Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s master of science program (2012-2013)

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I knew that, deep down, I would never be satisfied with just a bachelor’s degreeOriginally, I wanted to earn a master’s degree in politics or the like, but the common routine of many grad programs — attend lectures, become a part-time TA, write a thesis, etc. — felt a bit tired, especially following my previous 16 consecutive years of school. As I wrote in a different post, I was left wanting more from my first journalism school experience. I wanted to learn more about broadcast journalism — to specialize, in fact.

I considered a few universities’ offerings, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s master of science program was the one that stuck out. The legacy, the location, and the option to specialize in broadcast made up a decent enough trifecta for me to apply.

To my surprise, I got in.

Ten months, five Superstorm Sandy stories, and one tassel flip after I first started the program, I finished. The experience provided me with much of what I wanted, but it definitely didn’t fulfill all of my desires, and I still question if I should have gone after a different degree. One thing is for sure: It was one of the best experiences of my life.

The program

The broadcast program goes like this: tech tutorials + learning how to report for print while also learning how to report for radio and then TV + classes on journalism history, journalism law, journalism business, and journalism ethics + choosing some courses you want to take + working on your master’s project almost all throughout = master’s degree.

First semester

The first week consisted of orientation activities which, for me, was the worst part. I already did my homework on the school. I already had a bunch of people tell me what’s in store for the academic year. I definitely didn’t need to hear it again. International students got an extra day of orientation just before class-wide orientation. One part during that orientation that seemed to go on forever entailed each student (75-100 or so) introducing themselves to the crowd. There was also, of course, the requisite scavenger hunt. I understood the point of orientation, I just wished there was much less of it.

The next few weeks consisted of mostly tech tutorials with my Reporting and Writing classmates (more on that class in a moment). We focused on photography for the first week. Many students used the school’s cameras. I used my own DSLR camera. The instructor taught the class the ins and outs of using a camera (picking the right ISO, etc.) and Photoshop software. The next week, we learned how to use the school’s audio recorders and microphones. I used my own gear. We combined those skills to eventually create an audio slideshow.

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Getting good sound for the audio slideshow.

Reporting and Writing (RW1)

At around the end of August, we began Reporting and Writing 1, which most people called “RW1” for short. The class consisted of 17 (or so) students, most of whom were women. Roughly half of the students in my class were visible minorities, and six (including yours truly) were international students. Our ages ranged between 21 and 32. Most people were about 25. One person said he started the program with no prior journalism experience. There was another student who anchored, reported, and hosted his own medical show. Coincidentally, my class had two doctors.

RW1 was held on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Mondays, our print professor (and one adjunct professor) taught us how to report for print. The mornings were partly dedicated to critiquing other students’ reports as a class. We also learned more about the craft via the lecture portion. In the afternoon, we completed print journalism exercises, such as going out individually to capture a scene through our writing, producing a report based off a press release that included quotes and relevant information, and interviewing the professor pretending to be an eyewitness for a story.

For homework, we would normally have to write one report per week. The reports had to be based on a different theme (crime, religion, etc.) each time. After an edit by the professor, we were supposed to upload our stories on our RW1 website (each class had its own). If I recall correctly, each report required about 700 words. Occasionally, we were assigned daybook stories, which stemmed from events and such that appeared in the Associated Press’ daybook. Those stories came with a same-day deadline. The final assignment was to hand in an enterprise report of at least 1,200 words. Each assignment required a photo, partly because there wasn’t much of a way to upload it to the website without one.

A photo I took for RW1 while reporting on Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary.

Wednesdays were dedicated to the broadcast side of the course. Our broadcast professor’s main experience was with television journalism, and there were two helpful adjuncts with considerable radio journalism experience. Inherently, broadcast had to be taught differently than the print side of RW1, though the homework was similar; one story per week based on a topic. We would gather all of the elements throughout the week, then script and fully edit the story the following Wednesday. I found it more time-friendly to come in with a rough script ready for an edit versus writing it that morning. The adjuncts often required students to read out their script and play their actualities (what they called audio clips of someone speaking) before signing off on an edit.

At the end of the day, we would listen to all of the finished reports and critique them together. I think the professors tried to find consensus as often as they could, but there was a healthy amount of disagreement among them, which was refreshing. There are so many ways to produce, edit, script, and voice stories. Hearing the professors agree all the time would feel inauthentic. In later months, more so in other courses, I found critique sessions to be far less engaging; sometimes only the professors would give feedback, often abbreviated versions at that. That was a bit of a buzzkill for me because I found group feedback crucial. Some of the failures and successes of my peers were the same ones I could possibly make, and it’s important to understand each one, even if vicariously.

