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Teaching the D-Word in J-School: Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

By Eric Breitbart

David A. Klatell, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

American journalism education has changed considerably since the days of Tom Paine, John Peter Zenger and Isaiah Thomas, when a would-be reporter like Thomas could learn to read by setting type after being apprenticed to a printer at the age of six. Professional training arrived in the United States when the first journalism school was established at the University of Missouri in 1908, and the debate on where journalists should be educated—in the newsroom or on the university campus—has continued ever since. Of course, even in journalism schools there's no universal agreement on just what constitutes a professional education. Should it concentrate on nuts and bolts of the craft, or on providing a broad intellectual background? Are the skills of the newspaper or magazine writer comparable to those of the television producer, investigative reporter or online journalist?

Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism is one of the schools trying to come up with answers. Originally proposed by Joseph Pulitzer in 1903, the school received its first undergraduate class in 1912. One reason for the nine-year delay may have been the fear that hard-living reporters would despoil the purity of an Ivy League campus, but Pulitzer persevered, arguing that journalists were essential to the ongoing life of a democratic society. "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together," he wrote in a 1904 article, convinced that "Journalism is one of the great and intellectual professions."  In 1935 Columbia dropped the undergraduate curriculum and became the country's first exclusively graduate-level program.   

Even though print journalism remains central to the Columbia program, broadcasting has played an important role for many years. This is due in part to the school's location in New York City and its sponsorship of the Alfred I. duPont Awards in Broadcast Journalism, but also because past deans have included television executives Fred Friendly and Joan Konner. 

According to Academic Dean David A. Klatell, the average age of current students in Columbia's MS program is 28 and they fall into three categories: one third come directly out of college, another third have worked in the field for three to five years and the final third are older students who are changing careers. Though most of the ten-month curriculum consists of required courses, students choose a media concentration in broadcast journalism, magazine journalism, new media or newspaper journalism. In addition, they can focus on specific subject areas such as international affairs, business and economics, arts and culture or science. In 2005, the school will offer two-year MS/MA programs in business and economics, health and medicine, politics and international affairs, and arts and culture, in cooperation with other Columbia schools. 

All students are currently required to take Reporting and Writing I in the fall semester, a basic introductory course applicable to all media. Topics include how to do research, how to write a lead and structure a story, how to cover a neighborhood or a government agency, and how to formulate both spot news and longer, investigative pieces.  In the second term, workshops in specific areas such as magazine writing, in-house broadcast news, newspaper reporting, television documentaries or new media encourage students to pursue individual interests.  

Klatell coordinates the Broadcast Journalism concentration, which gives students a choice of workshops in radio, TV documentary, television magazine production and TV nightly news. More important, Columbia is one of the few journalism schools to offer students the possibility of making a documentary video as a Master's Project—an untraditional choice since broadcast journalism is usually defined as short, magazine-type pieces of less than five minutes.

In part, this reflects a contemporary journalistic landscape in which The New York Times produces both newspapers and television documentaries, while magazine articles serve as the basis for Hollywood features. It also reflects the changing nature of the student body. "Ten years ago most of our students would have said they wanted to be reporters," says Klatell. "Today, they say they want to be writers. They want to tell stories. Their ideal is not to work for a newspaper but to write long-form pieces for The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly." 

The documentary workshops are conducted by Klatell along with June Cross, who has a background as both a newspaper reporter and television documentary producer, and Jeffrey Tuchman, an independent documentary producer. Since he's been teaching at the school Tuchman has seen more students arriving with video experience. "Eight years ago you'd have a few incoming students who had used a home video camera," he notes. "Now it's not unusual to find a fair number who have already worked in Final Cut Pro or Avid Express."

Approximately 15 students sign up for the documentary workshop each semester and are divided into three-person teams, each of which produces a 20- or 30-minute documentary. The school has three Sony DSR-250 DVCAM cameras and four Avid Express editing stations, offering students the possibility of doing professional level work.  One of the main tasks of the faculty is to help students select projects that can be completed in a short time frame (five months) and to make them aware of problems that may arise when they go into a situation with a video camera. Students are encouraged to have stories play out in front of the camera instead of concentrating on sound bites and B-roll. Moreover, while digital video technology is not quite as inexpensive as a laptop, the gap between them is constantly shrinking.

In addition to hands-on production, regular screenings are held of theatrical documentaries like The Fog of War, Capturing the Friedmans and Bowling for Columbine, works-in-progress from established filmmakers and award-winning television programs from the duPont Journalism Awards archive. Students can also take a full semester course in the history of the documentary.

Both Klatell and Tuchman emphasize that this relatively new orientation towards long-form documentaries does not mean abandoning the school's roots in the ethics and standards of journalism. In the Columbia catalog, Klatell expressed the school's aims and expectations, which are to encourage students to learn to think critically and intelligently about the basic issue of the day in all forms of media. "At the same time, they are exposed to the ethics, the law, the history and the principles of the profession," he writes. "Although the need for technological fluency informs our program, it does not drive it... All the digital legerdemain in the world will not rescue a story that fails the fundamental tests of fairness and accuracy." 

It's quite possible that a number of film schools could use a dose of traditional journalism.


Eric Breitbart is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in New York City.