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Learn more, earn more?

If you're considering going back to school for a master's degree, you'd do well to consider that the day-to-day practice of journalism is more pragmatic than theoretical.

In other words, if you can get it fast, get it right, get it completely and make it interesting and vital, and if you've been doing the job consistently well for a while, an advanced degree probably won't kick you into a higher tax bracket.

Both the people who teach and the people who hire say more education in journalism won't necessarily get you a better job or a bigger paycheck. In fact, an advanced degree in journalism may even be redundant for the working professional.

"I don't thin any degree above a bachelors is essential if that bachelors is in journalism," says William J. Woestendiek, director of the University of Southern California School of Journalism and former editor of The Plan Dealer in Cleveland. "I never knew anyone who was a better journalist because he or she had a masters. That other year could be equally as well-spent on a small newspaper learning the ropes."

At USC, says Woestendiek, virtually all candidates for masters degrees in journalism hold bachelors degrees in other subjects. And under thos circumstances, he says, a masters in journalism is valuable. Conversely, he says, a masters degree in, say, political science or business, is likely to be valuable to the working journalist who holds a bachelors degree in journalism, and may make him or her more attractive as a prospective employee.

"It's not easy to start writing business or science off the top of your head when you're just out of school," he says.

But will it fetch more money?

"A masters degree can help in terms of possibly getting someone a higher starting salary," says Woestendiek, "but that's a very iffy thing, especially in today's world."

Jim White, a hiring editor for the Los Angeles Times, says the size of the paycheck often does not conform to the size of the sheepskin.

"I would say that the degree itself doesn't mean an enormous amount," he says. "What matters, what's valuable for a working journalist, is the knowledge that they gain. If somebody goes out and gets an MBA, clearly they're going to learn a lot about the business world and be knowledgeable about writing business stories. But they may be just as good a choice if they have basic knowledge about it, if they sat back in their living rooms after work every day and read and came up with the basic knowledge."

The Times, says White, doesn't "pay a great deal of attention to continuing on for a masters degree in journalism. Generally speaking, we feel someone with a bachelors degree in journalism can be presumed to have a knowledge of the basics of news gathering."

The determiners of a prospective employee's worth, he says, are the tried and true ones: experience, skill, talent, good recommendations and an established track record. There is, he added, no formula at the Times for setting salaries based on whether a writer holds an advanced degree.

Neither is there one at the San Francisco Examiner, says the paper's director of human resources/newsroom, Tara Stevens.

An advanced degree in any discipline, she says, is "one part of the equation and not directly tied to whether or not we'd hire someone or pay them more. But if (the degree) enhances their application in relation to the competition, that plays a part in our decision-making. Given the nature of the degree, if it's particularly key to coverage areas here, and we think it would enhance what the person could do to bring things to the reader, that will begin in the equation."

Mainly, she says, "we're looking for a totality of experience, a personality compatible with our newsroom culture, and the ability to deliver in the areas we need someone to deliver."

Still, when the emphasis in graduate schools of journalism is on the practical rather than the purely theoretical, a masters degree holder's desirability may increase. At the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, for instance, where the only degrees offered in journalism are advanced degrees, the masters program "takes a student or a professional journalist who has been working in the field for some time and gives them a sense of what it means to be a professional journalist," says Dean Joan Konner.

"It takes the person who is educated and in most cases has a bit of background in journalism and not only gives them an intense year of honing their skills, but helps them deepen their knowledge on a particular subject and gives them a better understanding of the responsibilities and the power of the journalist in society today. This is important more than ever as the media becomes a more and more powerful institution."

At Columbia, says Konner, "we are in the business of educating people who want to be journalists. Some other schools in their graduate programs are going in a more theoretical direction, training students to be teachers or researchers in the field.

"This school is very different from other schools. We believe in order to be a professional journalist you have to have an intellectual resource bank to report from. We don't encourage the application of people with undergraduate degrees in journalism.

"Bachelors degree holders in other subjects, she says -- or working journalists returning for a masters degree -- usually have acquired a larger body of general knowledge than the student fresh from undergraduate journalism school. This knowledge, she says, can be incorporated into a graduate journalism program and can help in refining not only the graduate student's journalistic skills, but also their approach to gathering and reporting the news. Indeed, 80 percent of the graduate journalism student body at Columbia has had previous professional experience, either in journalism or "in some other field of public service," says Konner. The average age of a graduate student there is 28.

"A year in this school," says Konner, "telescopes a lot of experience and exposure to a lot of different forms and a lot of different disciplines."

The student is likely, she says, to emerge with a purer outlook on the profession, something that often is lacking in undergraduate programs.

"I think there is a truth in labeling problem in journalism education, now," says Konner. "There are (undergraduate) students coming out with degrees in advertising and PR under the name of journalism. We think those are very, very different disciplines."

Today, she says, most undergraduate journalism students don't go into the profession, but into an ancillary field, such as public relations. In some schools, she says, teachers trained in a field such as advertising may be teaching journalism classes. Often, editors know this and put less stock in applicants' formal education than in their practical experience.

"It depends on the editor," says Konner. "They may be saying, 'What do Ph.Ds have to teach the people we want to hire?'"

Still, she says, some editors believe "that somebody with a degree that they recognize as being good background will have a much shorter training period."

But will it get a better job, or more money? The answer remains frustratingly vague: no guarantees.

Patrick Mott is a southern California-based free-lance writer.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Society of Professional Journalists
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Journalism vs. the Economy; getting a degree in journalism
Author:Mott, Patrick
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Words:1214
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