REVIEW: Columbia University’s Master of Science degree in journalism (2012-2013)

columbiawelcomeGetting into Columbia University Journalism School’s master’s of science program seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. I knew that, deep down, I would never be satisfied with just a bachelor’s degree; I wanted needed a master’s degree. It’s a silly way of looking at things, I know. Generally, furthering one’s education is always a good thing, but it should always be based on a reasoned decision.

Originally, I wanted to earn a master’s degree in politics or the like, but then I realized that the traditional routine of most 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. At the same time, as I wrote in my review for my undergrad’s journalism program, I was left wanting more from journalism school. I wanted to learn more about broadcast journalism — to specialize, in fact.

I considered a few universities, but Columbia University was the one that stuck out. The legacy, location, and option to specialize in broadcast made up a decent enough trifecta for me to apply.

Another factor to consider was my then-current opportunities. Exactly one week after I got accepted to Columbia, I was offered a job with a CBC News station. It wasn’t on-air reporting, which I wanted, but it would have opened up a lot of opportunities.

After careful thought, I determined that getting rid of my master’s degree itch was the best option in the long-run. (Oddly enough, following graduation, I applied several times for the same exact position at the same station ((and others)) without ever getting another interview.)

Hundreds of thousands of words, ten months, five Superstorm Sandy-related stories, and one master’s degree later, I’m done. The experience provided me with a lot but definitely not all I wanted from the program. While it didn’t fully live up to its hype (does anything?), I left with no regrets.

My promise to those reading this review is to provide as thorough a look into the program. You must make a promise to me, though: realize that this review was written through my own lens. I went there expecting something probably different than what you seek. Most importantly, the program has completely changed; medium concentrations don’t exist anymore. Although many of the courses are the same (at the time of publication), this review is for a different version of the program.

 

The program

If there was a math equation to describe the broadcast program, it would be: tech tutorials + learning how to report for print while also learning how to report for radio and then TV + journalism history, law, business, and ethics + finally choosing the courses you want + working on your master’s project almost fully throughout = master’s degree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First semester

The first week or so consisted of orientation, 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 I’m in store for the academic year, and so on; I definitely didn’t need to hear it again. International students got an extra day of orientation just before class-wide orientation; one particularly painful part during that orientation entailed each student (75-100 or so) introducing themselves to the crowd. There was also, of course, the requisite scavenger hunt. I got the point of orientation, I just wished there was much less of it.

The first few weeks consisted of mostly tech tutorials with your Reporting and Writing class (I’ll get to that class in a sec.). We focused on photography the first week, using the school’s cameras (I already knew a lot about photography, so I used my own DSLR). The instructor taught the class all the ins and outs of using a camera (choosing the right ISO, etc.), and Photoshop. The next week, we learned how to use the school’s radio recorders and microphones. We combined those newfound skills to eventually create an audio slideshow.

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Getting good sound for the audio slideshow.

Reporting and Writing (RW1)

Finally, at around the end of August, we began Reporting and Writing 1, which absolutely everyone called “RW1” for short. The class consisted of 17 or so students, most of which were women (as was the case in my undergrad program as well). Roughly half of the students in my class were visible minorities, and six (including yours truly) were international students. Our ages ranged from 21-32, with most people being about 25 (anecdotally, I found that the case for most students in the program). Experience levels were equally varied, with one person starting with absolutely no prior journalism experience, to an international 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 — you guessed it — print. The mornings were dedicated to critiquing other students’ reports, and learning via lecture. In the afternoon, we did the cliché print journalism exercises, such as going out individually and capturing a scene, writing a report based off a press release that included quotes and relevant information, and interviewing the professor pretending to be an eye-witness for a story.

Outside of class, we would normally have to file one report per week based on a topic; crime, religion, profile, to name a few. 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, the required word count was usually 700 or so. Occasionally, we were assigned daybook stories, which entailed covering events and the like that appear on the Associate Press’ daybook, and then filing the story with a same-day deadline. The final assignment was to hand in an enterprise piece of at least 1,200 words. Photos for each assignment were always required, partially 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 broadcast. Our broadcast RW1 professor’s main experience was with television, but we had two very helpful adjuncts who had considerable radio journalism experience. Inherently, broadcast had to be taught differently than the print side of RW1, though the coursework was somewhat similar; one story per week based on a topic. We would gather all the elements throughout the week, then script the story the following Wednesday. I found it more time-friendly to come in with a rough script ready for an edit on Wednesdays. The adjuncts often required students read their script and play their actualities (what we call audio clips of someone speaking) before signing off on an edit.

At the end of the day, we would listen to each student’s story, 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 very enjoyable. There are so many ways to produce, edit, script, and voice stories, that 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. It 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; it’s important to understand each and every one, even if vicariously.

The radio lab used for RW1.

The radio lab used for 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 it to each student; some worked behind-the-scenes, others were hosts, and such. At least two people were day-of-air 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 think it makes a lot of sense to focus on it first. Radio teaches you how to be succinct yet still informative. Television still relies on that, but visuals act as an aide to your audience. Plus, at some organizations, you need to file reports for TV and radio, so, it’s good preparation.

