How important is graduate school to new journalists?

I beginning journalist asked me this question:

I’m worried about getting a journalism job. Should I go to graduate school?

I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me on this, but, having been in a position to hire recent graduates in the past (and having faced this same question myself) I have to strongly vote against grad school.

I first left school in a similarly bad market, and I had to work my butt off to get started. But the experience you gain will be worth more than grad school ever will. Here’s my advice: move to an area where you can get free or cheap rent, in a large metropolitan area if you can find it. Get a day job if you have to, doing whatever you can. And spend your evenings going out and covering every school board meeting, fire district gathering and library fundraiser you can get yourself assigned to. It doesn’t matter how little they pay you, or how small the paper is. Keep pushing for meetings with area editors and keep asking for more assignments. Meanwhile, volunteer for the local journalism organizations. It gets your name out and lets you network, while at the same time improving your basic skills.

I can’t stress this enough: the only requirement to be a journalist is persistence. Everything else can be fixed by the copy desk. Really. If you’re ignorant, they can fix that (trust me, I’ve worked with plenty of ignorant reporters). The only thing they can’t teach you on the job (or cover up for you) is persistence. With persistence, you’ll get the quotes you need. You’ll keep digging to get the meat of the story. When I was an editor, the worst reporters I had were the ones who gave up when a source didn’t return the first phone call. I had reporters who didn’t know what the inverted pyramid was. That takes a few minutes to fix, and a couple of assignments until they get the hang of it. I had reporters who didn’t know you were supposed to write down quotes verbatim. They went back, and redid it. Problem solved.

But the reporters who were afraid to go up and ask a follow-up question, or who’d sit and stare at the telephone because they didn’t know what to do next, or who kept coming back to me and saying that they couldn’t find anything out — those were the ones I had the most problems with.

If you go to grad school simply because you couldn’t find a job (as opposed to improving a particular skill, say) that’s a big red warning flag to me. After all, finding a job requires good networking skills, the ability to go up to a stranger and ask them for help, and, of course, persistence. Do I want to hire a reporter who can’t do any of that? No.

And if you really can’t force yourself to do any of that, then, while it’s possible to have a journalism career, it won’t be as successful or fulfilling as if you pursued a different line of work.

So get out there and start calling people, start hounding editors. Really. Only a really idiot editor prefers a polite, shy journalist who takes the first “no” for an answer. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it. But be firm. And follow up, and follow up, and follow up again.

Think of it this way. Someday, you are going to write a really ground-breaking, monumental piece of journalism. (Otherwise, why are you in this profession?) If you don’t do it, nobody will and the world will suffer. So getting you your first job is the most important thing for everybody. If you can believe that, you’ll get your job. It’s the same way that, when you believe that whatever story you’re working on is the most important thing in the world, people will drop what you’re doing to help you.