Can Journalists be ‘Schooled’?
There comes a time in everyone’s life when one cannot help feeling a little inflated. And let me confess today was one such moment for me. Addressing a motley crowd of journalism students, some of them older than me, at the Odisha State Open University in Sambalpur was certainly a privilege for someone who has never been to a journalism school himself. And there is an interesting anecdote I shared with the ‘students’ – and would like to share it with you here – about why I didn’t.
Having decided to become a journalist, I was in the process of going through the usual routine of checking out and applying for the few good journalism schools that existed in the country at the time (though there was the option of joining the journalism course on offer at the Berhampur University, somehow I was not particularly excited about it) when an old friend of my father dropped in at our place. My father, who was not very happy about my decision to become a journalist, inevitably told his friend, an Assistant Editor at the venerable The Statesman at the time (sometime in the mid-`1980s), about my desire to choose journalism as a profession and requested him to ‘counsel’ me.
“Why do you want to become a journalist when there are so many jobs you can take up?” the elderly Bengali gentleman fired his first question. I gave my reasons, trying to sound as earnest as I possibly could. “Do you even know how much journalists are paid? A journalist in a vernacular daily gets less than what a peon in a government office does,” continued the man. And he continued in that vein for quite some time till it appeared to me that he was determined to talk me out of my ‘romantic’ obsession with journalism. I must confess I was a little perplexed at this intensive grilling. Here was a top journalist, I wondered, who did not have anything positive to say about the profession he had spent a lifetime in! It was only later that I realized it was his way of testing out whether my love for journalism was serious or just ‘infatuation’.
Perhaps convinced after a while that my decision to become a journalist was more than just infantile infatuation, he next asked me how I planned to go about it. I told him about my plans to do a course in journalism in some top institute of the country. That set off a fresh round of grilling. “When did you finish your post graduation?” he asked. “Two years back.” “You have already wasted two years. In fact, you didn’t even need to do a PG if you wanted to become a journalist. A simple graduation would have been good enough. So you have actually wasted four full years already. Now you will waste another year or two studying journalism. Let me tell you something. No journalism school anywhere in the world teaches any journalism to its students. Go join the first damn newspaper you can, even if it pays you Rs. 200, even if it does not pay you anything at all in the beginning. You will learn more about journalism in one year there than you can learn in the best journalism school in the world,” he signed off.
I am glad I followed his advice and abandoned all plans of joining a journalism school. And the first ‘damn newspaper’ I joined turned out to be ‘Sambad’, the cradle and alma mater for a whole generation of journalists in Odisha who, like me, began their career in the 1980s. Mercifully, the amount on offer for this ‘trainee journalist’ turned out to be a little more than the gentleman had prepared me for. But I would not dare give the same advice I got to the current generation of aspiring journalists because I know they would not stand a chance of becoming even a trainee journalist without a degree or diploma in journalism.
Having interacted with students of a few journalism schools by now, I also find that journalism schools – at least the better ones among them – do teach some journalism to the students after all. But the Statesman journalist’s essential point about the difference between what one learns in a journalism school and while working for a media organization remains as relevant today as it was in the 1980s.
So, here is my two-penny worth unsolicited advice for those who aspire to become journalists. By all means, join a journalism school and get a degree/diploma. But for heaven’s sake, don’t be under any illusion that you have learnt everything there is to learn about journalism in the school. As the old man said, your real education will begin only after you start working for a media house.