John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, April 2, 2010

Gee, I used to think I was a journalist

A good, strong burst of cleansing anger gets the day off to a running start.

Steve Yelvington quotes on Twitter a remarkably stupid remark by someone named Chris Pirillo, a self-described “media-friendly geek who produces content and catalyzes communities” (whatever that means). Here is what catalyzed me: 
If you didn't get a degree in Journalism, you're not a journalist - not even a “citizen journalist.”*
It is no secret – I disclose it to my students at Loyola every semester – that I have no degree in journalism, that, in fact, I never took a course in journalism in college. At Michigan State in the 1970s you had to take the three-term introduction to communications sequence as a prerequisite, and the one term I spent in that sequence was the single dumbest waste of time in my undergraduate career.
As much as journalists like to think of themselves as members of a profession, like physicians and lawyers, they –after thirty years in newspapering, is it permissible for me to say “we”? – are engaged instead in a craft. It is a craft that can be learned in journalism school, but it is also one that can be learned, as I learned it, by apprenticeship.

There is no board certification in journalism, no qualifying examination, no licensing. Edmund Wilson – Edmund Wilson! – described himself as a “literary journalist,” and the people who compile announcements of church suppers and school lunch menus for publication also call themselves journalists. Just about anyone who writes anything that is published – and putting things up on the Internet counts as publication – has a reasonable claim to that elastic term journalist, whatever some bumptious content producer and community catalyzer may say.
This bedevils legislators trying to figure out who should be covered by a shield law and journalism school deans struggling to divine where, if anywhere, their programs are headed, but that is their problem, the reality to be dealt with.
The current status of the craft is this: If someone writing for publication calls himself a journalist, anyone who challenges the assertion has to prove otherwise. Insisting on a degree in journalism? Well, the abundance of published journalists who have not studied journalism – and in some cases lack an undergraduate degree – makes that a shaky argument to stand on.

*Copy-editing note for Mr. Pirillo: Because journalism is not a proper noun, it is not capitalized.


  1. I watched Chris Pirillo on TechTV back in the day and called into his show once. Nice dude. But wow, that's pretty dumb. Sure, I'm getting a degree in journalism in less than two months (or more precisely, mass communication on the journalism and new media track), but I know and often hang out with people who started in the business right out of high school. I know people who went to college for something totally different.

  2. John, take a deep breath. I say that not because you're off target (you're not), but because of two typos in the first 2-3 grafs:


    "single dumbest waste *if* time"

    Don't post this, please.

  3. For the record:

    On this site, 368 posts since May 1 of last year.

    According to Google Analytics, 261,764 page views, and 10,900 readers who have visited the site between 101 and 200 times.

  4. Speaking as someone who did major in journalism in college -- and went on to work in the business for many years -- I can assure you that you ARE a journalist.

    You may prefer to use the past tense, especially if you are considering a different line of work -- which, given the current state of the profession, may be wise -- but you certainly are correct when you assert that you are qualified to be considered a journalist even if it wasn't your major.

    And, by the way, you are correct that journalism is not a proper noun.

  5. John, you are right on the mark. I don't work in journalism, but I did go to journalism school. I crammed two years of coursework into 12 months. And then I got a real degree from another college, in a different discipline. My experience in J-school did point me in the direction of simplifying my writing style, but self-study of Kurt Vonnegut made the lessons stick.

    The sniffing out of news, the knack for assessing balance, the ability to be sufficiently skeptical without becoming cynical — in my mind, these and other requisite skills and traits make journalism more than a craft or trade. Still, it isn't quite a profession, and a million degrees from J-schools can't change that.

    Only J-school grads can be journalists? Then I guess that only art-school grads can be artists, only music-school grads can be musicians, and only people with degrees in literature can be literate.

    Horse hockey!

  6. Were the Wright brothers pilots? Was Gutenberg a printer? Was Thomas Edison an inventor? Was Henry Ford an industrialist? Is Bill Gates a Philanthropist?

  7. We were talking about the definitions (plural) of journalist recently, as our state Legislature is working on a "shield law." While I generally favor the concept, I said it would be difficult to define who is and isn't a journalist, and thus, who qualifies for protection under such a law. A co-worker said a journalist is someone with a journalism degree ... until I pointed around our newsroom, to the reporter with a history degree, the reporter with an English degree, etc. He then defined the term as anyone who writes for a newspaper (I asked about photographers, TV and radio reporters) He then suggested anyone creates news reports for a news organization (what about bloggers?)

    Finally, to be mean, I suggested that a journalist was someone who writes for an organization whose work is cataloged by Lexis-Nexis (ours isn't).

  8. All this makes me think of all those "professional" journalists with their journalism degrees hired by our local daily who don't have the intellectual curiousity to make decent reporters. I'll take a good hack reporter over a credentialed Journalist any day.

  9. Chris Pirillo is off-base, but I think his more general point--that bloggers aren't necessarily journalists--is valid.

  10. A retired journalism professor, I now freelance as a writer and photojournalist and I call myself a journalist. It's my call, not Perillo's. My undergraduate degree is in English and my master's is in journalism, but it's an academic degree akin to what today would be called mass comm. I actually wrote a thesis.

  11. I know many people in the news industry with journalism degrees who are not journalists.

    And "journalism" as a proper noun? It's hardly a proper anything.

  12. I'm neither a journalist nor a blogger, but I appreciate the work of many who identify themselves as one or both. I agree that "journalist" is an elastic term. I pity those who have to define it and hope they carefully consider the perspective you've brought to light here. Terry Pratchett said of Neil Gaiman (the journalist who conducted Pratchett's first interview), "He was doing journalism in order to eat, which is a very good way of learning journalism. Probably the only real way, come to think of it." In the truest sense, it seems that "full membership" of any profession is rarely accomplished by attaining a degree.

  13. One of the best writers [and a top copyeditor] is a bloke I know from the UK who went to Japan over 40 years, with no college degree at all, just a vagabond traveller, but he knows language very very well, he might even be Shakespear's distant relative, and he has worked at English language newspapers in Japan for 40 years, and he learned it all by DOING it..... a great journalist, in my book! good post, John.

  14. Chris wrote: "Chris Pirillo is off-base, but I think his more general point--that bloggers aren't necessarily journalists--is valid."

    But can any point, however true, properly be considered valid if the alternative is "a straw-man position that doesn't exist"?

    (Link goes to a short article by Ed Yong that says, I think, exactly what ought to be said on this subject.)