Wednesday, June 12, 2013

J-School, or Justifying My Questionable Financial Decision

I'm back from Dallas, from a very exhausting week of reporting on the 2013 TCG National Conference.

Background: TCG stands for Theatre Communications Group, a membership organization for non-profit theatres across the country and the publisher of "American Theatre" magazine (aka, where I work). During the week, besides getting trapped in the elevator of the Borg-like Dallas Theater Center headquarters (seriously, it's shaped like a cube), and getting to finally meet certain artists in person (shout-out Desdemona Chang, Tlaloc Rivas), I was struck by how very lucky I am to be able to write about an industry that I adore, and to see as much theatre (good and bad) that I want.

There are people going to school to do exactly what it is that I'm doing. And if I made it, others might, right?

I don't know. Then again, no one in journalism knows where the field is going. A co-worker asked me why do I want to be a journalist when "print is dying." And she works in the magazine with me. So everyone's pessimistic and protective of their careers.

Which is why, when I encounter blog posts such as this from Kinja (owned by Gawker Media), about how journalism is the worst 4-year investment and you might as well be a sailor, I start getting reflective. And by the way, this is not the first time I've seen such coverage this year, about how journalists are underpaid and overworked and, these days, overeducated.

With a median salary of only $37,090 and college costs of $52,596, it would take today's newly-degreed journalist 31.84 years to pay off a student loan at 5% interest, according to

Yup, that sounds about right.

And as I start reflecting, I think to where I was in 2009, having come home from studying abroad and resolving (because I was going to be a senior and time was running out to hone in on a career) that I was going to be a journalist, because I thought that it was the only way I could make money as a writer and I was pretty decent at it. Since UCLA only had a student newspaper and not a journalism degree, I didn't have any way into the industry, no connections that could propel me into a job straight out of college with only a handful of clips and two internships at small magazines under my belt.

So I did what any student nowadays do when confronted with low job prospects and a downward economy: I asked my newspaper adviser what I should do. She told me to go the graduate school, get some more skills, and wait out the economy that way. And considering at the time, I couldn't even get the local "Orange Country Register" to read my clips, I figured journalism school would give me forward momentum, large price-tag be damned.

So I went. It was expensive, but I came out of it more clips than I ever thought I would, and better social media strategies, video/sound editing skills and a running knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite. In a year and a half, I'd made myself infinitely more hireable. And I job hunted in New York, something that had not even crossed my mind as a viable option in 2009.

But the skills came with a hefty price-tag. One that I'm not sure to this day was worth it, considering how much I'm making now. But I love my workplace and am proud of what we do and I can support myself on my salary, and I have health insurance. So at the end of the day, isn't that what matters?

I gambled and moved across the country, with no job, only for a diploma. And I won. I don't know if I can really advocate that path for anyone else, because the cost of failure (unemployment, settling for a job outside of the field) is so expensive, both monetarily and emotionally.

Considering the still-tenuous state of journalism, I can't say it's a good idea for everyone, especially if the field is not a calling for you and you're not willing to hustle for no-pay/low-pay work. I'm not even sure if it was a good idea for me. Then again, if I had stayed in California, I probably would be someone else. So I guess this post is a way of saying that I'm very glad I learned practical (read: marketable) skills in graduate school, in addition to learning how to be a better writer. But I probably could have gone about it in a more cost-effective way.

Or maybe not. Who knows, I'll never know. All I can advocate for are for those twenty-somethings looking to get a journalism degree to think really carefully before they buy (or rather, borrow).

I'm going to leave this blog post with a quote from the always-astute Mike Daisey, who in a Q&A with Poynter, compared journalism grads to theater grads, something that I have been thinking about for a while now and that I can't phrase any better. Also, he's a loads better public speaker/performer than I am so I'll just let him say it. The rest of the interview is worth reading too.

“I don’t look down on those young people [in journalism school]...[I]n fact, they remind me of people called to the calling of theater, who often pay hideous amounts of money to become trained enough in a thing our culture doesn’t seem to want at this moment...That’s an inherent part of the problem: There’s this thing that everyone acknowledges we need a whole lot...[but] very few people want to pay for it...There’s this puritanism in us that doesn’t believe that labor has any value.”

I guess this very Polly-Anna belief that the work of journalists has value is why I'm still doing this. After all, if I was a true narcissist, I'd just write personal essays.

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