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From AJR,   December/January 2009

The MBA Option   

By Meghan Meyer

As the news about the newspaper business turned grim, with mounting staff reductions, shuttered bureaus and shrinking newsholes, some journalists and journalism students began heading for a destination that would have seemed unlikely a decade ago: Business school.

The number of undergraduate journalism majors taking the Graduate Management Admission Test has skyrocketed in recent years. While the overall number of people taking the test has grown by 20 percent since 2003-2004, among those listing journalism as their undergraduate major the total has exploded by nearly 200 percent, from 565 to 1,627.

"It's amazing," says Dave Wilson, president and CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council. "It's very much a trend."

For South Florida newspaper reporters, the value of an MBA became as impossible to ignore as the billboard the University of Florida rented on Interstate 95 last year. As the implosion of the business became clear, the MBA program had coincidentally launched an aggressive marketing campaign targeting journalism alumni and others. (Disclosure: A former Palm Beach Post reporter, I enrolled in August in the two-year program at UF's Hough Graduate School of Business.)

When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced a major restructuring in 2007, copy editor/dating columnist Lizzie Breyer had already received her business-school acceptance letter.

"I was amazed that the people doing the decision-making [at the paper] had no business training whatsoever," says Breyer, now in her second year at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. "As journalists we had the same experience: We went into journalism for idealistic reasons. You very quickly see it is a business, and it is subject to the same constraints as any other corporate environment. I thought, if I want to make a difference in media, this is the time to get those skills."

For her last months at the AJC, managers assigned Breyer to a strategic planning group charged with reinventing the Sunday paper. This experience was pivotal in helping her make the transition from the newspaper world to the business world. Her interest shifted to brand management, and she recently accepted a position as associate marketing manager with General Mills in Minneapolis.

Breyer applied to Darden because the school offers a tantalizing carrot to journalists: the full-tuition-plus Batten Media Scholarship (she didn't get it, but the school awarded her another scholarship). Though the scholarship was originally intended to go to reporters, the school also awards it to non-editorial media employees, says Darden spokesman (and former television sports journalist) Ken White. Still, Darden holds a special attraction for journalists. About 20 are enrolled, he says.

"Most talk about the uncertain future of journalism," White says. "They say, 'I'm not quite certain where it's going, but as I look around my organization, I see an MBA would be extremely helpful.'"

MBA programs target journalists because they add a diverse professional element to the classroom, and they have skills corporate employers value: writing, communication and a keen understanding of deadlines.

Some consider law school, but decide an MBA would better balance a writing background.

After freelancing for the New York Times and reporting for the Providence Journal, Katherine Boas enrolled in law school at Cornell University. She left after a year for a more quantitative experience at Stanford Business School. She graduated in 2007, and she says pursuing the MBA transformed her life. As a New York-based consultant with McKinsey & Co., Boas continues to use the skills she developed as a reporter.

"The intangible piece to journalists coming to business school is the benefit to our peers," she says. "I was walking into rooms full of bankers and consultants, and I was the one who said, 'OK, you were a banker, what does that mean?' On the other side, they were asking the same question of me."

Jaclyn Park had achieved her career goal in the 1990s when she decided to leave her post as managing editor of Advertising Age's international edition to pursue an MBA at the University of Michigan. It was one of the best things she has ever done, she says.

After several years in brand management, Park recently started a new role in corporate marketing strategy with Kraft. A critical task for anyone making a journalism-to-business transition, she says, is learning how to translate work experience into numbers.

"It's hard to do when you're used to your results being a portfolio of stories," she says. "You have to dig deep and think hard about how can I quantify my impact, so I can hold up against others in my class who were accountants and bankers, who can say, 'I did this, and I raised sales 20 percent.' That's a hard number people in business can get their heads around."