College matters: My feeble attempt to pick a fight with Tim Harrower

This is doomed to be a polite disagreement, not the beginning of a fun online brawl in which I get to display razor-sharp sarcasm in 140 characters.

The problem is that, while I really want to disagree with Tim Harrower’s view of the need for college, he’s my favorite news design guru. And a nice and funny guy. I brought him to the college where I was previously employed for a hugely successful all-day seminar. I took another batch of students to see the same program in Orlando at the National College Media Convention last fall.


Tim is on the program in Chicago at NCMC starting Nov. 1, and you absolutely should attend all his sessions. It will make your paper better the day you get home. And you should go to his website and buy his textbooks on reporting and design. They’re fantastic.

But I have a bone to pick with Tim. On the NCMC website, he is quoted as saying:

“I would probably skip college altogether, to be honest. Especially if I wanted to be a journalist. … Why? Let’s say you’re an editor at a respectable publication. Before you are two resumes: One’s from a journalism major who attaches some clips from her school newspaper. The other’s from a freelancer who says, ‘I skipped college and used that $50,000 to travel around the world shooting video, blogging, and submitting articles to magazines like Outside and Wired. Here’s a link to my multimedia website.’ Which one impresses you more?”

I think it’s wonderful that journalism is the kind of business where an intrepid few can do exactly what Tim advocates. But I think that path is for a really small sliver of would-be journalists. To a young person contemplating the no-college route, I would ask:

  • Are you sure you want to be a journalist? There is no chance you’d discover another passion in college that would lead you to a different career or a different part of journalism?
  • Are you way above average in resilience, problem-solving and critical thinking?
  • Are you disciplined enough to do hundreds or thousands of hours of reading and thinking about literature, history, philosophy and science to get a well-rounded understanding of the world you seek to cover? Will you find wise mentors to guide you in that study?

Tim might well have been able to answer “yes” to all those questions when he was young. He’s very creative and enterprising. I know that I needed college. I was an upper-percentile student and reasonably self-sufficient, and I thought I knew a thing or two about news when I walked into The Crimson White office at the University of Alabama early in my first semester. One assignment later, I began to appreciate my ignorance. I learned a lot in that newsroom and in my journalism classes.

Elsewhere on campus, I learned a lot about political science, literature, history, economics and sociology. And throughout my college years, I learned about engaging in debate and working with peers.

I’m an (unemployed) adviser, not a professor, but from what I can tell journalism schools have become even more valuable in the decades since I graduated. And in the leaner media organizations of today’s world, I think j-school training in reporting, law, ethics and critical thinking is more important than ever. New grads today do not always have a veteran editor carefully reviewing their work before publication.

So take that, Tim! I respectfully disagree with your opinion! If we’re going to get into a nasty battle worthy of Romenesko, it’s up to you to bring the snark. Sadly, I suspect you’re just too nice.   But maybe you can slip a zinger into one of your talks in Chicago. I’ll do my best to be outraged.


About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on October 16, 2012, in Leadership, What to cover. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What you say is true, David. Mostly. But you gotta remember that my job, as journalistic gadfly/guru, is to challenge the status quo. And the status quo at many j-schools is overpriced and outdated — just not enough bang for your tuition bucks.

    Besides, that quote of mine was a response to this question from Michael Koretsky: “If you were in college now, would you still want to grow up in the journalism business?”

    My own college education was painfully disappointing. I was overcharged for what I got, and that was back when college cost half of what it does today.

    So now, whenever I see smart students trapped in old-fashioned journalism programs that are teaching them how to succeed in 1985 newsrooms, I think, “Hmmm . . . if I were in their shoes, perhaps I’d go to Plan B.”

    Anyway, Koretsky didn’t publish my full response to his question. I went on to say this:

    Here — in descending order of importance — are the factors that matter most when you apply for a journalism job:

    1) Impressive, versatile skills. 
    2) An engaging personality. 
    3) Your college degree. 
    4) Your grades. 

    And if you think my position is extreme, try this quote from Matt Taibbi, who covers politics for Rolling Stone:

    “I mean, this whole notion of journalism school—I can’t believe people actually go to journalism school. You can learn the entire thing in like three days. My advice is instead of going to journalism school, go to school for something concrete like medicine or some kind of science or something and then use the knowledge you get in that field as a wedge to get yourself into journalism.
    “What journalism really needs is more people who are reporting who actually know something. Instead of having a bunch of liberal arts grads who’ve read Siddhartha 50 times writing about health care, it would be really nice if some of the people who are writing about health care were doctors.”

  2. Some very good points.
    I feel like I must weigh in because I like disagreeing with both of you (as I often do), however, in this case I regretfully have to agree with David.

    “I would probably skip college altogether, to be honest. Especially if I wanted to be a journalist…”
    Really Tim?! I feel like that might be easier to say that looking down from the top of your “design guru” mountain.

    As David stated, the first question one would have to ask themselves is, “Are you sure you want to be a journalist?”
    Personally, I had no interest in journalism when I started college. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    On the topic of having the discipline to self-teach and motivate yourself to create this superior quality journalism portfolio:
    I went into the army straight out of high school at the age of 17, and when I came out of the army at the age of 21, I still lacked the discipline and maturity to know what I wanted to do.

    It took me another 3 years just deciding on whether I should go to college.

    Perhaps journalism is different, I don’t know, but I think your list for getting a job in the real world is way off.

    My mom always said that a college degree is proof that you “jumped through the hoops” of society’s standards.

    I think that applies to all jobs, including journalism.
    And with the way the job market is now…
    Tim, do you actually think that “impressive, versatile skills and an engaging personality” are going to outweigh a college degree?

    Regardless of one’s self-perpetuating experience, I doubt they will even get to the interview phase to show off their skills and personality when stacked side by side with someone, like me, who worked for their school newspaper and has a degree.

    That’s my two cents.

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