The First Rule of J-School Is You Don't Talk About J-School Debt

Hunter Walker recently gave up a lucrative career as a media blogger to enroll in Columbia's Journalism School. Today was orientation and a pitch for why a $47,000 journalism degree is a better investment than a year-long drug-and-hooker bender.

It's my first day at the Columbia School of Journalism, which means almost ten hours of speeches, presentations, and activities. The coffee ran out shortly after 9 this morning. I'm not sure I'm going to make it through this. Caffeine withdrawal isn't the only reason I'm worried about my survival. It's a scary time to be a journalism student. When we arrived at orientation we were presented with our ID cards and a swag bag that contained a copy of the AP Stylebook, a Strunk & White style guide, a notepad, a folder, and a reminder about our tuition bill. I owe this school a lot of money and I'm still not entirely sure how I'm going to come up with it.

Everyone I know in media keeps telling me I'm crazy for doing this. Though I remain confident in my decision to go to j-school, it's hard not to get cold feet. I showed up to orientation today hoping to hear something that would ease my fears.

After we received our orientation materials, we headed to our seats and the day's events began with a welcome speech from Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann. Dean Lemann began his remarks with a quick overview of the challenges facing the media industry since the rise of the internet. According to Lemann, the "case" for the program is "the strongest it's been in the history of the school" because they have made many changes designed to help students prepare to be make news online. Lemann outlined these improvements including an August digital media training session, a "fundamentally reconstituted" reporting and writing course, a "suite of four new context setting courses," and a sandwich shop that will be opening soon in the student center.

Lemann also discussed our job prospects. Although he brought up the possibility that we may find work for a news organization he encouraged us to be open to careers as possibly starving internet entrepreneurs saying: "its a really interesting time to be in on the beginnings of the revolution... it's a great time to put aside thoughts of worldly things and do something really creative if you have the nerve." I agree with Lemann that this transitional period could lead to great opportunities, but I know firsthand that you need capital along with cojones to start your own business ventures.

Following Lemann's speech, we heard from CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien. O'Brien started off by telling us, "If you've been reading the headlines you know it's a difficult time to be in news... same story when I entered the business in 1988." Besides making the point that the media has had similar struggles in the past, O'Brien also offered advice about starting a career in journalism. Her main tip for us was to "live without debt" and "live within your means." This provoked an audible response among the crowd of aspiring journalists since many of us (including myself) are taking on substantial debt to attend j-school and living within our means isn't really an option.

After her speech, O'Brien opened up the floor to questions. I raised my hand to ask her if, in light of her view that we should live without debt, she thought it was a mistake to take out loans for journalism school.

Last week, the University of Georgia journalism school published a report about the horrible employment prospects and salaries awaiting j-school grads. As anyone reading this site knows, for the last few years media outlets have constantly been folding, firing people, and slashing pay. Things have gotten so bad in the media industry that some observers now say j-schools should be closed altogether. So, what are we all doing here?

I'm not naive about the sorry state of affairs in the news business. In the three years since I got my undergraduate degree I've done work for a long list of media companies including Gawker, Condé Nast, AOL, The New York Times, and Mediabistro. None of these places were able to offer me stable, sustainable employment. There aren't many jobs out there, but it seems like the few good gigs that do exist are only going to people with journalism degrees. I know I might not be able to get a journalism job, but if I need to go the entrepreneurial route or find work in another industry, I think I'll be better prepared to do so with training in research, writing, and investigative skills.

O'Brien left before I got a chance to ask my question. For better or worse, I'm sure I'll figure out the answer by the time I graduate next May.