March 26, 2005

Credit Where It's Due

WE NOTE WITH AMUSEMENT a recent quote attributed to Lee Bollinger, late of the University of Michigan and presently President of Columbia University in New York. It seems the school is adding a second program of study to its Graduate School of Journalism, and upon introducing the program, Mr Bollinger said the following:

"There is no profession more important in the modern world than being a journalist," Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia and a First Amendment lawyer whose father was a newspaper executive, said this week. "I felt that journalism education had not developed to the same point in terms of providing the richness of what a great university like Columbia can offer."

Now, we hate to think that Mr Bollinger's remark was simply transparent flattery, but the first thing that sprang to mind after we read it was a sarcastic aside Bill Shirer wrote in his "Berlin Diary." Mr Shirer, who hated the Nazis before most did and who wrote much about German nastiness during The War, wrote the following in Sept. 1939, a short while after the Germans had invaded Poland:

Starting day after tomorrow, new ration cards for food. The German people will now get per week: one pound of meat, five pounds of bread, three quarters of a pound of fats, three quarters of a pound of sugar, and a pound of ersatz coffee made from roasted barley seeds. Heavy labourers are to get double rations, and Dr Goebbels -- clever man! -- has decided to classify us foreign correspondents as heavy labourers.

Of course, we are being facetious -- the last thing we would want is for easily-excitable people to think we were seriously comparing Mr Bollinger with Goebbels. We certainly didn't intend the foregoing that way -- it just was the first thing that popped into our head. So let us give Mr Bollinger the benefit of the doubt, and assume he meant what he said. Do journalists have the most important profession in the modern world?

Of course not.

This is certainly not to say journalists' work is unimportant, but we honestly can't see any justification for arguing their work is more important than that of a host of other professions.

After all, think about the business of journalism for a bit. A journalist's job is to disseminate information. His salary comes from two empirical sources: the readers who pay for the product he produces, and the advertisers who sell goods and services through the product in which his words appear. This very format puts the journalist in the business of providing what we personally call a "secondary service," that is, something for which a market exists solely because there is enough primary economic activity to support it. If there isn't enough economic activity to support his work, the journalist soon finds himself in the unemployment line.

So in that regard, there are far more jobs which are more important and which provide greater benefit to the society as a whole -- ranging from agricultural laborers to factory workers to soldiers to business executives. For these folks keep the markets working at their primary core -- they provide the needed goods and necessary services which civilization needs to survive. It is only because these folks demand non-essential services that journalists and doctors and plaintiffs' lawyers and certified financial planners and all the rest can make a living.

Now, that may seem a bit harsh, but it's very true. One can't live without food on the table, but a typical human being can live without advanced medical care if he takes care of himself. That's not to say that people would live as long or as happily without doctors, of course, but they would still live. The same goes double for certified financial planners -- if there were none, people would still have money to spend. They might not handle it as wisely as they otherwise might, but the money would not disappear. And if that line of reasoning goes double for certified financial planners, it goes triple for plaintiffs' lawyers and fivefold for journalists. People would have poorer lives without their services, but would they get on without them? Of course.

But we do not want our point to be misunderstood -- just because folks in these industries are in empirically non-essential lines of work does not mean what they do is unimportant. It also does not mean they don't provide value or utility in exchange for the money they earn. Quite the contrary on both counts! That's an important consideration and one that shouldn't be overlooked.

The total bills for our appendectomy a few years back ran about $14,000 -- but even if we had paid every cent out of pocket, spending that $14,000 certainly beat being dead at 27. Similarly, readers who spend 50 cents or a buck on their newspaper each day get access to a wealth of information they would have had to spend countless hours to gain on their own. Since people are busy, it's very cost-effective for them to buy the paper instead of attending meetings down at City Hall or sitting in court all day to learn about what's happening. It therefore stands to reason that these consumers have every reason to want qualified people performing the services for which they're shelling out their hard-earned.

So we do want to give Mr Bollinger credit for spearheading what seems like a smart program at Columbia. Among journalists, the usefulness of journalism school is sometimes debated, but we are pretty impressed with the scheme which Columbia has set up.

If one reads The New York Times story linked above, one finds Columbia plans to have two mandatory courses for its new Master of Arts in Journalism degree (amazingly, the existing program is a Master of Science degree). One of these courses will be on the history of journalism, and the other will be on analyzing statistics, legal filings and certain archival material. Both will be useful for those who aren't already in the trade and haven't figured out the tricks of those things yet.

But more important in our view are the other courses -- the seminars on business and economics, politics, and other topics. We also very much like the idea of an immersion course in foreign languages, as having language skills is an amazing help for journalists. (We just wish we were better with our Spanish, which can be charitably described as "grim.") For the most important ammunition a journalist can have, aside from interview skills, is a well-rounded background in real-world subject matter -- in short, how things work.

We do have one concern about the program, though. It reportedly costs an all-inclusive $50,000 per annum to attend Columbia University, and as such we're not convinced of its cost-benefit for prospective journalists. Mr Bollinger reportedly had envisioned a two-year program, which would have kicked up the cost of attending to around $100,000. And that's cash on the barrelhead -- if one had to borrow the cost of attending, one may as well double it to include interest payments.

It is one thing to spend that type of money on law school or medical school or business school, because these degrees will almost certainly provide an impressive return on investment. But journalism isn't a job which people take with the idea they'll get rich.

As of 2003, The New York Times paid top scale base wages of $75,000 per year, which is worth about $45,000 anywhere else in the nation. Journalists in union shops -- there are about 120 of these around America, including the Times -- will generally make about $45,000 in base wages at top scale, which one usually hits after three to six years of service. (On the high end, they'll make $65,000; on the low, $25,000).

But those working at Guild shops are a minority -- there are something like 3,000 newspapers in America. The reporters working for the small dailies are lucky to clear $40,000 per annum -- typical salaries range from the mid-twenties to the high-thirties. Those working at weeklies make even less -- we've known folks who have had to take second jobs while working at them. For more on this, see The Newspaper Guild's salary scale info -- and find out what the guys at YOUR local paper are making!

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and some journalists can often make lots of additional money in overtime. Plus, journalists often get fringe benefits unheard of elsewhere in the private sector -- such as plentiful vacation packages. We have no doubt that most journalists -- ourselves included -- consider being a reporter a great job and a great way to make a comfortable, middle-class living. But we can't see spending $50,000 or more for additional training if it means being in hock for many years after receiving it.

(via Meg McArdle)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 26, 2005 08:10 PM | TrackBack

If Bollinger really cared about journalism, he would have pushed for some kind of cohesive J program at Michigan as part of his vaunted "Master Plan." Remember, Michigan at one point had a School of Rhetoric that was totally devoted to journalism, but when I was there there were NO courses on basic journalism. Of course, enterprising folks like you and I got our experience at the Review (or the Daily).

It's clear Bollinger is just being a diplomatic politician.

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at March 26, 2005 10:05 PM

They really did kill it at Michigan, didn't they? Even when I was there they had news writing, although the lack of a journalism program meant the class was seen as an easy A.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 27, 2005 01:32 AM

Yep, it's dead. There are no skills courses at Michigan, no courses designed to teach students how to become a journalist. However, there are many courses in the Communications department that let students analyze and think about the way news is gathered and reported in our society... but that really won't do students much good unless they want to end up in academia.

For the record, I would NEVER waste thousands of dollars on a graduate degree in journalism, and most reporters I knew felt the same way. Besides the outlandish cost, people can learn better and more quickly by experience.

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at March 27, 2005 09:02 PM