sees you.”