Do you need a degree in journalism to work as a journalist?

When I left college I had a handful of clips from the local alternative newsweekly, one of them a cover story on town-gown relations. That’s it. No journalism degree, no internships, no other editing or writing experience.

I went to Chicago, and, within a couple of months was working as one of the “full-time freelancers” for the Chicago Tribune in the northern suburbs, covering about a dozen municipalities and all the associated government boards. One of my features ran on the front page of the Trib (not the front page of a section, the front page of the Trib itself). A harder story on the drug trade also got high placement.

From there, my career path would have been pretty straightforward at the Trib, except that I decided to go to Russia, and covered civil wars for Reuters after about a year. Again, nobody cared about the degree, the internships, or anything else. The only concern was whether I had the persistence to be able to report a story, and then write it despite constant editorial criticism (I have to admit, my writing started out kind of lame).

Here’s my theory: the only thing you need to be a journalist is the ability to ask a question, and keep asking until you get an answer. You can’t be taught persistence, but you can get good at it with practice. Everything else can be fixed on the copy desk.

If I’m hiring somebody, I’d rather spend half an hour teaching them the inverted pyramid, than months and months standing over them and making them follow through.