The Web Needs Journalism Programs, Not Sarah Lacy


It’s 2009. We’ve reached an era where poverty should not exist, where every child should go to bed with a full tummy and where Sarah Lacy should not be allowed to voice an opinion. Especially when she has no experience on the topic she’s talking about.

There’s been a lot of talk about journalists over the past week, mostly in regards to how they’ve gotten this Google thing totally wrong. And I completely agree with that stance. The big wigs of these newspapers are doing some pretty stupid stuff. And I didn’t have to say anything about that because our industry’s premier journalist, Danny Sullivan, said everything that needed to be said.

But then Sarah started talking. And now instead of making dinner, I had to come write this post as a result of the huge world of dumb she just unleashed.

In a post on TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy wants to know who in their right mind would enter journalism school today. Heck, she didn’t need a journalism degree. She took her “mediocre GPA” and fell into a great career. Did you know she’s written 1.5 books and is super famous AND well paid? If not, go read her article. Because she’ll tell you. Eight times. Though she’s never *actually* attended one, Sarah calls journalism schools “foot binding”, the degrees “stuffy”, the knowledge you learn insignificant and wants to know when anyone will ever need to use the inverted pyramid anyway. I want to know why Sarah Lacy is allowed to speak.

We need journalists. We need them in every industry and in every corner telling people what’s going on. That’s what missing from the Web. We need these programs to be soaring exactly as they are.

I graduated from journalism school in 2004, much later than Sarah Lacy rolled out of school with her fancy Liberal Arts degree. My program wasn’t stuffy. It was set with the city of Boston as the backdrop and saw me in classes about building real Web sites, writing content for the college’s news Web site, and learning how to use images and video to help tell a story. It was as much about learning to see the Web as our new medium as it was about learning the methodologies that are standard to journalism. And that was five years ago. I can only imagine what they’re doing now.

Why do we need journalists? Because the quality of writing on the Web is crap. Through my journalism degree I learned:

  • Where the real story is
  • How to report a story
  • How to get information out of people
  • The different types of sources and which ones you can trust
  • How to smell an ulterior motive
  • Ethics
  • Responsibility and accountability in my writing
  • To only report what could be proven
  • How to be a better writer

That was what I learned. And it’s why I can write about SEO when I don’t practice it for a living. Because I’m a journalist. I wasn’t ‘bound’ to a certain style of writing. You know why? Because I have a brain.

If you walk out of school as nothing more than a parrot of what you were told, then you’re an idiot and you would have turned out that way regardless. That means you don’t have your own mind, that you can’t think for yourself and that you’re not strong enough in your convictions.

I’m glad to see that the numbers of enrollments for journalism programs are soaring. Frankly, we need it. We need accountability to be brought back to the Web. With people making up stories, with rumors being posted as fact, with fluff pieces being paraded off as real news, a return to tried and true journalism would be a welcomed change. It’d be nice to go back to the era where the story was more important than the ego of the person telling it. The technology for how news is delivered may change, but the foundation you get for knowing how to tell a story and how to do it responsibly, are traits today’s media is sadly lacking. It’s what companies are lacking and why they can’t connect with customers.

I really believe that everything I learned in journalism school has brought me to this point. I may not have two book deals like Sarah Lacy, but I’ve created a reputation where you can trust what I say. You know that I am responsible with my words and that I will stand by what I write. I think it’s my journalism degree that sets me apart from the other bloggers in this space.

And frankly, responsibility is something Sarah could learn a thing or two about. Hailing that journalism programs are on their way out was a ludicrous and irresponsible statement to make. Journalism isn’t dying, even if all the papers fall off the planet. Journalists are not defined by their medium; they’re defined by their craft. Unfortunately for Sarah Lacy, she’s defined by just not being very smart and for that disastrous Mark Zuckerberg interview. Seems she could have used some journalism training then.

Your Comments

  • Eric Lander

    Are you suggesting with this image that Sarah Lacy is a jackass? If so, [high fives] all around.

  • Rob Williams

    Your post alone is proof of the value of a talented journalist. Well done.