The radio lab used for RW1.
The radio lab used in RW1.

The radio side of RW1 ended in October, culminating in a one-off radio show similar to NPR’s morning news program. The professor assigned roles for each student; some worked behind-the-scenes, others were hosts and reporters. Most of the broadcast consisted of re-edited reports from weeks prior.

Some people weren’t keen on focusing on radio for so long in the course, but I thought it made a lot of sense. Radio reporting taught us how to be succinct yet still informative. Television reporting brought similar challenges, but visuals act as an aide to the audience. Plus, at some news outlets, you need to file reports for TV and radio, so it was good preparation.

The TV portion began with a few days of learning how to use cameras, microphones, and lighting kits. Time was also spent learning how to use Final Cut Pro. The two adjuncts for the radio portion were replaced with two TV adjuncts; one assisted with the story side of things, and the other trained the class how to edit. The editing adjunct told me that we were the last students who had to learn how to use Final Cut; future students will use Adobe Premiere Pro.

The rest of the course maintained the same structure; one story a week, a critique at the end, and such. Students were almost always paired up for stories for the first few weeks, with one being the reporter while the other handled most of the shooting and the editing. Still, both students in the teams helped report (both asked the interview subjects questions, helped write the script, etc.). Whenever I had to work with someone, I made sure that we both got an opportunity to shoot our own stand-ups, regardless of our position. At the end of the semester, most had reported on their own at least twice. The final assignment was an individual video profile. We were supposed upload our videos to the class website after an edit by the professor.

The normally hot room voice-overs would be recorded in.
Voice-overs would be recorded in this abnormally hot booth.

I left out one major part about RW1: beats. I believe every student in every class was assigned one. One class focused on demographic beats, so one student covered the Puerto Rican community in New York, etc. Another class focused solely on business. One class focused on water, which I guess could entail water pollution, sewage control, and so on.

My class, as others did, focused on specific neighbourhoods in the city. At the beginning of the semester, we choose up to three neighbourhoods in order of preference, and I think most people got their first choice. Williamsburg in Brooklyn was the most requested, if I recall correctly. One memory from childhood that always stuck out was visiting the World Trade Center towers, so the Financial District caught my eye. I was also interested in flexing some of my business reporting muscles. My broadcast professor was hesitant to give me the location because some of the topics — education, namely — would be hard to cover in that area. Ultimately, he gave me it and the Meatpacking District in case some stories didn’t work in the former.

(My broadcast professor said from the beginning that broadcast stories wouldn’t heavily rely on our beats, and I found that to be the case for my print stories as well, thankfully.)

One of the best parts of the class was consistently being encouraged to upload our stories to the web. My stories got thousands of hits, and the occasional comment or two. One time, a production team member in London asked if they could pay me for some footage from a post-Superstorm Sandy story I worked on. Putting my stories online made me feel that my work was more legitimate. Plus, after all that work producing a story, why not let other people enjoy it? Some students in other classes even sold their RW1 work to professional outlets.

We ended up not covering all of the topics were supposed to due to Superstorm Sandy. The disaster provided us with several opportunities to cover a major event before, during, and after.

Students became close with each other in their “RW1 family.” My classmates got along well for the most part, and we stayed in touch throughout the year. We had an official class Facebook group, though we never invited our profs to join it (how else could we playfully poke fun at them online?). At the end of the semester, several classes had a dinner party (or two) in the homes of their RW1 professors.

Essentials of Journalism

These are a set of four courses that teach students some of the basics of the industry.

History of Journalism

This course covered the origins of the first newspaper through to New Journalism. We learned how reporting accurately came to be, how the role of the reporter has evolved, and how journalism has changed over the decades overall. The reason the course worked so well was because of the extremely enthusiastic professor. Our assignments consisted of delivering one oral reflection to the class based on that particular week’s readings (the professor decided who went when), and one essay at the end of the semester; that was the only essay I wrote in the entire program.

Law of Journalism

The professor used real-world examples, such as the then-recent case of an outlet publishing topless photos of Kate Middleton. The only assignment was a take-home open-book exam at the end of the semester. We were given a variety of questions to answer and hypothetical scenarios to explore, one of which included a fake article that we had to identify potential legal problems with. On the last day of class, we went through the exam’s questions and answers with the professor.

Ethics of Journalism

There was no class more engaging than this one. The professor, coincidentally the same one on the receiving end of Barbara Walter’s reported attempts to get an aide to President Bashar al-Assad a CNN internship and a spot in a Columbia program, used a variety of case studies — including WaltersGate. He seemed to find a way to force everyone in the room to participate at least once in every class. The only assignment was a group presentation of an ethic.

