Learning journalism in a classroom feeds the idea that you can learn journalism in a classroom, or on a planned exercise where you go out and interview pedestrians on the Upper West Side. One of the most quoted lines about reporting, by the late British foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, is that "the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability."
J-school teaches none of these things. It can't. [Disclosure: I went to J-school in England.] On every newspaper there is at least one reporter who personifies the rat. He, because it is usually a he, never went to grad school. He is usually from a blue-collar family. He'll be the reporter an editor sends out when he has has to get the story. Because he'll carry a hi-vis vest and a set of scrubs in the trunk of his car to sneak through police lines and into hospitals. "I used to work with a guy," says one Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter, "who kept a fireman's uniform handy. I remember going out to cover an air crash. We were all held back behind a cordon, while he was right out there, doing whatever he wanted."
Though the anecdote comes from decades ago this is still, technically, wrong. Impersonating a fireman is doubtless illegal in some way or another. J-schools could, would, should, never teach their students to do it. Which is why they produce the most plodding, report-by-numbers literalists imaginable. The rats didn't need to write essays on ethics, or role-play how to knock on the doors of the recently bereaved. As with many crafts, they learned on the job with a mix of careful guidance and gut-gnawing errors.
People skills, empathy, dogged persistence and a sense of honesty and perspective cannot be taught. Many great journalists came through an illustrious graduate journalism program. And many would admit that they'd still be the same without spending tens of thousands of dollars on artificially learning a job that must, by definition, happen in the real world.
As journalism contracts and, as a career choice, it becomes more like acting or singing than law or accounting, fewer people may deem the expense of learning it in a classroom worthwhile. The quality of journalism will probably not decline at all as a result.
And don't get us started on blogging classes.