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Covering the winnetka schools in August.

COVERING THE WINNETKA SCHOOLS IN AUGUST

Like more than a few contemporary reporters, I sometimes find myself apologizing for having a journalism degree. Within the trade, J-school experience is almost universally felt to have little bearing on job performance. Old-timers consider J-school baby stuff; some editors are actively put off, holding such degrees against applicants. Only public relations firms and advertising agencies seem to show excitement about this line on the resume, and their interest is synthetic respectability. Hence a certain reluctance to discuss the subject. Young yups who are supposedly savvy careerist sharp-shooters have difficulty admitting they just blew $10,000 on a piece of paper.

My piece of paper is a 1977 master's from the Medill School at Northwestern University, which, before a recent spasm of internal strife too complicated to explain here, was considered among the nation's top J-schools.

Medill graduate degrees required one full year of study, commencing with a preparatory summer session. For the first month students practiced basic writing and studied composition texts, such as Strunk and White's Elements of Style, to which many give lip service but few lend attention. Whether an enforced read of Elements of Style is worth $10,000, I cannot say. I do know it turned out to be the most valuable part of the program for many students.

After Strunk Month, students were to spend the balance of the summer as journalistic junior birdmen, patrolling the suburbs that border Northwestern's campus north of Chicago. This entailed a daily trek to some local agency like the Evanston parks and recreation department, followed by return to a simulated "bureau' to file "stories.' We were supposed to identify ourselves as being with "Medill News Service.' Most municipal officials, having little enough patience for the real press, were damned if they were going to wate time with amateurs.

Assignments for this practicum were drawn by lot. When I reached into the hat, I drew the Winnetka, Illinois grade school system. In a stunning display of nascent analytic powers, I looked up from the slip and said, "It's August. Grade shcools are closed in August.'

No matter. Other students were assigned to institutions on similar siestas. Each morning we trudged to locked administration buildings--or shamelessly rang bells at the homes of vacationing officials--and made total fools of ourseves. The learning curve declined toward zero.

One of my fellow Medillos was physically expelled from the Glencoe police headquarters for attempting to reenact the Watergate grand jury memorizing scene from All the President's Men over some minor traffic case. Another called a local developer and announced, "Hello, I'm doing an expose on your shopping mall.' I got through one particularly uneventful week by "filing' a series of stories saying that a volcano had failed to erupt on Wnnetka school property that day; that an ice age had not begun on the soccer fields; that a secretary had spilled a cup of coffee, which informed sources characterized as "an accident.'

Meanwhile, undergraduates at Medill were offered one of the all-time bait-and-switches, a program known as "teaching newspaper.' They could relocate to a smalltown newpaper and work as unpaid interns--while continuing to pay Northwestern tuition. Yikes stripes! Anybody who fell for that scam was by definition not cut out for journalism.

I don't mean to suggest simulated-reporter sessions are without benefit. Making a total fool of oneself is valuable practice for a journalistic career. But we couldn't help fearing that after just one month Medill had started running out of things to teach us. The formal academic calendar confirmed our suspicions.

Only a handful of the instructors turned out to have so much as momentary personal experience as journalists or even to have written a line for publication. The department chairman possessed a "doctorate' in journalism, whatever that is. Classes, with a few welcome exceptions--one a stint in Washington writing stories for papers too small to have capital correspondents--were far removed from the realities of the news and even, curiously, from the reading of current newspapers and magazines.

If nothing else, journalism is the art of the moment. There is a fascination with watching the news take shape before the eyes, acquiring form and substance much faster than any other commercial product. It provides delight in addition to information, brightening the day for millions of news junkies from all walks of life. What better study of journalism can there be than laying the morning paper on the table and reading? Yet most of the Medill faculty seemed indifferent to following the actual output of the nation's major publications and networks, preferring to discourse about Murrow and Lippman. Some were distressingly ill-informed on rudimentary matters, like who was running The New York Times or Newsweek.

Our commencement speaker was Richard Stolley, an executive from Time-Life's People magazine, which is to journalism what rubber is to steel. He began his address with words to the effect of "I suppose you're wondering what an editor from People is doing addressing a journalism school.' A small chorus of "hear, hear!' was raised. It was a fitting conclusion to the year.
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Title Annotation:journalism school memories
Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1986
Words:849
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