  • Kenny Hyder

    I’m with you that we need journalism, but not that we need people with degrees. Many of the most talented people that I know don’t have degrees. I think college is a good thing, and a necessary course for certain fields, but for many it adds an unwarranted sense of authority. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you’re good at something, or an expert in a subject. Nor does not having a degree mean that you can’t be an expert or good at something.

    Journalism is definitely something that is required by any industry. And because of that, it’ll never die. Obviously. But I think the talented journalists will rise to the top regardless of whether or not they’ve been formally trained in journalism. Most of my favorite writers didn’t have degrees. I’d disagree with you that it’s your degree that sets you apart Lisa, but rather your passion and dedication to it.

  • Charlene Jaszewski

    “It’d be nice to go back to the era where the story was more important than the ego of the person telling it.”

    – a j-school graduate

  • Lisa Barone

    Eric: I fixed the grammar in your comment because it was the responsible thing to do. :)

    Kenny: Oh, I totally agree with you. A degree itself is worth nothing, but I think the training that I received absolutely helped instill certain traits in me. Could you get those without proper training and by studying on your own? Likely. But to say that it’s true of everyone or that journalism programs provide no value is absurd. Much like Sarah Lacy. I’m sure its the passion that I write with, plus the respect that I have for my craft, that people gravitate towards.

  • Virginia Nussey

    With people making up stories, with rumors being posted as fact, with fluff pieces being paraded off as real news, a return to tried and true journalism would be a welcomed change.

    My trouble is not so much that fluff is being passed off as news. I get confused because online there’s really no delineation among news and entertainment and trivial-but-interesting fark. There’s a place and a need for them all, but they kinda get smooshed together. I’m not sure what to do about that other than stay aware.

  • Tim Staines

    I love Kenny’s comment and couldn’t agree more. I often look back at school (where I earned a marketing degree without ever touching on Internet Marketing) and wish that I had just gone straight into SEO & web marketing out of college. 7/8 of my college experience was useless, but I’m glad I went for the the 1/8 that was valuable.

    For me, this post is important for the non-Sarah Lacy message: journalism = writing/reporting/research, NOT writing/reporting/research for newspapers. I’m glad Sarah wrote her post b/c it prompted this one.

  • ian

    You go girl. Sarah Lacy is just trying to get attention by being the stupidest, loudest person online April 9th.

    Journalism was around before modern newspapers. It’ll be around long after they die. And long after Ms. Lacy loses her fat income.

  • Amy Stewart

    I love this post. I don’t have a journalism degree, but I do have an English degree and I am writer by passion and by trade. I can’t tell you how often I am infuriated by people who fail at writing but think they are great at it.

  • Reese Spykerman

    Oh preach it, sister!

    There is a difference between the world of SPIN, and the world of substance.

    Unfortunately, we live in a world where a substantial portion of traditional media is full of spin. It gives people like Sarah Lacy jobs. We see it online, too.

    But there is a growing audience of people wanting substance, depth. They want human interest stories. They crave companies who converse with them in an honest and upfront manner. Spinners aren’t generally suited for this job, but journalists who know their craft and are passionate about it ARE.

    I didn’t go into traditional media with my j-school degree because I didn’t want to join the ranks of spinners. I didn’t want to be a part of the celebrity culture of media. But the training and experience I got has served me well. The clients of SEOs need skilled journalists who can take their craft and cross over into new media with it. Companies need this more than they need numbers-based marketing.

    Good journalists know how to facilitate interesting conversations and drum up human interest stories. You get it, Lisa. And it’s one reason why you aren’t sitting here now as one of the fallouts of the big media firing spree of 2008-09. :)

  • Jamie Varon

    This was so well-written that I can’t even think of a comment. Well, I can, but it has profanity and goes something along the lines of, you ______ rock.

  • Jen Lopez

    I’m old school. I graduated with a degree in Journalism in 1996 and back then most people still went on to write for newspapers, magazines and the like (except for those people like me who didn’t immediately go into a journalism field). Sure, we learned how to use PageMaker (holy crap I’m dating myself here) and took computer courses but they really did focus on print media. That was the way it was, print was still king. But what we really learned was how to write. How to research a topic and how to explain it to our readers. Integrity, honesty and responsibility were topics that were often covered.