Business of Journalism

Perhaps the most timely, this course dealt with the business side of journalism; new models of funding for news outlets, ways outlets are adapting to changing revenue streams, etc. The course covered, among other things, Google’s share in the online advertising world, and the way The Huffington Post uses other news outlets’ work. The final project was a group presentation on how each would cut a certain percentage of costs from a news outlet while also expanding its digital footprint.

On-air Reporting

This was one of several courses we could choose to take, and it was the most helpful one for me at the school. The instructor brought up an important point on the first day: Broadcast students aren’t well prepared in the presentation side of things. My broadcast professors gave a lot of great advice and assistance, but there just wasn’t a lot of time for individual attention. This course taught me how to “look into” the camera, improve my voicing, and much more. This course should have lasted all year and been mandatory for broadcast students.

Second semester

Students were now able to choose more of the courses they wanted — if there was space. Some courses required applications and interviews. In hindsight, I should have researched the second semester’s course options better, and played the courtship game earlier in the previous semester. Still, I basically got the ones I wanted.

Managing Broadcast Newsrooms in the Digital Age

At two and a half hours long each week, my shortest course of the semester was also one of the best. This was a course for those who love the inner workings of TV news. We learned about the art of TV ratings, how to handle corrections, how to cut costs in TV production, and much more. There were great guest speakers. At the start of the semester, students were told to follow a TV news outlet. We were expected to update the class on any major developments at the outlet. We had multiple assignments, including writing a two-page history of the news outlet we were following, a reflection or two, and a budget-cutting task for a makebelieve news station. Our final project was called “The Next Big Thing,” which was a solo presentation to the class of something we thought would be TV news’ next big thing (an app, a new model of revenue — anything students thought of). The two professors who taught this class had a wealth of experience in the business.

Reinventing Television News

In this class, we focused on a news outlet and tried to find ways to improve it — better content, more revenue, etc. The outlet in question was NowThis News. Guest speakers would come in almost every week for the first half of the semester, then we would submit a 600-word (or so) post in our Facebook group regarding what we learned. Some of the staff members from the outlet were in the group, and they would see and sometimes interact with us via comments on our posts. Our final assignment, which most people did in groups, was to present a new initiative, funding model, etc. to improve the outlet.

Nightly News

Students in this class produced a “Columbia News Tonight” (CNT) broadcast on Fridays. Students had different roles each week. Everyone got a chance to be on the two-person anchor team at least once, and many students reported at least twice. The positions also included writers, managing editors, and other typical newsroom positions. Unlike in my undergrad program, essentially all of the control room positions were handled by Columbia staff. The class would meet on Thursday mornings until about 1 p.m. to watch the prior week’s newscast together (along with, occasionally, a guest from the industry), critique it, and then have a story meeting for the next day’s newscast.

The Nightly News newsroom was in a classroom.
The Nightly News newsroom was in a classroom.

Generally, one or two teams would produce day-of-air stories. Other reports would be produced throughout the week. Each show would also include several “Back of the Books” stories, also known as features, including “New Yorker of the Week” (video profile), “Focus Report” (a feature on an issue), “Consumer Report,” and “Morningside Report” (a report, often a feature, on something involving the Morningside Heights area), which were all always done by two-person teams. Features were pretty standard work, though “Morningside Report” got exceedingly difficult as the weeks passed and the story ideas became harder to find.

Students were supposed to submit their stories by 5 p.m. for airtime 30 minutes later. The newscast was supposed to go on air at around 5:30 p.m. but almost never did which, to me, was bizarre. In my undergrad program, newscasts went live with whatever was ready at the time, and went off air 30 minutes later no matter what. At CNT, we had fake commercial breaks. After the show, there would be a short post-mortem and, usually, everyone was done by around 6:30-7 p.m. Students would normally have until the next Monday or Tuesday to submit a new version of their story, which would get edited into the final version of the broadcast.

The final assignment was a non-newscast video. Students had to produce either a “Five Minutes With” interview with a journalist on an issue in the industry or a “First Person” video on a personal story told, unsurprisingly, in the first-person. Students could do both, if they wanted.

Each class was often hit-or-miss. I got the change to produce some interesting journalism, at times. I enjoyed getting to perform a live hit for my first time (in Times Square, no less). The fact that we had to almost always produce off-campus stories was fantastic. Still, I felt unchallenged in the class for most of the semester. I wanted to attempt more innovative ways of telling stories, something that was definitely not embraced.

