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J-school: It’s relevant but demands you take charge

I love journalism shop-talk chat, really.  Of course, I’d rather be DOING the journalism, but it’s important to see where others are at, and it’s kind of fun to feel like part of the club, and dream about the future.  The #wjchat chats on Twitter emerged about the same time my data journey started, but my participation in these activities has dropped off recently.  This is especially ironic this past week, as the discussion centered on the relevance of j-schools.  And I’ve been thinking about that topic a lot.  After all, two weeks from today, I officially graduate from Medill.

I’m looking forward to it, yet it seems sort of surreal.  Graduation marks the end of one chapter, the beginning of another.  But I started the new chapter already.

As much as I love connecting with journos, I’ve discovered my underestimation of the year: I’ve got more to learn than I ever could have imagined.  People have said it in countless Web discussions.  Find a project, do it, pick up skills along the way.  So, I’m concentrating on that like I’m cramming for finals, but with a never-ending study period.  Producing an app in a day uses some skills, doing it right over the course of months is a totally different ballgame.

This is where I am now.  But that chat topic begs the question: Was there a point in going to Medill?  Did it mean more than the opportunity to walk across a stage in a purple gown two weeks from today?  Is it just some archaic tradition that has nothing to do with my new coding life?  To these questions, I want to shout at the top of my virtual lungs, “It was essential!  It mattered!  Without j-school, what I am doing would not be possible!”

It’s about much more than curricula

Don’t rely on the curriculum of your j-school.  Fine, Medill doesn’t teach coding, most j-schools don’t.  Maybe your school doesn’t teach this or that, doesn’t have the right specialization.  It doesn’t matter.  The most valuable lessons I learned from j-school didn’t happen in  a structured lecture hall.  They took place off the cuff, with colleagues while working on a story, with professors hounding them during their office hours.  J-school taught me story structure, technical skills, office politics, the philosophy veteran journos bring to the table.  I’ll say it again: We must apply our journalistic curiosity to learning about our craft.

It’s an approach I’ve taken to my work at the Times (Look, I’m all Cali-centric now, and don’t use “the Times” to mean NYT anymore — weird).  Even as I work on a project with the LA Times masthead at the top, it feels like school.  And that’s a good thing.  You couldn’t ask for better teachers.  Yes, so knowledgable, but also patient and kind, always available, and so, so, dedicated.  Whether it’s the data analyst who’s been at this for decades, or my fellow Web devs who’ve both been at the Times for less than 3 years, they have so much to offer.  Would I dare to not ask a question because no one assigned it?  Ha! Would you not ask a question at a press conference because no one told you to?  If you’re in this industry, or even if you just have one curious bone in your body, I hope not.

Life at the Times

So, what’s it like at the Times, for those curious?  I suppose “the best working environment I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter” is not a sufficient answer.  And I’ll add my continual disclaimer.  Should all journalists be programmers? No.  We each have our specialties.  I do wish all journalists knew that this work exists, and understood the basic building blocks of what coding makes possible, and how long it takes.  That being said, I don’t believe every journalist needs to embark on this path, and if you do, it is a career shift.  It’s one I’m frankly in love with, but not everyone needs to/should go this insane.

In the end, my day-to-day life isn’t all that different from how Medill functioned.  Bring your own ideas to the table, incorporate the feedback of others.  Communicate what you’re working on to others.  Instead of working with client papers, keep the rest of the team and the editors up to date.  But mostly, frankly, just get stuff done.  The “Los Angeles Times” may sound glamorous, but that’s not why I’m there.  (And no news organization is safe in this day in age.)  In the end, I walk in every day, and type code on a computer, just like I did when I was practicing.

Each day, I improve a tiny bit (one hopes), and gain a deeper understanding about how far I’ve yet to go.  And once the myriad of files cover up the desktop background image that says, “Los Angeles Times,” I almost forget where I’m working, but always remember why I’m working.  Providing information to the public, taking full advantage of the power of the Internet.  Embrace the future.  Inform the readers.  It’s a mantra.  It is the combination of journalism and computer science, and both tool sets inform each other.  If you just want to code, you can make a lot more money, and have a lot more job opportunities elsewhere.  If you want to write, same thing (although less with the money part.)  But that’s not why I started down this path.

I’m part of a tight-knit group that already feels like a family.  I know many people search their whole lives for that.  And when we work, we mean business.  After all, these are the people who brought us California’s War Dead, and Mapping LA and Homicide Report.  It is an honor to be working alongside them.

So, our team sits, fairly quietly, and you hear some talking, but more of the clicking of keyboards, and the occasional muttering, and the even more occasional cheering when something actually works (okay, that last one’s me).  And while I am fortunate enough to get help to get conceptually unstuck — often when there’s a bug, it’s up to you to fix it.  After all, it’s your application.  Just like in Medill, no one can write your story, no one can tell you what you did to make the CMS give you what was known as “the dreaded Alt error.”  Work with others, but be self-sufficient enough to build products on your own.  (If you’re wondering, no, nothing’s been launched yet, but you’ll see what gets done, all in time.  I’ll keep the blog updated on that score.)

But before you can do this kind of work, and push beyond the curriculum, you must be acutely aware of the basics.  And that’s where j-school comes in.  Teach me AP style, teach me how to write a lede, teach me all that journalism has taught us for the past decades and centuries.  Tell me your experiences, help me form my own experiences, because I’d rather get that knowledge sooner than later.  We  can only move forward once we understand what history has taught us.

J-school provides building blocks

We each make our own experience from what we learn in j-school.  I have colleagues from my cohort who are anchors, TV reporters, radio reporters, social media producers, Web producers and much more.  Our platforms range from print to magazine to online to broadcast (TV and radio).  We all took many of the same classes, but made the overall experience our own.

So, I thank Medill, with all my heart, for all the lessons, all the grounding, all the exposure to new ideas that taught me just how little I know.  I thank Medill for the essential building blocks. I thank Medill for being a practical program, giving me a playground to try some cool new things out.  I’ve still got that playground, it’s just bigger now.  I stumble every day. But if it weren’t for j-school, and specifically Medill, I’d be stumbling a whole lot more.

I use what I learned in j-school every day, both what was in the curriculum, and what wasn’t in the curriculum.  I accept my Medill professors as my teachers, I accept the NICARians as my teachers, I accept my LAT colleagues as my teachers.  And once in a while, my own experiences or what others have told me allow me to pass on some of my knowledge.

The learning never ends. A curriculum can speed it up, but if you don’t learn how to self-teach, someone else will.  It’s scary and invigorating all at the same time.  That’s a big reason why I spend my life this way.  I feel lucky to have found what drives me, and my graduation wish for everyone is to be able to apply your curiosity to discover what drives you.  Oh, and also, the realistic caveat — I hope the job market recognizes the importance of our passions so that we all find a way to make a living doing it.

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  • http://www.justin-cox.com Justin Cox

    Michelle, this is SO cool. So positive. I’ve come to your same conclusion, especially when people ask me: How was Medill? When I dig for an answer I realize that I learned a ton. But the things that mattered most were the things I scraped away at on my own. You’re right, a curious nature is essential (although you seem to have taken that madness to the limit). Either way, if you just float through, taking notes and writing assigned articles, you’re probably wasting some serious time and money. Nice blog. I’ll be back.


    Michelle Minkoff Reply:

    Hey, Justin, great to hear from you! Thanks so much for your kind words! What do you mean, “madness to the limit”? That doesn’t sound like me–oh wait, it actually completely does. Ah, some things never change.

    Glad to hear you agree, I’ve been really heartened by the response to this piece. Thanks so much for stopping by, reading and commenting!


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