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A reporter’s journey from the biz desk to the classroom

northwestern

The campus of Northwestern University. Photo by Meena Thiruvengadam

When I took my first job out of college at the San Antonio Express-News, I figured I’d go back to grad school in a few years. The time passed and it didn’t happen. A couple of jobs and a few more years later, I finally traded my employee badge for a school ID.

At the time, I was working as a reporter covering Treasury, Fed and economic news for Dow Jones Newswires and contributing to The Wall Street Journal in Washington.  There were frequent early mornings, lots of late nights and countless trips to the Carolinas and Virginia. I generated thousands of bylines, made dozens of videos and learned so much about economic and monetary policy that I might be able to win a few bucks on a game show one day. It was a great adventure, but I knew combining a wire service job with graduate school would make for a long, tough juggle — one whose demands I knew I didn’t have the patience and energy for.

So I decided to use the economy’s yawn as a chance to step out of the workforce and go back to school. I wanted to learn more about my business, my craft and the topics I cover.

Journalism isn’t medicine. It isn’t law, and it isn’t rocket science, but good journalism still requires skill and subject matter expertise. Journalism school can be a good place to develop both.

While journalists are required to be subject-matter experts, technically proficient and to juggle the sometimes competing demands of multimedia newsrooms, journalism is one industry where advanced education isn’t as highly valued as in other sectors. Most journalism jobs don’t require graduate degrees, and some of the best and brightest careers have been built on undergraduate degrees and long climbs into bigger and better news markets.

But journalism today isn’t what it was a few decades ago.

“When I entered the business, the only technical skills you needed were to know how to operate a keyboard and a pencil,” said Gabriel Kahn, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, now a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “That’s no longer the case. Multimedia storytelling skills are a must.”

meena

Meena Thiruvengadam

Journalists need more technical skills than ever before, have fewer newsroom mentors and are working in an industry grappling to figure out its future. Graduate journalism schools can offer a path to developing the reporting, writing and multimedia skills necessary to be more effective storytellers, to picking up new technical skills and to researching how to build a more sustainable and stable industry. It isn’t the only path, but for career switchers and career journalists alike, it can be a good one.

I chose graduate journalism school because I wanted to lay the foundation for a career on the business side of journalism and pick up some new multimedia skills. Ultimately, I enrolled in Northwestern University’s Medill School because it allowed me to best tailor the curriculum to my interests. A scholarship allowed me to make it affordable.

While at Northwestern, I didn’t take a single reporting course.  Instead, my degree combined interactive, video production, audience engagement, and business courses. I completed a series of media management classes and a macroeconomics class at the Kellogg School of Management. For my final capstone project, I studied ways in which publications can use online archives to generate additional revenue and increase audience engagement over longer periods of time.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. I’m really interested in the economics of content, in audience engagement and in social media strategy.
  2. I find product pricing and valuation fascinating. A finance course exploring pricing problems and valuation approaches provided some of the best insights into the current state of the media industry.
  3. Writing is one of the things I do best. The most consistent positive feedback I received during school was about the strength of my writing, which also improved as a result of having more time to think more critically about what I was writing.
  4. I am good at interpreting audience analytics, devising audience engagement strategies and can pull off complex video projects, but writing JavaScript will likely never bring me joy or great success.

Leaving a job to go back to school wasn’t easy, but I’m now smarter than I was before, and I feel better prepared for the jobs I want in the years to come. That’s made journalism grad school a worthwhile piece of my career puzzle.

 

About the Author

Meena Thiruvengadam is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She worked as a staff reporter for several U.S. newspapers. During the Great Recession, she covered the Treasury, Federal Reserve and economic news for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a master’s in media strategy and leadership at Northwestern University. She's online at www.meenamedia.com and on twitter at @Meena_Thiru.

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