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Home > Publications > Quill > Back to school


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Thursday, August 6, 2009
Back to school

As mid-career journalists return to school, universities respond with tailored programs

By Kym Fox

Tough times in the news business have some journalists headed back to school in pursuit of graduate degrees. In response, some universities are adding degree programs designed to attract experienced journalists.

Graduate school is worth considering for journalists who have a goal in mind, according to Amanda J. Crawford, who was the first student to enter Arizona State University’s new mid-career master’s program a year ago. The program is designed for experienced journalists who want to focus on a specific area of career development.

“For me, it was a chance to readjust my career and get back toward what I would like to be doing, which is more magazine writing,” said Crawford, who has spent most of her 10 years in the business as a political reporter, first for the Baltimore Sun and then the Arizona Republic.

Crawford found her way to the ASU Cronkite School of Journalism first as an adjunct teaching news writing while still working at the Republic. Once she decided on grad school, she quit her job at the Republic and accepted a full-time lecturer position at the school, where she now teaches three or four classes a semester while doing her own master’s degree coursework.

“I do want the academic challenge,” Crawford said. “I have enjoyed the rigor of the courses and the intellectual stimulation that graduate courses have offered.”

The return of veteran journalists to the classroom can benefit the programs they join, according to Mary Nesbitt, associate dean of curriculum and professional excellence at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. This fall Medill will see the first students admitted to its new master’s track designed for experienced journalists. The program requires a minimum of seven years’ journalism experience and will combine courses from the journalism program, the Integrated Marketing Communications program and the Kellogg School of Management’s media management major.

“The kind of synergy that develops in the classroom or in a team setting when you have a young master’s journalism student in their mid-20s working with someone who has been in the business for 20 years, the perspectives are very different,” Nesbitt said. “The younger students will be more webby, more digital, but the older students will have seen more, done more. It creates such a rich environment.”

Veteran photojournalist Carolyn Yaschur will take her years of experience to the classroom at the University of Texas-Austin this fall. She has been shooting at the Kitsap Sun, a Scripps paper in Bremerton, Wash., for eight years. She’s leaving that job to begin work on her Ph.D.; her goal is to teach at the university level.

Even though Yaschur still had a job when she applied to graduate school, the changing industry motivated her back to the classroom. She’s seen the Kitsap Sun photo staff of four cut in half and the newsroom staff of 42 cut to 25 for the paper with a circulation of about 30,000.

“[Cutbacks have] changed the dynamic. It’s a small newsroom. It’s like a family,” Yaschur said. “It is really hard to see the changes and see people leaving who you have worked really closely with.”

Yaschur, who earned her master’s from Missouri in 2000, always thought a Ph.D. would be in her future because of her interest in teaching, but she had no specific plan.

“It just felt like now is a good time to take the next step, before I get laid off,” she said. “I would rather leave on my own accord than be left scrambling.”

When Yaschur started looking for a doctoral program, she wanted one that would pay her expenses.

“I wouldn’t have gone if I had to pay for it. I would have just continued working,” she said.

The University of Texas offered Yaschur a four-year assistantship that will provide for tuition, health insurance and a stipend. She was also awarded a graduate school recruitment fellowship, which will provide extra funding.

Daniel Gaddy will also have much of his degree paid for when he returns to the University of Alabama to work on his master’s in community journalism as part of the Knight Fellowship program at the university. Gaddy worked as a reporter at the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, Ala., for more than a year before his wife was transferred to Tuscaloosa. After searching for a journalism job to no avail, Gaddy started looking at graduate programs.

“The fact that papers are closing left and right made grad school appealing,” Gaddy said. “It is so difficult to find a job now. I moved to Tuscaloosa in November 2007 and have been looking for a job ever since.”

Associate Professor Wilson Lowrey directs the graduate program, including the Knight Fellows program, at the University of Alabama. Lowrey said he has been fielding more inquiries from journalists interested in graduate school.

“The journalists are looking to get out of their current situation, or they don’t have a job,” he said.

Many graduate programs offer financial assistance to students. At the master’s level, some provide fellowships, such as Gaddy’s. The one-year Knight Community Journalism Fellowship provides half the cost of tuition and fees, a monthly stipend and health insurance. Some master’s programs offer graduate assistantships, which may provide reduced tuition but also include a stipend in exchange for teaching undergraduate classes or assisting with research.

Most doctoral programs offer some form of financial aid, often through teaching or research assistantships, which pay a salary in exchange for teaching undergraduate classes or working on research projects with

professors. Many also come with a tuition waiver and health benefits, and some include

stipends, according to Margaret DeFleur, associate dean for graduate studies and re-

search at the Manship School of Comm-unication at Louisiana State University.

“All doctoral programs are competitive because they only take a small number of students,” DeFleur said.

The Manship School will take seven students into its doctoral program this fall, providing each of them with a 100 percent tuition waiver, a $24,000 stipend and additional benefits.

DeFleur said she has seen an increase in the quality of applicants this year.

“We have had more applicants who had substantial journalism experience,” she said.

One of those applicants was Victoria Bemker, a producer at WHAS-TV, a Belo station and the ABC affiliate in Louisville, Ky. Bemker, who earned her master’s at the University of Iowa in 2000, said she would only consider doctoral programs that offered full funding.

“I’m older; I’ll be 32 in November,” Bemker said. “I’ve been working since I was 17 in either newspapers or TV, so it would be hard for me to have no money. I have to be able to survive.”

As with many journalists who pursue a doctoral degree, Bemker would eventually like to teach at a university.

“I always felt like the best teachers were the ones who had done it,” she said.

Although Bemker will take the leap this fall, she said her job as a producer was relatively secure. Producers are still in demand in TV news, she said. But they also are being called upon to do more.

“You may have to do things for the Web. You may have to do multiple shows. You have three people’s jobs busting out into one,” Bemker said.

Even as Bemker was deciding on graduate school, she was still talking to another TV station about a position as an assistant news director.

“There are still TV jobs out there,” Bemker said. “I decided even though I was still being offered jobs, for me it was the right time. They say you can always go back to TV news.”

Dale Blasingame has been a producer at WOAI-TV, the NBC affiliate in San Antonio, Texas, for nine years. He’ll begin work on a master’s with a concentration in new media at Texas State University-San Marcos. He plans to keep working full time while taking classes. He said his main goal in returning to school is to focus on Web journalism, but he doesn’t expect the added credentials to translate into a higher salary.

“If you are only going to work in the news business, a master’s doesn’t mean a lot. You aren’t going to get more money for it,” Blasingame said. “But I have always wanted to teach somewhere down the road, so going to grad school is a first step.”

Kym Fox is a senior lecturer and coordinator of the journalism sequence in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University-San Marcos. E-mail her at kfox@txstate.edu.

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