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A Blogger's Introduction to Reporting [J-school Embed]

Time for another check-in with media-blogger-turned-journalism-student Hunter Walker. In his second week at Columbia J-School, he's got too much adrenaline rushing from his first forays into metro reporting to think about how he's gonna pay back that $47,000.

Some people say that paying to go to journalism school right now is a bad decision. Some would argue, with so few media jobs left out there, journalism schools students are buying degrees that won't come with employment.

When I started at the Columbia School of Journalism two weeks ago, these questions weighed heavily on my mind. The faculty is clearly dedicated to instilling an appreciation of original, ethical reporting in their students. With the numbers of media jobs steadily dwindling, it remains to be seen whether that type of high quality journalism can be profitable in the modern media landscape or whether any of us j-school students will escape unemployment next year. But to be honest since beginning the program, I've been far too scared of pissing off my professors or getting my ass kicked out on the streets to think too much about the sorry state of the media job market.

In August, Columbia Journalism school students undergo a sort of reporting boot camp. For the first three weeks of school, we take photography and audio editing classes along with RW1, an introductory Reporting and Writing course that lasts all semester.

RW1 groups are generally assigned to cover some of the city's sketchier neighborhoods. Columbia sends out these armies of fresh-faced journalism students to make news armed with nothing but notepads and a list of safety tips including "try to stay on the main streets where people cluster" and "avoid the subway after midnight, especially out in the boroughs."

My early journalistic endeavors on the far reaches of the Upper West Side have met with decidedly mixed results. These experiences have forced me to confront my limitations as a journalist.

During the first week of school, I was walking home along Amsterdam Avenue when I saw a carload of cops, including narcotics officers, shutting down a local nightclub. I tried to talk to a jumpy man who was standing in front of the Chinese restaurant next door, but he quickly told me, "get out of my face, man." I left without getting the story behind the drug bust. Since then, I've been turned away from several other places including a mosque, a Senegalese community center, and a bodega near an apartment building where a serial rapist struck one of his victims.

Last week, I was at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital on 167th Street taking pictures for photo class when a teenage boy tried to escape with the help of his brother and a friend. It got violent when security guards tried to prevent the young men from leaving the hospital. One of the guards was knocked to the ground and the boys were eventually subdued in a manner that caused angry bystanders to begin streaming in from Broadway. I was right in the middle of the mess holding a camera. As I came off an elevator, the guards stormed past me carrying the squirming boy by his legs and arms. I managed to stumble off of the elevator without getting kicked in the head, but I had been too startled to get any good pictures. I left the hospital that night with a bunch of blurry, underexposed photos taken after the police arrived and defused the situation.

Many critics of graduate programs in journalism say you can learn to be a good reporter while on the job. I'm not so sure about this. My experience making dirty jokes and scrounging up media gossip on blogs has hardly prepared me for the harsh realities of covering urban life.

City streets aren't the only scary thing about journalism school. Our professors are mainly journalistic heavyweights. It's hard not to be intimidated. My RW1 section is taught by Richard Wald, who was the President of NBC News for several years in the mid-seventies before beginning a 20-year career as the "ethics czar" at ABC News where he was responsible for killing "journalistically flawed" stories. On the first day of school Professor Wald told us "If I catch you plagiarizing, lying, or making up a story, I'll kill you." Last week, he began class with an announcement pointing me out and making sure my classmates knew that they had a blogger in their midst.

Much of the guidance we get from our RW1 professors comes in the form of newsroom lore. Yesterday, our Adjunct Professor Merrill Perlman showed us two books to demonstrate the importance of memorizing style guides. In one hand, she had the weather-beaten AP Stylebook she'd used since college. Her other hand held a copy of the style guide they gave her when she retired from the as director of copy desks at The New York Times last year. It had belonged to Jayson Blair and bore his signature inside its front cover. Prof. Perlman pointed out that the spine of Blair's book had "barely been cracked."


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