    I went a completely different route with my career and have been doing web development for the past 10+ years. Having that degree in Journalism has helped me grow in my field… grow in ways others haven’t. Now, I’m an SEO (woot) and I have the technical skills in addition to being a writer. I’m damn proud of my Journalism degree and am happy to come full circle with my training.

    It’s exciting to me that in Journalism school they are training journalists to write with the web in mind, but when it comes down to it, the ideals of writing and journalism are still the same as they always have been. It’s ignorant to write about a subject if you don’t actually know what you’re talking about.

    Lisa, it’s nice to see your passion about Journalism. Thanks for this post, and for bringing the original article to my attention. It truly makes me love my background, training and profession even more.

  • Dmitry Dulepov

    I fully agree. I think that every job should be done by a professional. Professionals do it better and faster. It is always like that.

  • Kathryn Katz

    Blogs are excellent mediums for opinion editorials, but they won’t replace a New York Times or Wall Street Journal. If anything, with so many voices online, we need news centers to filter through fact and opinion. We need investigative reporters who are trained well in their craft to bring the truth to light.

    Great post Lisa!

  • MikeTek

    It seems to me that Sarah Lacy’s problem isn’t so much that she has seriously considered the topics she discusses. Her problem is that what she discusses must always be centrally focused on her own popularity and worth.

    It’s a shame, because somewhere in that swollen ball of hairspray is a talented person who, without such an over-inflated sense of entitlement and self-worth, could probably be a journalist herself.

    Her attitude comes through perfectly in the Zuckerberg interview. She is entirely focused on inserting herself into the story – on being the center of attention. She did a piss poor job, and she shouldn’t be given this level of opportunity again.

  • Kae Kohl

    Sorry your dinner got ruined. But, it was worth it for us to hear what you had to say. No wonder my husband suddenly wants to go to journalism school :) Thanks for your incisiveness, as always.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I never went to journalism school. My university didn’t have one. I was an English major. I learned newspaper writing at first by working far too much at the campus paper. Later, I took the two courses the university offered in non-fiction writing. My real education came from two internships I did, working with professional editors and other writers.

    A number of people I worked with on our paper went on for careers in journalism. Some of them did get further degrees in journalism; many didn’t.

    So no, I don’t think you need a degree in journalism to be successful in the field. I’ve encountered people who are just natural journalists without any type of training. I’ve known great journalists who studied at school; those who didn’t.

    If you’re writing for newspapers, inverted pyramid is a useful style to learn — but you can learn that from a book fast enough. Learning interviewing skills I think is a far harder challenge — but some people are just naturally good at that.

    Looking at what Sarah wrote, she learned on the job. She got into a paper, learned from editors and frankly, that is journalism school whether she got a degree in it or not.

    I don’t think she’s successful because she lacked a degree that was footbinding. She’s got one example of this, a friend of hers who wasn’t successful in the long-term. That doesn’t convince me journalism school screwed that person up or that thank goodness Sarah didn’t go, or she wouldn’t be so successful now. I can easily find the opposite to be true, as well. I mean you’re an example, Lisa — you’re successfully writing on the web, and J-school didn’t stop you from doing that.

    For me, the question about who the hell is enrolling in J-school right now is more about what jobs they’re expecting to get. With newspapers cutting back more and more, where do these graduates expect to work. I find it quite sad that anyone who was thinking about being a reporter — whether going through J-school or not — faces a smaller job market with the traditional media. Hopefully they’re hitting journalism school with the thought that they’ll come out and do new journalism jobs outside the traditional media, on their own, for blog networks or whatever.

    And yeah, Sarah does come across as self-congratulatory. But maybe I’m sensitive here. In my own post about newspapers, I talked about how I’d left newspapers and how glad I was to do it. I have a few people comment I came across as all smug and superior writing that. I didn’t mean it at all that way. For me, I could see that the web was going to grow — that’s where I felt the future was, and I was fortunate enough to move into it. Not everyone could, even though plenty in the rank-and-file wished they could.

    So I guess I cut her some slack when she says how successful she is, because she’s trying to illustrate her main point that you can be successful on the web without a journalism degree. And that’s true. And you can be successful on the web with one, which she fails to recognize. And there are people who have had much more success, and much longer than she made the jump (last year, wasn’t it?), in both cases.

