Is J-school worth it for someone looking to switch careers?

I am currently a freelance writer/former textbook and literary editor and I spent a good portion of my career in and out of book publishing, bookstores, and contributing pieces to various print/web magazines. After spending a year editing viral content for advertisers, social influencers, and publishers (yuck), I realized my original passion stems from being a journalist and I am considering attending graduate school for journalism within the next two to there years. I initially went to college to study journalism and music and, after realizing how my writing desperately needed improvement, I switched to writing-intensive majors (i.e. English and History).

So after reading about your journeys as a writer and journalist -- and especially since I would be enrolling in my early 40s -- the main question I want to pose is whether attending j school worth it these days, especially since I have a lot of friends who leave the industry for careers that generate a much higher ROI (i.e. fields like advertising, marketing, etc). Also there seems to be such a huge emphasis for journalists to be multifaceted (I.e. multimedia) in their approach so I wanted to get your take.


The short answer is: It depends. Both the person and the j-school. Most of the people I know who came to journalism after a career doing other things did so by freelancing or blogging occasionally, and then slowly gaining more contacts and experience in the field. Certain types of publications, mostly those that are breaking-news focused, do look for reporters with multimedia skills. Not all publications or jobs require multimedia abilities. I think multimedia skills are mostly useful not because you'll use them all simultaneously on the job, but because they expand the number of journalism jobs that you're qualified for. Some journalism schools offer basic web development and audio/video training, but not all. 

Truthfully, early in your journalism career, I think who you know matters more than which multimedia skills you have. Some journalism schools are pretty good at connecting their students with industry contacts, whereas others are not. In your situation, I would approach this question as a reporter, actually: Find some graduates of the program you're thinking about attending (look at bylines from previous years of the student paper, or look back at the university's website to see which graduates they've written up), and get in touch with them. People are pretty easy to find on Facebook these days. Ask them about their experience in the program -- where are they working now? what did they learn? would they do it again? Sure, you can talk to the admissions office, too. But if you want to be a journalist, this is a good place to start: Report (just for yourself!) on the j-school you want to attend. Reporting, at its most basic level, is just emailing or calling people, asking them questions, and writing down their responses. Trust me when I say that even an amateur can do it.

I'll say this, though: If ROI is your metric, I'm not sure journalism is the right field. This is a highly unstable, difficult-to-break-into profession, where even very accomplished reporters are dramatically underpaid and struggle to hang on to their staff jobs, which are increasingly concentrated in expensive coastal cities. You probably know this. Most of the people that make a career out of journalism these days are either wealthy and super-connected from the outset (I wasn't!) or just can't picture themselves doing anything else (that's me). I don't say this to discourage you-- I say it because most j-school admissions departments will not.