The first time Emily Kask, 24, tried journalism school, it didn’t work out. She’d never thrived in an academic environment, and she felt a complete lack of support from school administrators and mentors. Kask then transferred to Western Kentucky University, which had a strong multimedia program where she could work on her photography. There, she spent so much time reporting and working on projects that grades in academic classes started to suffer. By chance, she found a hippie commune in Tennessee. After winning a small grant to cover that lifestyle — and live it — she left school for a semester to hop trains. At semester’s end, she had sold her first byline to The New York Times, and returned to class, where she was absolutely miserable.
“It got to the point where I just wouldn’t go to class,” she told me on the phone, while driving around rural Kentucky and Tennessee on assignment. “Instead, I would go and hop trains to Nashville.” After she was put on academic suspension, Kask decided not to return.
Two years later, though, she is still working. Today, she freelances out of New Orleans when she’s not on assignment somewhere in Appalachia. She’s earned a gold medal in the “interpretive eye” category in the College Photographer of the Year competition, and interned around the country for sports and news publications.
Journalism school, since its inception at my alma mater the University of Missouri (which opened the country’s first journalism school in 1908), has long been a subject of debate. Is journalism a job that requires a four-year journalism degree to do? What about graduate degrees? (Nieman Lab asked our readers for their thoughts and experiences, which can be found here.)
The debate over attending j-school — whether that means getting an undergraduate degree in journalism or shelling out for a graduate degree — also touches on race and class, as Rachelle Hampton pointed out in a piece for Slate earlier this year. “A lot of successful working journalists did go to j-school — and not because they thought it meant they would be able to skip getting internships,” she wrote. “They went so they could get internships, because that’s what the state of journalism requires for people without the social connections to break into the industry — especially those who are low-income or of color.” Journalism school can provide connections and portfolio padding for young reporters looking for a way in.
I spoke with eight working journalists who didn’t major in journalism about the decisions they made — and asked what advice they had to offer to others.
Find the degree
“Somebody said to me while I was looking at colleges that I should really consider majoring in something I was interested in, and just keep writing on the side,” said Sammy Mack, 34, a public health reporter for WLRN in Miami. “That’s what I did. I went and studied public health, and I did internships on the side, and I took all the writing classes I could. My college didn’t even have a journalism program.” She graduated with her BA from Tulane University School of Health and Tropical Medicine in 2006
Mark Puente, 48, is an accountability reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. He majored in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 2005. Before that, he was a trucker.
Puente said that a degree outside of journalism improved his critical thinking and allowed him to learn more about the field he was interested in.
Students who are considering whether to major in journalism should ask themselves, “What else would I do? What else am I passionate about?” Mack suggested. “If you decide that maybe journalism school isn’t a great fit for you, then take every opportunity to build up the skills that you will need in journalism outside of your curriculum.”