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What the Phawk?

A Temple journalism student reports on a classroom visit by a local blogger.

by Morgan A. Zalot (


Published in the Philadelphia Weekly on November 7, 2007

Running about an hour late, local blogger Jonathan Valania, a former PW staff writer, blew into a 300-student journalism class at Temple University last week with a devil-may-care attitude and what he thought were a few sly remarks intended to spark debate.

Valania, 41 - founder and editor of a news and culture blog called Phawker - all but sprinted to the front of the room, and without so much as an introduction, asked the class how many students were majoring in journalism.

When the majority of the students in the lecture hall raised their hands, he snapped, "That was your first mistake."

Everyone laughed. He had to be joking. This was, after all, an introductory "journalism and society" course. No way he could be serious.

But apparently he was. Valania went on to trash the choice of journalism as a major. He said you either have writing skills or you don't, and that students looking to start a career in the field should major in something "useful."

After about 20 minutes of offensive, outlandish and sometimes tongue-in-cheek commentary - he said reading competitor blog Philebrity, for which he once wrote, was like looking at pictures of his ex-girlfriend naked - he walked out the classroom door and was gone.

Later that day he posted this on Phawker: "Today I saw the future - and it looked at me like a dog shown a card trick."

Good to know - whatever that means.

According to many local print and broadcast journalists, Valania's claims are not only half-baked, they're just plain wrong.

"I get a feeling he was just trying to be shocking," says local Channel 3 anchor Larry Mendte. "Obviously he wanted material for his blog."

Mendte, who won 13 Emmy Awards this year, seemed almost hurt by Valania's comments.

"The most exciting time in life is when you have a dream," Mendte says. "To diminish that at all is almost sinister."

As for journalism being a useless major - and Valania's assertion that "anyone can be a journalist" - most contacted for this story think majoring in journalism is a smart and even an important way to start a career.

"The bloggers are going to put themselves out of business eventually, and maybe soon, if they don't get their work more rooted in actual honest reporting," says Zack Stalberg, the former longtime editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. "Right now traditional journalism is under assault. But in time people will realize it's got value."

"I don't pay attention to blogs," says Channel 3 reporter Valerie Levesque. "You can get swayed as a journalist if you start reading opinions."

Inquirer photographer Eric Mencher, a 31-year veteran of the business, thinks journalism is a useful major, even in today's changing atmosphere.

"Who's going to fill the role of journalists in the media if not people in journalism school?" he asks.

Andrew Mendelson, chair of Temple University's journalism department, questions Valania's knowledge of the major's curriculum.

"He doesn't have a sense of what journalism education is all about," says Mendelson. "We require a lot of liberal arts credits in addition to just journalism classes."

But Jim Donovan, a local TV consumer reporter, says being a communication major was a big waste of money. "Everyone has these broadcasting and communication degrees," he says. "Yet when I ask them to pick out a certain country on the map, they can't figure it out."

Ironically, many bloggers believe journalism is a useful major.

"I would never issue a blanket condemnation of journalism school," writes veteran Daily News reporter and Attytood blogger Will Bunch in an email. "This country needs more journalists poking around, not fewer."

Even Joey Sweeney, the blogger Valania worked with before Phawker, believes journalism is a useful major.

"In a sea of bloggers and dilettante photojournalists, or any other kind of writers, there's always going to be a place for writing that is thorough, objective, transparent and not opinion-based," says Sweeney, founder and editor of Philebrity, and also a former PW staffer. "We're always going to need that, no matter what."

Sweeney shrugs off Valania's ruthless comments about majoring in journalism, chalking it up to the arrogance and insecurities of the new media.

"The new media conceit very often is this rash thing of throwing the baby out with the bathwater," he contends. "People like the sort of gospel Jonathan is preaching because it compensates for whatever insecurities they might have about their own credentials."

Valania dismisses Sweeney's opinions out of hand.

"Asking Joey Sweeney about journalism is like asking a snake what it feels like to walk upright on two legs. He just doesn't know," he responds by email. "You can quote me on that."

Phawker co-editor Amy Quinn, a former Inquirer reporter who also runs a blog called Citizen Mom, says Valania wasn't trying to alienate anyone.

"If the question is, did he come in there and act like a dick on purpose - no," she says. "He was trying to make you think and do what a journalist is supposed to do - ask questions."

Whatever the case, Valania remains pleased with himself for causing such a stir in a Temple journalism class.

"My intention wasn't to insult people," he says. "It was to get their attention. In that regard, I would say I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams."


* This essay was writen after Valania visited Professor Miller's J1111 Journalism & Society class during the Fall 2007 semester.