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

The rest of the course maintained the same structure; one story a week, class critique at the end, etc. Students were almost always paired up for stories for the first few weeks, with one being the reporter while the other did most of the shooting and editing. Generally speaking, both students in a team helped report (asked interview subjects questions, helped write the script, etc.). Whenever I had to work with someone, I made sure we both got an opportunity to shoot a stand-up, regardless of our position. At the end of the semester, essentially everyone had reported on their own at least twice. The final assignment was an individual video profile. Also, 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 closet.

I left out one major part about RW1: beats. Beats are a specific topic, people, location, etc. that a reporter exclusively reports on. 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, public pools, and so on; they must have had an interesting time covering Hurricane Sandy.

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 of my greatest memories from childhood was visiting the World Trade Center towers, so the Financial District caught my eye immediately. 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 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.

I think that the best part 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 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 people enjoy it? Some students in other classes even sold their RW1 work to professional outlets.

I would have liked to see the school expand class websites, possibly even introduce advertising on them.

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

Naturally, students became really close with others in their “RW1 family.” All my classmates got along well, for the most part, and we stayed in touch throughout the year (and onwards). And, of course, we had an official class Facebook group, though we never invited our profs to join it (how else can we ‘safely’ poke fun at them online?). At the end of the semester, most classes had a dinner party (or two) at  the home of one of their RW1 professors.

 

Essentials of Journalism

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

 

History of Journalism

For a course naturally disposed to be boring, I found it to be a lot of fun. We covered essentially everything from the very first newspaper to New Journalism. We learned how the idea of reporting accurately came to be, and how journalism has changed over the centuries. The reason the course worked was because of the extremely enthusiastic professor. Our assignments consisted of delivering one oral reflection in front of the class based on that particular week’s readings (the prof decided who went when), and one essay at the end of the semester; believe it or not, that was the only essay I did for my degree.

 

Law of Journalism

Although also relatively dry, this course was very important. There are so many little mistakes to make in writing articles, cutting voice-overs, etc. that can get journalists in major trouble; and the process of gathering material for stories poses other potential legal issues. It’s important to know what you can and can’t do. The professor used real-world examples, such as the then-recent case of publishing Kate Middleton’s topless photos. The only assignment was an end-of-semester take-home, open-book exam, which I found to be a lot of fun. We were given a variety of questions and hypothetical scenarios, 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 arguably no class more engaging than Ethics. The professor, coincidentally the same one on the receiving end of Barbara Walter’s attempts to get an aide to Bashar al-Assad a CNN internship and spot in a Columbia program, used a decent variety of case studies — including WaltersGate. He seemed to find a way to force everyone in the room to participate at least once for 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, etc. The course covered, among other things, Google’s virtual monopoly on online advertising, and the way The Huffington Post uses other news outlets’ material. The final project was a presentation in which groups explained how they’d cut a certain percentage of costs from a news outlet while also expanding its digital footprint.

 

On-air Reporting

This was one of the most helpful classes I took at the school. The instructor brought up a really good point on the first day: broadcast students aren’t well prepared in the presentation side of things. My broadcast profs gave a lot of good 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 been year-long  and mandatory for broadcast students, in my opinion.

 

Second semester

Finally, students were able to concentrate on what they wanted — if they got into the classes they want, mind you. Some classes required applications and interviews, so my recommendation is to research second semester’s classes, and play the courtship game early in the previous semester.

 

Managing Broadcast Newsrooms in the Digital Age

At just two and a half hours long each week, the shortest course of the semester was also the best course of the semester, perhaps even of the entire program. This is a course for those who are in love with the inner workings of TV news. We learned the art of TV ratings, how to handle corrections, how to cut costs in TV production, and much, much more. We also had some great guest speakers. At the start of the semester, students were given a TV news outlet to follow; 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 our news outlet, a reflection or two, and a fun budget-cutting assignment for a fake news station. Our final project was called “The Next Big Thing,” which was a solo class presentation of something we thought would be TV news’ next big thing (an app, new model of revenue — anything students thought of). The two professors who taught this class were terrific and had a wealth of experience in the business.

 

Reinventing Television News

This class involved focusing on a specific news outlet and finding ways to make it better — better content, more revenue, etc. I tried to like this class but, unfortunately, the outlet we focused on just didn’t pique my interest. I wanted a local TV station to follow since that’s the environment I aspired to work in. That said, the method of learning was interesting. We would have guest speakers almost every week for the first half of the semester, then we would post a 600-word (or so) post on our Facebook group in relation to what we learned. Some of the staff from the outlet were in the group, so 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

Nightly News was what it was; at times enjoyable, at times definitely not. Students would produce a weekly Friday “Columbia News Tonight” broadcast, rotating shifts each week. Everyone got to be on the two-person anchor team at least once, and students generally 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 around 1 p.m. to watch last week’s show together (along with, occasionally, a guest from the industry), critique it, and then have a story meeting.

