What do you do if an industry is shedding jobs left, right and centre while universities and colleges are continually churning out graduates eager to enter the workforce?
Such is the predicament journalism schools across the country are facing — and have been for some time.
Journalism isn’t the first — or the last — industry to experience upheaval. But for years now, the media business has been in flux, transforming from an industry once defined and ruled by traditional news organizations — newspapers, TV and radio networks — to an endless stream of content produced by new digital and social media outlets competing with the traditional outlets.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen several of Canada’s major news organizations, including Postmedia, Rogers Media and Bell Media, slash hundreds of jobs.
If jobs aren’t available in traditional newsrooms — and increasing they aren’t — what exactly are journalism schools preparing students for?
“The way I look at it is that the journalism graduate has a unique set of skills that involve independent research, interviewing and storytelling on multiple platforms,” said Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s journalism program. “That’s a skill set that our students have, that are graduates have, that nobody else really has as good a combination of.”
In other words, don’t let the title fool you: Journalism schools are no longer strictly in the business of training future journalists.
With dwindling opportunities in newsrooms, there’s not a place for every aspiring reporter. These days, students are encouraged to look outside the big media players and explore alternative ways to practice storytelling, whether it’s working in public relations for a non-profit organization, a brand or launching their own start-up.
“We encourage them to think in different ways of where to practice journalism and how to do it and to be entrepreneurial and to understand the industry,” said Susan Harada, head of the journalism program at Carleton University.
“It might have been 10 years ago true that we would see success of, well X percentage of our students were hired by the CBC and X were hired by The Globe and Mail. That’s just not the way it looks anymore,” said Shapiro.
The way it looks could be freelancing, bouncing between short- and long-term contracts or writing for a new media venture. A select few may score full-time gigs, but the potential for layoffs always loom large in news organizations.
“The message we’re trying to send, and I think are sending, is you own your career and it will probably take a whole bunch of twists and turns in the coming decades,” he added.
Gone are the days where journalism programs focused solely on the silos of print, television and radio reporting. Schools incorporate a wide range of topics into curriculum, including digital reporting, data journalism, entrepreneurial practices, communication studies, as well as courses exploring trends in the business.
Harada said Carleton’s courses are constantly evolving and the realities of the industry are made clear.
“I don’t believe it’s very good practice at all for us to tell our students that things haven’t changed and the same kind of jobs positions exist that existed several decades ago,” she said.
Meanwhile Western University went a step further and revamped their master program to incorporate communications and public relations education into the curriculum, introducing the master of media in journalism and communication this past September.
Jumping from journalism to communications — and vice versa — is a reality for many, and one reason why Western made the change, said Mark Rayner, the program’s coordinator.
“People do move back and forth between PR, journalism, communications, marketing all the time. I did myself in my own career,” he said. “From that perspective, I think it made sense for us to spend a bit more time talking about communications and PR.”
While journalism schools have adapted, they generally have seen a decline in applicants in recent years, Shapiro said, however, strangely enough, he’s seen it hold steady this year.
“We’ll see over the coming years whether we’re now at a new plateau or whether it’s going to decline again,” he said.
While students are primed to acclimatize to different professional situations, if students feel discouraged, Harada employs a personal approach to discover what motivated that student to pursue the craft.
“We talk about the fact that there will always be a need for journalism. There will always be a need for journalists. What exactly that will look like? Well if I knew, that would be wonderful. But I encourage them to hang on to that thought and then seek ways to do whatever they can to get to where they want to go.