Sunday, May 12, 2013

Was it worth it after all?

I graduated from Columbia Journalism School about a year ago, wrote this, and then forgot about it. But I just reread it, and I'd say I still believe it, so here you go:

My year at Columbia Journalism School is all but over, as are the seemingly endless number of assignments I’ve had to do since August. So last night, I decided to take advantage of my first free Monday since winter break the best way I knew how: by watching two episodes of The Simpsons with a fellow j-schooler. ("Krusty Gets Kancelled” and “Last Exit To Springfield.” Both are absolute classics).
Here is a picture of the journalism school.

Although a good portion of the night was thus spent staring fishlike at my laptop screen, we did manage to squeeze in some time for conversation as well. Granted, most of this was about The Simpsons and how great it is, but since we’re almost at the end of an intense yearlong program, it didn’t take too long for a certain question to inevitably come up:

Was it worth it?

This has been asked and answered countless times since the journalism school was founded, so I doubt I’ll be able to provide the definitive answer here. But I did just finish the program, so I figure I might as well give it a shot.

At the risk of channeling Bill Clinton circa-1998, I think it depends on what the meaning of the word “it” is. If we’re defining “it” purely in monetary terms, then the answer—at least right now—is an emphatic no. Yes, I’ll have a paid internship when I leave; yes, I’m excited about it; and yes, I got it at least partially because I went to Columbia. But I paid about $50,000 to go here, and suffice it to say I will not be making that back this summer.

But that’s a very narrow way to define “it,” and given how broad of a question “Was it worth it?” is, it’s also not a very satisfying answer. In fact, it’s a pretty shitty one. So let’s move on.

I think what my friend really wanted to know when she asked that—I think what everyone really wants to know when they ask that question—is why I thought it was a good idea to earn a master’s degree in journalism when I applied here and whether I still think it’s a good idea now that I’m done. Because there does seem to be an enormous and constantly growing body of evidence against doing so. A lot of successful journalists—like, for instance, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School—never earned one. The Internet has not been kind to print media, to say the least. And New York City is an expensive place to live, especially when you’re making negative income.

I thought about all of these things several times before I applied here, after I got accepted, after I enrolled, and while I was in the program (especially when journalists who had never earned a journalism degree came to the school to discuss how poorly most major publications were doing. I am still not entirely sure what we were supposed to get out of those talks apart from depression). I think about them now, too (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). Because the realities of the industry are painful, and they did make me wish more than once this year that I had opted for a career in something like software engineering or advertising or panhandling. You know, something stable.

But I don’t want to do any of those things—at least not right now—so they aren’t options for me. I want to be a journalist, and since I was raised in middle class America, pursuing a career that you want is a luxury that was always encouraged. It seems like a very simple reason for coming here, and the part of me that likes pretending I’m some sort of amateur philosopher wishes I had something more profound to say about it, but this is really all I’ve got: I came to the Columbia Journalism School because I want to be a journalist. Crazy, isn’t it?

Now, was this a vital step to take towards becoming a journalist? I would have to say no, simply because I know too many reporters—either through fame or friendship—who have had/are having successful careers without a master’s degree. I’m not trying to enter a field like law or medicine, where official credentials and diplomas are necessities, hilarious Onion articles notwithstanding.

Still, when I think back on the year, a few things stand out that I can’t really deny:

·      I am better at writing and reporting now than I was in August.
·      I am good friends with a lot of people who didn’t know I existed less than a year ago.
·      I have had a lot of fun over the past 10 months.
·      New York City really isn’t that expensive if you don’t mind living in a room with no windows and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day.

Look, you don’t have to go to school to learn how to be a journalist. You don’t have to go to school to learn German, either, or to learn how to start a company or compose a symphony. But it doesn’t hurt, and it usually helps. And if you get to meet a lot of great people along the way and can graduate with a moderately reasonable amount of debt, so much the better.

There’s some quote about success that I can no longer remember the exact wording of, but it’s basic point is that the only wrong way to get to the top is by standing at the bottom criticizing what everyone else is trying (“There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s?” No, that doesn’t sound quite right). I know a degree from Columbia doesn’t guarantee a successful career in journalism, but this is what I decided to try. I have no idea if I’ll be making a living as a reporter five years from now, but that has very little to do with my decision to come here and a lot to do with me not being clairvoyant.

Anyway, regardless of what happens in the future, I don’t think it will—I don’t think it can—change the fact that this has been a fun and rewarding year. And with the way I idealize events in the past, I’m probably just a few months away from fondly reminiscing about the time Nicholas Kristof and I shared a laugh over cocktails at a swanky bar in Midtown, following which he gave me one of his Pulitzers, saying I had, quote, “earned it.”

So yeah. I think it was worth it.