  • Lisa Barone

    Danny: I don’t think the issue is whether or not people *need* journalism schools in order to be successful in journalism, blogging or in life. The issue is that Sarah Lacy, who never attended a journalism program, decided to write an article on TechCrunch basically taking away their worth and belittling those that choose to enter the program. And then writing a love sonnet to herself in the process.

    I’m going to disagree with you that your article and hers were even on the same level. You wrote an extremely thought out piece that used your history as a journalist to bring context to a story and lend credibility to your argument. Sarah Lacy went on a self congratulatory rant about how famous and successful she is.

    And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to give her any slack (though would you expect any less? ;) ), because this isn’t a case of “oh, Sarah just got carried away”. It’s that Sarah Lacy took an issue that wasn’t about HER and made it about HER. Again. This is her schtick. It’s what got her in trouble with the Mark Zuckerberg interview back at last year’s SXSW. Instead of talking about him, she started talking about herself and lost control of the interview. For someone who categorically bashes the values and merits of a journalism program, she’s a fine example of exactly why those programs and virtues are needed.

    I think Sarah Lacy is known (I won’t say successful) because she knows how to be loud and to attract attention to herself, much the same way many of the other Web Famous have. I’d hope that anyone entering school right now, regardless of their major, has educated themselves on the job market outside. My thought is that people entering journalism school right now are looking to be reporters or commentators on what’s going on. That doesn’t limit them writing for a newspaper. Not all journalists write for papers, as you know. I entered school as a Journalism major knowing that in NO WAY did I want to write for a newspaper. I’m too volatile for that kind of strict format. But I saw that the program offered by my college offered far more than that and I’m sure today’s programs have only expanded on that.

    I think you’re an incredible example of the power of a journalist in a community, whether or not you have a degree in journalism or a degree in making robots. You’ve built a strong reputation on that. Sarah is building herself a great reputation for talking about herself when no one asked, and being rude in the process.

  • Bob Weber

    Wish I had a nickel for every time I ever heard someone say “You don’t need (x amount of education) to do this job”. It’s been said about software development, business, journalisim, theatre, music, masters degrees, phds, whatever.

    Funny thing about This subject, Sarah Lacy isn’t Clark Gable’s character in Teacher’s Pet. She’s not some crusty, hardboiled, cigar smoking newspaperman that started in the copy room. Nope, she’s got that fancy Liberal Arts degree, and just ‘fell’ into journalism. So it’s not education in general that’s bad, just journalism schools? She’s just making noise, and you are right to call her out on it.

  • Joe

    Sarah Lacy is a HORRIBLE journalist. She wrote a post on TechCrunch a week ago that was so outdated, she doesn’t know one thing about internet business. She’s a kiss ass too. Would love to see her out of the industry all together. She’s trash, like her friends.

  • Mark Dykeman

    If there was a point that Sarah could have made, but kind of failed to while touting herself as an example, was that journalism might benefit from divorcing itself a bit from the newspaper part of journalism. Maybe it already has, I don’t know, but journalism seems permanently wed to the concept of the newspaper, at least in the eyes of many non-journalists (I’m not a journalist).

    From what I can tell, the journalist develops a pretty powerful set of skills that could be used in any content creation platform and used effectively. I know that there must be subsets of journalism by medium (radio, TV, newspaper, etc.) but that there must be a standard set of ethics and core skills used throughout. I think that’s the value and importance that you’re referring to, Lisa, and I agree that we could use more of that everywhere. In my opinion, a lot of what passes for journalism on Web sites (including blogs, of course) is there to deliver entertainment and, indirectly, sell ads by getting page views. In some ways that’s not that different from the way some newspapers and other media operate, but things like working with provable facts, obtaining multiple sources, etc. would serve us all much better than trading in rumors.

    Thanks also for pointing me toward Danny’s article, it’s great too.

  • Abbie

    I *heart* this post. It’s so, so, so nice to hear people stick up for journalism, and those of us who got the degree. I’m very proud I got my Master’s in journalism. I think that someday, in the farfar future (not now, with this silly economy) it’ll pay off, and help me get the job I want.

  • James Cavendish

    I love this post. I don’t have a journalism degree, but I do have an English degree and I am writer by passion and by trade. I can’t tell you how often I am infuriated by people who fail at writing but think they are great at it.