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Talking Journalism in the Math Building

Robert De Niro got lots of attention last May when he told graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts they were screwed.

Old retro typewriter on table on green backgroundThe verb he used was actually harsher, and followed by the suggestion that they would have done better majoring in law, medicine or nursing. The grads responded with peals of laughter. Perhaps they were acting.

While acting jobs may be scarce, De Niro could easily have been talking to journalism grads. Layoffs in Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere do not bode well for the college student laboring today at media internships or the school paper in hopes of building up some clips and covering city hall for a major daily.

And there’s more bad news from bankrate.com, which notes that reporters will take 22 years to pay off their college loans compared to, say, civil engineers, who will clear the books in under eight.

With that as the backdrop, it was slightly surprising to see an overflow crowd of high school journalism students turn up at the University of Maryland recently for “J-Day.” So many kids descended on the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, some breakout groups were dispatched to the math building. (A slight irony there, as most reporters will remember that they went into journalism precisely because they couldn’t do the math.)

A colleague and I had been assigned to present for an hour on interviewing techniques.

Between us, we had roughly 50 years of reporting experience. We called the session, “Interviewing with Attitude.” And we had a packed session full of smart, curious and engaged students, precisely the kind of individuals you’d want testing the reporting waters, murky though they may be.

Odds are that very few will make it through to a large or even medium-sized daily. Minds change often between freshman and senior year. Why bother laboring in a low-paying job for a company not making much money, and taking years to pay off a student loan? It’s a fair question.

The simple answer is that, except for a rare few, the reward is not economic. Ann Curry said, “Journalism is an act of faith in the future.” Reporters get to question authority. They flash a press badge and pass through doors most never get near. They get to meet and introduce controversial and intriguing people to the masses. They get to be storytellers, and who doesn’t like a good story?

As I’ve said before, had my mother known that zoologists would be able to pay back their student loans faster than journalists, I might be wearing a beige Safari hat and managing the Reptile House today.

But there’s another part of the equation. Reporters pile up other skills, like how to deliver under deadline pressure, how to separate fact from fiction, and how to write clearly and concisely. They learn how to calm frantic editors and convince jumpy sources to go on the record. They learn that each story has more than two sides, and how to pull just the right quote from a page of scribbled notes. And they learn the art of interviewing, the subject of our recent workshop in the math building.

There we talked about the importance of being prepared, of being respectful but not awed by authority, and of owning up to mistakes. We talked about the ways politicians, celebrities and athletes try to dance around tough questions, and how to counter their skillful pivots. The students listened and asked smart questions.

None were about the ROI on a journalism degree.


Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent. Steve is a blogger for JenningsWire Online Magazine.


JenningsWire.com is created by National Publicity Firm, Annie Jennings PR that specializes in providing book marketing strategies to self-published and traditionally published authors. Annie Jennings PR books authors, speakers and experts on major top city radio talk shows that broadcast to the heart of the market, on local, regionally syndicated and national TV shows and on influential online media and in prestigious print magazines and newspapers.