Editor’s note: In a profile about its new executive editor, the New York Times reported that Dean Baquet does not have a college degree. Baquet dropped out of Columbia University after his sophomore year after landing a summer internship at a New Orleans newspaper that he parlayed into a full-time job. The revelation took many by surprise and prompted the question of whether a journalist could land a job at the Times without a college degree. That led to the following response from environmental writer Roger Witherspoon, who gives an insightful historical perspective on news media and journalism education.
The short answer to the question is no, you can’t get a job now at the New York Times—or virtually any other newsroom—without a college degree.
Back in the ’60s, journalism was viewed as a trade, and while there were journalism programs, graduating from one was not required. The Michigan Daily, the college paper at the University of Michigan, for years had more alumni actually working as journalists than any institution except the journalism program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Michigan did not underwrite its media. The radio station, WCBN, and the Daily paid salaries, earned revenue from advertising, and competed with the for-profit radio stations and newspapers in the Detroit area.
Most newspapers in those days had their own in-house training program. I went from NBC’s election unit to the Bergen Record in ’68, and theirs was a six-week program. You didn’t start writing for the paper until the last week and were assigned a beat after graduating.
Time magazine also had a training program, though most blacks had to first work in the reference department for several years before getting a chance at reporting. Newspapers back then were pretty much lily-white—I was the first at the Record—and it was another decade before the New York City newspapers dropped their separate and unequal pay scales.
There were two things that changed the common practices and view of journalism as a trade:
1. Barbara Walters got a contract for $1 million in the early ’70s. (My salary at NBC was $80 a week.)
Walters’ contract had parents all over America suddenly looking at the news business—particularly TV—as a worthwhile career to pursue. Watergate made stars of “WoodStein” (reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Watergate) and gave luster to investigative reporting.
As a result, colleges all over the country suddenly started mass communication programs, usually within their English departments. And the results were predictable: Students would be assigned a story, and when they didn’t turn it in on time, got three days to do a makeup. That works fine for English papers but doesn’t do much to train aspirants to handle deadlines. At Clark Atlanta University, for example, mass communication was its second-biggest department with some 400-plus students. But generally, only about five of its graduates each year could actually land jobs in the media–even though their school had a television and radio station as training grounds. (Greg Morrison, Nolu Crockett-Ntonga and Jane Tillman Irving would later overhaul the school’s broadcast training and faculty.)