By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
In his new book, “This Business of Broadcasting,” published by Billboard Books, author Leonard Mogel lists eight schools that offer what he calls the top broadcast journalism programs in the country. The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California affords the best program, Mr. Mogel postulates. Others on his list include Emerson College in Boston, New York University, Temple University in Philadelphia and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
Mr. Mogel, a former Hollywood producer and a founder of National Lampoon magazine, has made a second career out of writing books about how to get a job in the media. But he’s not making many friends with his current project.
“Some of those places are not even in our league,” said David Hazinski, an associate professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.
Let the finger-pointing begin. There is, after all, no definitive scientific ranking of broadcast journalism schools. Ask 10 news directors which is best and they are as likely to say their local community college as well-known national programs such as those at the University of Missouri or the University of Florida.
There exists just as much disagreement within the academic world as to what makes a great broadcast journalism program. In a nutshell, it’s a classic argument between idealists who stress the virtues of liberal arts and the realists who seek to prepare students for that first job.
A school’s focus can also change, depending on who’s teaching at the time. The journalism program at Ohio State University was once considered one of the nation’s best. “That program is now primarily communications, not journalism, and a kid going there and expecting a journalism education might not get what he’s looking for,” said Robert Papper, a telecommunications professor at Ball State.
What News Directors Want
News managers like to say they want to hire graduates who can write and who have a good working knowledge of current events.
“That’s what they say, but it is not necessarily whom they hire,” said Paul Shaffer, a journalism professor at Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla. Mr. Shaffer has researched the hiring practices of media outlets and found that news directors talk about writing and such, but what they really want is students who have hands-on experience operating television equipment.
Marcia Rock, who heads the broadcast journalism program at NYU, takes a more cerebral approach.
“We are not focused on feeding news directors what they say they want,” Ms. Rock said. The NYU program trains students in the areas of story development, research, interview skills and editing. “Our model of being creative and innovative is really what news directors need,” she added.
Chasing the Curve
Many schools take a different tack, concentrating on preparing students for their first job in what they perceive to be the “real world” of television news. That approach can backfire, Mr. Hazinski cautioned, especially if schools don’t have the financial wherewithal to keep up with rapid changes in the television industry.
“J-schools have spent the last several decades trying to prepare people to go into traditional television news, and that has meant we were always behind, because we could not afford the equipment and the current technology,” Mr. Hazinski said.
The broadcast journalism program at the University of Georgia has no equipment budget, yet it boasts some of academia’s most cutting-edge stuff. Mr. Hazinski seeks grants and forms partnerships with equipment vendors who provide the school with state-of-the-art tools.
“We have kids entering the job field with skills that don’t exist yet in the industry,” he said. Mr. Hazinski conceded that it’s a risky approach. If the industry fails to adopt the technology, his graduates will suffer. So far, he said, it has worked.
“A lot of schools try to clone what’s going on in the industry, but they can’t afford it, so they just talk about it a lot. And that’s not good enough,” he said.
Many schools keep at least a toe in the current professional world by employing retired journalists. Mr. Hazinski is a former international correspondent for NBC. The University of South Carolina College of Mass Communications and Information Services recently hired former CNN reporter Charles Bierbauer as its dean. Big names can be a big draw for students choosing a college.
“If I were a kid looking at a school, I would look very closely at who’s teaching there and what they’ve done in the business,” Mr. Papper said.
Adjunct instructors can play an important role. The University of Georgia, located near Atlanta, employs instructors from CNN and Atlanta television stations. NYU mines a rich pool of professionals from broadcast and cable networks, documentary producers and local stations.
The top schools claim to place the majority of their graduates into jobs in their chosen field, but placement rates can vary widely. Mr. Hazinski said his placement rate stood at about 84 percent last year. At NYU 90 percent of graduates find a job within six months, Ms. Rock said. Other schools report placement levels of 50 percent or lower.
“A degree in broadcast journalism alone is not going to guarantee you a job,” Mr. Shaffer said.
News directors say the type of degree is not as important as an individual’s skills and abilities.
“Lack of a J-school degree never cost a good candidate a job, but with most news directors it is at least a tie-breaker,” said Rick Gevers, a Zionsville, Ind., talent agent and a former news director.