Contemporary wisdom holds that journalism is a discipline in its final throes. But the expansion of Columbia School of Journalism's Master of Arts program and a new focus on journalistic education throughout New York City may be proving critics wrong.
As the MA program, now in its pilot years, continues to grow-about 40 students will be admitted in its second year, an increase of 13 people en route to a target capacity of about 60-questions have arisen about the program's value for graduates on the job search and what distinguishes it from a multitude of established MA degrees, including one at nearby NYU.
Columbia's program, pioneered by Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann and approved by the University Senate in 2004, is a year-long course of study designed to give journalists the opportunity to master a specialized topic area. Divisions include business, culture, science, and politics. It is a more theoretical course of study than the traditional program, and is designed to be supplemental to the skill-oriented Master of Science degree.
The students completing the program this year take two collective theory classes, a master's thesis, a division-specific seminar, and a graduate class in another part of the University. All either have an MS degree or solid on-the-job experience. The hope is that greater training will increase job prospects in a business in which newspapers routinely report on their own shrinking.
"I think things are going well in the sense that the students in the program are happy," Lemann said.
The program received 248 applications for Fall 2006, up from 70 applicants the year before.
Lemann noted that the Master of Arts' existence came about after a multi-year task-force study on the state of journalism education that President Bollinger began upon his arrival at Columbia. Lemann said that he proposed a similar degree program while working for the task force, and began to work toward the second-year model after being appointed dean.
What has surprised the administration most about the program was that a large number of applicants-80 percent of those for next fall-came from people unaffiliated with Columbia.
"It looks as if it may be evolving into not an optional second-year model, but almost a mid-career program for working journalists," Lemann said.
Joseph Ax was one such applicant. He deferred a job offer to complete the politics specialization in the hope that it would make him look desirable to bigger papers.
"It's a very academic enterprise, which is kind of the fun of program," Ax said. He added, though, that he cannot tell how helpful the studies will ultimately prove to be since "it's a little unclear how the industry is going to value the degree."
Classmate Moises Velasquez-Manoff, one of six students in the science concentration, earned his MS at Columbia last year. Like Ax, he said he finds the program enjoyable, but questioned its utility. "It's a work in progress, but I think it's going in the right direction," he said.
"My hunch," Velasquez-Manoff continued, "is that the smarter you are, the more you know, the better reporter you'll be."
Columbia's program is not evolving in a vacuum. CUNY is opening a journalism school in the fall, and NYU is in the process of revamping its undergraduate curriculum.
And while Columbia's MA is being touted as an educational innovation, its neighbor to the south has been offering MA graduate degrees for its entire existence. So what makes the Columbia degree-which Ax termed a "sort of grand experiment of Dean Lemann's"-something new?
According to Brooke Kroeger, chair of NYU's department of journalism, it isn't. The NYU degree also offers areas of specialization, as it is situated under the auspices of Arts and Sciences. "We've been doing this for a long time, and we're delighted to see them come aboard," she said.
Journalism School administrators say the advantage at Columbia is that content is geared toward student journalists, instead of being a class for aspiring economists or physicians. The science seminar, for example, is science for journalists.
Journalism School dean of academic affairs Elizabeth Weinreb Fishman explained that she views this synthesis as valuable because it helps replace the intense mentoring system that used to take place in media career fields.
"The reason we do this is because it's not being done out there. The amount of on-the-job training has plummeted," Fishman said.
Lemann concurred. "What we're trying to do is sort of bring the mountain to Mohammed," he said.