The Master’s Project

Nothing took more time from my day that school year than the master’s project. Students had to tackle either about a 5,000-word print story, a 20-30 minute radio documentary, or a photo/print or video/print hybrid. The photo/print hybrid required a 2,500-word story and a portfolio of relevant photos. The video/print hybrid required the same thing but with six minutes of relevant video instead of photos. A lot of people chose the 5,000-word master’s project.

Groups of seven or so students shared one master’s project adviser (normally a professor at the school). My group met together with our adviser about three times in total. Most students chose a story idea early in the first semester, and they developed a first draft by mid-January. The second copy was handed in in February, and the final version was due the Monday after spring break.

My experience with the project was more gruelling than it probably should have been. I was indecisive regarding choosing a story. Luckily for me, my adviser didn’t follow the normal deadlines. I chose to produce a 30-minute radio documentary on the kidney donor shortage in the United States. My adviser supported my decision but made it clear he knew nothing about radio. Eventually, my adviser was paired with a Columbia Ph.D student and former radio reporter. She provided great help, but I felt she was added too late in the process. In hindsight, I should have asked to have been switched to a broadcast adviser for simplicity’s sake.

For me, the master’s project was about being challenged. I definitely got what I asked for.

Commencement

The tassel was finally flipped on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. It was an hours-long ceremony. Students from a number of faculties graduated together. Officially graduating consisted of each faculty rising on the bleachers when the university president called out the faculty. In the afternoon, there was a ceremony specific to J-schoolers. That ceremony included speeches from the chair of the program, the class president, and a guest speaker. Then, one-by-one, students were called up to walk across the stage, shake hands with their RW professor(s), and collect that treasured piece of paper. After that, a reception was held outside. Both ceremonies were the standard fare; a nice but longish way to wrap things up.

Each student was given three tickets for friends and family to attend each ceremony. Many guests booked hotel and dinner reservations months in advance, which was a terrific idea (the neighbourhood was packed).

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The campus/student life

For many students in the program, I think that 40 per cent of their decision to choose Columbia was because they wanted to become journalists, 20 per cent because the school is part of the Ivy League, and 40 per cent because they simply wanted to live in New York City. I can’t blame them. New York is one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. You know that “Where dreams are made of” song? Yes, you do feel that gusto on the city’s streets. The city is so intense that campus life didn’t really exist for me. I mean, it has all of the standard university campus fare, but I found myself outside of it much of the time.

I requested student housing months in advance but only got an offer weeks before the semester started. I had already committed to an apartment by then. I visited the city on a five-day trip the previous May specifically to find a place. The process was laborious. The closer to campus the apartments were, the more expensive the rents were. Also, I wasn’t used to dealing with brokers. They show off apartments, normally charging a commission of one-month’s rent (or so) upon the lease being signed. I picked a place mixed within the campus area at 120th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I found that living near the school had its benefits, especially being able to go home for lunch and getting to class on time. I tended to venture further away from Morningside Heights to find less expensive food.

The campus has a distinctive style with only a few buildings with a more modern design. The main lawn area which the journalism building is adjacent to, offers an inordinate amount of green space in Manhattan. It’s especially nice in the springtime to lounge around in that area. You’re almost always able to find a dozen tourists taking photos near the Alma Mater statue in the middle.

Bachelor’s vs. master’s 

Regarding journalism education, is it better to get a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree? I feel that there is a lot of merit in getting an undergrad degree in something other than journalism, then getting a journalism grad degree. Getting a business degree first, then a journalism grad degree, for example, would come in handy when trying to make it as a business reporter, I suspect. Having now earned two journalism degrees, I feel that two years is long enough to learn the craft for most people. Columbia promises that in just 10 months which, despite some flaws, does give students adequate preparation for reporting.

If I could go back in time, would I have changed my education path? I’m not too sure. I love studying politics, and I would love to spend lots of time reporting on it someday. So, maybe I should have gotten an undergrad in that subject, then applied to Columbia. That said, journalism is my greatest obsession, and I enjoyed the last five years studying it. Also, I got that master’s degree that I always wanted.

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Conclusion

What I’ve learned through my nearly two-decade-long educational journey is that you have to make the best of what you’re offered. I came in with a focus: improve my broadcast journalism skills. When the program didn’t provide me with what I wanted, I found ways to get it on my own, which was probably the most important lesson to take away.

I covered significant stories in one of the newsiest cities. The program was challenging at times, and some of the professors challenged me in helpful ways. Learning from people with such remarkable real-world experiences provided immense value. Columbia offered a legacy, a location, and a faculty that was too tough to beat. Many call it the best J-school on the planet, a distinction I’m not sure if any school truly warrants. What I do know is that Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism provided me with enough of what wanted, and I left shaped by a meaningful 10 months.

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