Ten years later: What I learned (and didn’t learn) at J-School

When people find out I work as a TV news reporter, they often ask where I went to college.

I tell them: “Northwestern University; the Medill School of Journalism.”

Then they ask: “Did you like it there?”

I tell the truth: “Absolutely.”

Then, assuming we do not start talking about the always-promising Northwestern football team, they usually say something along these lines:

“That’s a great school for journalism. You must have learned a lot there, right?”

I always give the short answer: “Yes.”

But I always wind up thinking later about how the long answer to that question is far more complicated.

This week marks a big anniversary for me. Ten years ago, I finished my last class at Northwestern. I graduated in June 2003, and I started working at my first TV station in July, but I left Northwestern’s lovely Evanston, Ill. campus in March, carrying all the ambition and eagerness expected of an aspiring journalist.

For a long time after I left, I thought mainly about what I had not learned — what I could not possibly have learned in my four years at journalism school.

I did not learn about the cold hard reality of the industry. For sure, my professors always warned about its tenuous nature. But they could not prepare me for the day when, six months into my first job, my station made massive budget cuts by firing all of its main anchors and producers.

I did not learn how to tell a story — not in the advanced sense, anyway. I learned all the basics — writing, fact-checking, shooting and editing video — but I only seriously developed my storytelling skills when I started using them five days a week.

I did not learn how to battle bureaucracy. Let’s just say you don’t face a whole lot of obstacles while covering the women’s basketball team for the school radio station. And you don’t get any preview of the day-in, day-out effort of managing all your important relationships, from co-workers to PR people to management to the subjects of your stories.

Ultimately, I did not learn these things because I could not possibly experience them in a collegiate setting. Journalism school is very much a trade school, but you cannot fully learn the trade until you immerse yourself in it.

For a while, I resented Northwestern for that. I felt as if, in my house of journalistic knowledge, my first and second jobs had built the walls and filled the rooms; Northwestern had only laid a basic foundation.

I have gradually begun to realize how much that foundation truly means — and how firmly my house stands because of it.

At Northwestern I learned to think critically about my field. Before I ever picked up a notepad and learned how to write, I joined my fellow freshmen in “History and Issues of Journalism”, a class that emphasized ethics and challenged its students with real-life examples that blurred the lines between right and wrong. I could write thousands of words about my professor in that class, the legendary Dick Schwarzlose, who passed away shortly before I graduated. In this space I will simply thank him, and his class, for forcing me to constantly challenge my beliefs about journalism — while simultaneously stoking my passion for it.

At Northwestern I learned about much more than journalism in class. I remember being somewhat surprised when I first saw the Medill School curriculum, which exists in a similar framework today. Of the 45 classes I needed to graduate, I could only take 12 of them at the journalism school. For the rest, I needed to fill a variety of liberal arts requirements. I wound up learning more about history, the arts, and psychology than I ever expected, and I absolutely use that knowledge as a journalist.

At Northwestern I learned how this business can be, to be blunt, really freaking cool. I spent countless autumn Saturdays broadcasting Wildcat football games for WNUR Sports. I watched Michael Wilbon and Christine Brennan give lectures, interviewed Tom Brokaw over the phone in class, and met NU alum Brent Musberger when he took some time the day before a Northwestern football game to give an hour’s worth of advice to its journalism students.

(Heck, on one occasion I got to watch Charlton Heston read Shakespeare monologues for a private audience. I was a freshman … in my second month. At that point I wondered, “Do these types of things happen every week here?”)

Maybe I needed ten years to understand the importance of those four years at Medill. For so long I wondered why Northwestern had not better prepared me for the “real world” of journalism. But here’s the thing: the only place to truly learn those “real world” skills is the real world. And like it or not, you learn those skills very quickly when you start your career.

Instead, my professors and leaders at Northwestern focused on teaching what I would not automatically learn as a professional. Through everything mentioned above, they ingrained in me a sense of the tradition and power of journalism. What we do is important. What we do is valued. What we do is a time-honored touchstone of society. These may sound like bromides or motivational ploys, but I believe them to be critical. Journalism is always changing, but journalists must always remember the importance of what we do.

We must always be proud of what we do.

Perhaps I took that pride for granted in the formative years of my career, but I cherish now that I have always held it. I thank Northwestern and the Medill School for that.

And that is why, when people ask me if I learned a lot about journalism in college, I confidently give the short answer.

Yes. I did.


Matt Pearl graduated from the Medill School of Journalism in 2003. He can be reached at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.


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