“Are we the problem? Columbia J-School’s new dean struggles with his place in the industry

An MS in Journalism from Columbia—a nine-and-a-half-month program in total—costs about $121,290. Depending on where you look, the average journalist with a master’s degree earns between $36,000 and $58,000 after graduating. Columbia may offer generous aid (73% of those who applied for scholarships received funding, and the median scholarship is around $40,000), but its students are also routinely drowning in debt. For many young people with journalistic aspirations, the training provided by Columbia is a luxury they literally cannot afford.

Cobb is only too aware of the problem. He told me that he regularly hears of students who had always dreamed of becoming journalists but who now worry about how they will pay for their education or how heavy their debt will be. « It’s not a new idea that we need to find another way for this to exist, » he says. « We just don’t know what it is right now. »

Jelani Cobb did not attend journalism school himself, an irony he is very aware of. Born William Anthony Cobb in Queens, New York, he learned to write from his father, an electrician named Willie Lee Cobb who had a third-grade education but made his children’s education a top priority. Jelani says he remembers his dad’s big hand engulfing his little one in their home as he learned the alphabet.

Cobb was the youngest of four members of his family, although the only child his parents had together. He went to Howard University, where it took him seven years to complete his undergraduate education because he didn’t have the money to pay regular tuition – he spent much of that time freelancing and protesting at campus protests. (He occupied administrative buildings to protest apartheid and the appointment of Lee Atwater as administrator of the University.) At the age of 19, he changed his middle name to Jelani, a Swahili word meaning » full of strength » or « powerful ». for, he says, « a very serious reason and a less serious reason ». For starters, he wanted to reconnect with his African heritage, a connection that « has been forcibly removed from many black people in the United States. » And then there was the problem of his initials: WAC. He didn’t want to be « wac(k) » anymore.

If his seven years at Howard weren’t enough, Cobb then embarked on a Ph.D. history program at Rutgers. He credits undergraduate mentors and his love of the physical spaces of college campuses for his continued interest in academia—the high school he attended, Jamaica High School, was designed by the same architects who designed Columbia. Preparing for his new job, Cobb recently stumbled across his former personal statement on why he wanted to go for a doctorate in history; he wrote that he thought it would make him a better journalist.

Cobb has been settled in academia for years, while occasionally leaving the classroom to report. And his reporting has paid off: In 2018, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary for « combining masterful writing with deep knowledge of history and a deft journalistic touch to bring context and clarity to the issue of race. Meanwhile, a gas mask that Cobb wore while covering the Ferguson protests and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement is in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

His office is still under construction (“a paint problem,” he tells me). Her books are wrapped up and still in her old faculty office downstairs. The essentials that have made their way to the Dean’s office (which was already filled with a table, desk and a few sofas) are his sleek road bike – he also has a clumsier electric one, says -he – and a photo he took of his daughter Christine, now five, playing in water sprinklers.

« My daughter keeps calling me ‘the dean’, » he laughs. « She thinks it comes with a cape. »

Report from the field and working in academia are not always a natural fit. Hang around long enough in certain academic circles and it’s easy to be plagued by a certain type of circular thinking. Relatively small problems all become the result of structural factors beyond your control.

Example: Journalism school is too expensive. This is all the more true since journalists cannot expect to earn a lot of money after graduating. And the situation gets worse when you think about where graduates end up leaving school. They don’t want or can’t afford to take a low-paying local news job in a small town or village – if those still exist. So they stay in New York or Washington. This contributes to professional networks that generate employment opportunities and elite biases in the media. These biases lead to worse reporting, fewer people interested in journalism, and fewer checks on the crooks who steal from the poor and give to the rich, who are the ones who determine the cost of graduate programs. The big prize for journalism school is actually a crisis of capitalism.

For someone proudly on the political left like Cobb, there’s probably little wrong with that logic. He knows these arguments from his decades in academia. But, they can also be crippling: if everything requires a total dismantling of our larger systems, what do we do while waiting for the revolution?

Cobb avoids this logic to look at the problem in a way that suits the trade school he has been assigned to run. Journalism school is too expensive. Which means he has to raise funds to make it cheaper.

Beyond the issue of cost, there is the question of what nine months in this highly intensive place can teach students. It can certainly help them develop a certain set of skills: how to report and interview; how to write clearly; how to file a FOIA request. And it certainly connects students to professional networks – and coveted internships and jobs. Cobb also focuses on historical context, which he says young journalists can easily miss. He wants them to have at least « 50 years of practical knowledge » in major areas of interest, from US foreign policy to Capitol Hill to criminal justice. And although he is a liberal columnist, he says students are often « surprised » by his commitment to not imposing personal opinions on readers.

“One of the clichés of Dr. Cobb’s class is that ‘the information you have isn’t as important as the information you don’t’,” says Cobb.


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