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Journalism students ask: Why am I here?

J-school is more popular than ever. But is it necessary?

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Heather Saucier learned the lesson of the "nut graf" the hard way. (In journalism jargon, the "nut graf" is a paragraph near the top of a story that concisely lays out its thesis.)

Ms. Saucier was still in college, working as an intern for the now-defunct Houston Post. She filed a piece on the city's troublesome squirrel population. The story was fine, her editor said, "But you're missing a nut graf."

She'd already written about squirrels chewing through telephone wires and gnawing on wood, so she dashed off a short paragraph about their diet: nuts.

Some would argue that Saucier learned this essential of the journalistic craft in the best possible fashion - on the job. Others, however, might point to Saucier's story as an example of one of the oddities of journalism: So many enter the field with so little formal instruction.

Whatever the answer, Saucier stayed her course. But as time went on, she considered returning to school. After five years as a features writer, her stories regularly took third place in competitions. She wanted "to be a first-place writer," though, and thought "there has to be something I don't know that I can learn."

In journalism graduate school, she says, content was held in higher esteem than style. And she discovered what had been missing from her work - substance.

It's one of the most circular and enduring debates in journalism: whether to bother with a graduate degree that certainly doesn't guarantee a job, and, unlike law or medicine, has never been required.

Nearly a century after the first journalism school opened in 1908, schools are in flux - Columbia University's vaunted program, where Saucier earned her degree, is in the final stages of an overhaul.

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