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The decline of journalism

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The decline of American journalism has some things in common with the decline of the legal profession. Consider this piece of “journalism,” published yesterday in Forbes, purportedly one of the nation’s leading financial magazines:

The recent economic downturn has sparked a media frenzy over the value of graduate school. Pundits and young professionals alike are wondering if grad school is still worth the hefty investment. Law school, in particular, has been maligned by everyone from The New York Times to independent bloggers, who use anecdotal evidence to question the job prospects for future graduates.

Business school has also not escaped the fray. While there have certainly been isolated cases of law and business school graduates having trouble finding jobs (this trend is limited primarily to graduates from less well-ranked schools), graduate school is still undoubtedly a “slam dunk” investment for nearly all potential applicants. The costs of business and law school may be substantial, but the significant, lifelong returns justify the investment for the vast majority of applicants. The numbers speak for themselves . . .

The average tuition of a top 14 law school in the 2011-2012 year was $49,551 per year, according to U.S. News & World Report data analyzed by The AM Law Daily, so the cost for the full three years of law school is approximately $150,000. As with business school, the full cost of law school must also account for the three years of lost salary, which comes to approximately $135,000. Therefore the total cost of law school is around $285,000 (and slightly over $300,000 for those with substantial student loan debt).

That number is only a small percentage of a lawyer’s lifetime earnings, which average $4.3 million, according to the same Georgetown University study. Thus over a 40 year career, a lawyer will earn nearly double the lifetime earnings of (or $2 million more than) a person with only a bachelor’s degree.

As this data clearly demonstrates, the full cost of business and law school is only a small percentage of the total income the graduates of these schools will likely earn throughout their lifetimes. The investment a student makes in these degrees today is likely to produce at least a 10x return over his or her career.

It is also important to note that in many ways this analysis is a worst-case scenario. Many students receive substantial financial aid grants and pay far less in tuition than suggested by this analysis. Furthermore, the cost of these degrees is lessened by government and school loan repayment programs for those who choose to pursue non-profit/public interest careers and accept a lower salary as a result.

When considering any type of graduate school, you should certainly consider the cost. But also look at the high returns on this relatively low-risk investment that will have an impact on your future and can pay exceptional dividends over a lifetime.

How, you might well ask, did this astonishingly mendacious bit of propaganda find its way into what is still for the moment considered a well-respected news publication? The answer is all too evident if one considers the biography of the author. Shawn O’Connor is:

Founder and CEO of Stratus Prep, an internationally-recognized leader in law, business, and graduate school test preparation and admissions counseling. I also recently founded Stratus Careers, a comprehensive career counseling firm. With many years of experience and success, I provide personalized test preparation and admissions counseling to hundreds of law and business school applicants each year. Prior to launching Stratus Prep, I worked domestically and internationally for McKinsey & Company, Lehman Brothers, Mercer Management Consulting, and the Boston law firm of Sullivan & Worcester. I achieved my Masters in Business Administration with Highest Honors (Baker Scholar) from Harvard Business School and my Juris Doctor, cum laude from Harvard Law School.

One could call O’Connor a whore but that would be a grave insult to whores, who after all tend to provide at least some sort of reasonable value for their services. The mystery of how this unctuous creep managed to place a remarkably fraudulent advertisement for his services in a major news magazine under the guise of dispassionately evaluating the substance of a “media frenzy” over the supposed decline in the value of professional degrees is solved if we observe that O’Connor is publishing his lies on the electronic version of the magazine, in the section labeled the magazine’s “blog.” By calling part of the content of what appears under its name “blogging,” Forbes, like many other publications, seems to have renounced any pretension to enforcing even the most minimal editorial standards (I’m assuming, perhaps optimistically, that Forbes would not allow something like this to appear as a self-identified opinion piece in the print version of the magazine).

The advantages for Forbes of this arrangement are obvious: I would be surprised if the magazine is paying Shawn O’Connor, Esq., anything for being a “content provider” for the electronic version of the magazine, and indeed it wouldn’t surprise me if O’Connor is paying Forbes for the privilege of being a “contributor.” (I am told that at certain Las Vegas casinos the valets pay the casino for the right to park the cars of arriving guests). The advantages for O’Connor are even more obvious: he is allowed to expend a bit of Forbes’ cultural capital in the form of its reputation as a reputable news source in return for services rendered while running something that ought to be considered actionable fraud even if it were in the form of what was self-evidently an advertisement, let alone a piece of “journalism.” (Forbes does its best to absolve itself of any responsibility for this fraud by stating that O’Connor’s “opinions” are his own rather than the magazine’s. Whether his purported “facts” are the magazine’s responsibility is another matter).

Why O’Connor is taking advantage of this cozy arrangement is self-evident; the interesting question is why a leading a well-known mainstream semi-elite media source is prostituting its journalistic integrity in this way.

The answers are, ironically, related to why O’Connor can get away with what he’s getting away with. Forbes — a glossy print magazine — is a particularly vulnerable example of a business model that’s dying. In its desperation to hold down costs Forbes is willing to sell out its journalistic integrity to the Shawn O’Connors of the world. The parallels with the willingness of law schools to spend their cultural capital in a desperate attempt to survive in the context of a dying business model are fairly obvious.

Beyond that, the corruption of the news business and of higher education in general and legal education in particular are both driven by the loss of any sense of performing a legitimate gate-keeping function — a loss which in both cases is the consequence of making all other considerations secondary to the pursuit of revenue maximization. Maintaining journalistic integrity means not printing lies even when it is profitable to do so. The existence of such standards means that readers can to an extent depend on legitimate journalism, in a way that is qualitatively different from the world of advertising. Maintaining academic integrity means, among other things, not misleading potential students about what an institution is offering them even when it’s profitable to do so. The existence of such standards means potential students can treat the representations of academics about what they are offering as something other than advertising.

A further irony here is that if “news” magazines and institutions of higher learning were actually held to the legal standards applied to advertisers in regard to their representations, both journalism and academia would be more honest enterprises than they have now become.

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