The classroom Nightly News was used for.

The classroom and Nightly News newsroom.

Generally, one or two reporter/reporting 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 the “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. The neighbourhood is very safe, and, compared to other neighbourhoods, it’s difficult to find stories in. It’s essentially a university town, an angle which the professors weren’t receptive to covering; for example, I remember getting turned down after pitching a story on Columbia commencement tickets being sold for hundreds of dollars on Craigslist, which was against university policy.

Students were supposed to submit their stories by 5 p.m. for airtime 30 minutes later. The show was supposed to go on air at around 5:30 p.m. but almost never did, which, to me, was bizarre. At Ryerson, shows went live with what was finished 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 very 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-show video. Students could do either a “Five Minutes With” interview on a journalism issue with a journalist, or a “First Person” video on a personal story told in first-person. Students could do both, if they pleased.

The class was often hit-or-miss. We did produce some great journalism, at times. I enjoyed getting to do a live hit for my first time (in Times Square, no less). The fact that we had to pursue off-campus stories was fantastic (except for “Morningside Report”); I wish Ryerson had done that for Ryersonian TV. Still, I felt unchallenged in the class for most of the semester. I wanted to incorporate reporter promos and try more innovative ways of producing a show, 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 a roughly 5,000-word print story, 20-30 minute radio documentary, or 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 6 minutes of relevant video instead of photos. Anecdotally, I believe most people chose a standard print master’s project.

Groups of seven or so students shared one master’s project adviser (normally a professor at and chosen by the school). My group met all together with our adviser three or so times, total, at the school. Most students chose a story idea early in the first semester, and 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 in choosing a story. Luckily for me, my adviser didn’t follow the normal deadlines. I chose to do a 30-minute radio documentary on the kidney 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/former radio reporter. She was great at the craft, but I felt she was added too late in the game. In hindsight, I should have asked to be switched to a broadcast adviser for simplicity’s sake.

Radio journalism is a difficult medium to do well in. You need interesting voices and stories to hold the audience’s attention. You also need to be very clear since the reader can’t reread a paragraph or view a diagram. For me, the master’s project wasn’t about getting something published/aired, it 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 when the university president called out the faculty. In the afternoon, there was a ceremony specific to j-schoolers. That ceremony entailed speeches from the chair of the program, 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 very expensive piece of paper. A reception was provided outside. Both ceremonies were the standard fare; a nice way to wrap things up.

Each student was given three tickets for friends and family to attend each ceremony. Good idea alert: many students booked hotel and dinner reservations for their guests months in advance.

 

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The campus/student life

For many students in the program, I think that 40 percent of the reason why they chose Columbia was because they wanted to become journalists, and the last 20 and 40 percentages were because the school is part of the Ivy League, and they simply wanted to live in New York, respectively. 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? Yeah, you do feel that gusto on the city’s streets; an excitement that is hard to replicate anywhere else. Even my home city of Toronto, a city I found demographically, socially, and politically similar to New York, just doesn’t cut it.

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, mostly.

I requested student housing months in advance but came up empty-handed, sort of. I only got the offer with weeks to go before school started; I had already found an apartment by then. I went to New York for a five-day trip the previous May specifically to find a place. The process was laborious. The closer to campus apartments were, the more expensive the rents were. Also, I wasn’t used to dealing with brokers, who show off apartments, normally charging a commission of one-month’s rent upon signing the lease. I ended up finding a place mixed within the campus at 120th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The neighbourhood of Morningside Heights is basically solely made up of Columbia students. I found that living near campus had its benefits, but students who lived outside of the area had just as fine of a time.

The campus has a distinctive style with only the odd building with a modern design here and there. The main hub, which the journalism building sits inside, offers an inordinate amount of green space for being 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 vs. masters of journalism

As I stressed at the beginning of this review, committing to a school is a decision that shouldn’t come lightly. There’s the financial factor to consider, of course, along with whether it’s worth your time. And for aspiring journalists seeking higher education, one of the main questions is: is it better to get a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in journalism?

When I tackled that question in my undergrad review, I felt that there was 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. Having now gotten my bachelor’s and master’s in journalism, I hold the same sentiments. I still feel that two years is enough to learn the craft. Columbia promises that in just ten months, which, despite the program’s issues, 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 politics and would love to spend lots of time reporting on it someday. So, maybe I should have gotten an undergrad in the subject, then applied to Columbia. That said, journalism is my greatest obsession, and I enjoyed the last five years studying it.

 

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Conclusion

As with life, things don’t always go as planned. My Columbia experience was remarkable and unremarkable at times. What I’ve learned through my nearly two-decade educational journey is that you have to make the most of what you’re offered. When the program didn’t provide me with what I wanted, I found ways to get it on my own. Columbia offers a legacy, location, and faculty that is tough to compare with other schools. Many call it the best j-school on the planet, a distinction I don’t think any school truly warrants. What I do know is that if you want to learn the skills needed to be a journalist, Columbia University Journalism School is a safe bet.

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