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Journalism programs struggle to adapt to changing times

As news media navigate a time of unparalleled disruption, training the next generation of journalists has never been more of a challenge.

By SORAYA ROBERTS | JUL 25 2018

Journalism’s decline has been swift and ruthless. While nearly every household had a newspaper delivered to its door 60 years ago, these days it’s less than one in 10, according to the 2017 report Shattered Mirror, published by the Public Policy Forum. Nearly a third of journalism jobs in Canada were lost from 2010 to 2017, resulting not only in layoffs but the closing of many local papers. And even though the  industry has largely migrated from print to the web, the complexity of advertising online has limited its financial viability. Meanwhile, shrinking newsrooms, the growing hegemony of a few large corporate entities – CBC, Postmedia, Bell and Rogers, among others – and the growing debate over what constitutes “fake news” has led to decreased trust in the media as an industry.

With all that, who would want to be a journalist these days? Fewer people do, in fact. Statistics Canada’s most recent numbers for postsecondary enrolment in journalism are significantly lower than in preceding years. From 2010 to 2015, enrolment was level at around 5,500, but by the 2015-16 school year there were fewer than 4,800 journalism students in Canada. The drop has been fairly consistent across all provinces.

There are glimmers of hope, however. Anecdotal evidence points to students’ growing belief, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, in journalism’s role as a check on power. Something similar happened after journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were instrumental in bringing down another U.S. president, Richard Nixon, in the 1970s.

Students today “more readily connect journalism and its role in democratic society – more than I’ve ever heard before,” says Susan Harada, head of the journalism program at Carleton University, where she says she’s noticed a higher quality, if not quantity, of applicants. Janice Neil, chair of Ryerson University’s school of journalism, adds that recent applicants are more experienced than in the past – many of them have freelanced and written blogs. The program even found itself overbooked last year, with Ms. Neil noting that the students “see a strong role for journalists in social justice.”

Maria Iqbal, a student in the final year of Ryerson’s two-year graduate program in journalism, appears to bear this out. “If I were to say why I enrolled in journalism school, I would say that I liked journalism’s ability to educate the public,” she says, “and also to help dispel common misconceptions and stereotypes about people, particularly Muslims.”

Under Ms. Iqbal’s editorship, the spring 2018 edition of the Ryerson Review of Journalism was divided into six beats, including one on diversity and one on Indigenous issues. Ms. Iqbal has written for the RRJ about the portrayal of Muslim women in the media and the way in which podcasts shed light on under-reported Indigenous issues. The magazine has also conducted workshops on the #MeToo movement and the media. Ms. Iqbal says that, in one class seminar in the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s election, “We spent a lot of time talking about what happened,” including how racism may have played a part in the outcome. She says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also been a recurring topic, noting that in her digital journalism class they produced a multimedia project called Indigenous Land, Urban Stories.

At the University of British Columbia, students in the undergraduate media studies program are so hungry for journalism courses that the graduate school of journalism had to open up its courses to meet the demand. “They see it as learning a set of skills to be an effective media practitioner,” says director Alfred Hermida. “It’s not necessarily that they want to become a journalist in the traditional sense, but [they recognize] that the skills you learn in journalism are effective in a range of different professions.”

That’s a good thing, considering the lack of options in journalism right now. Earlier this year, the Toronto Star announced the closing of its paid internship program, and several other publications – including The Walrus and Toronto Life – eliminated their unpaid internship programs in 2014 following complaints of exploitation. CBC/Radio-Canada continues to offer unpaid internships and several other outlets take on unpaid interns through student-placement programs at postsecondary institutions.

Even with those pro-bono training positions, the landscape is bleak. Quoted in the University of Ottawa’s Fulcrum student newspaper in 2015, Ryan Macfarlane, then-president of Canadian University Press, noted the lack of outlets in Canada to help recent grads develop their skills. “Comparing it to the American market, there you see a lot more fellowships from all of the public broadcasters,” he said. “In Canada, we just don’t really have that many media outlets and they’re all corporate, except for the CBC and, you know, their capacity has just been completely cut.” In February this year, the federal government committed $50 million over five years to support local journalism across Canada, but many see this as a drop of ink in the proverbial well.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash.

Journalism schools are aware of the landscape their students face and have attempted to arm them in various ways. A survey conducted in 2015 by Carleton’s Ms. Harada and associate professor Mary McGuire, and Ryerson’s Ms. Neil, found that many Canadian journalism schools have been in a state of flux for years. They have all added new elements to their syllabi, including courses on data journalism, social media, coding, blogging and digital photography, but some of these may already be outdated. Ms. Iqbal confesses that some of her peers derided Ryerson’s class on social media, but she says it’s important that instructors encourage students to use different technologies. “I think there could be more of that stuff,” she says, “getting people more multimedia experience.”

UBC’s Dr. Hermida says we’re past the point of considering online technology as one aspect of journalism, “because journalism is just digital, full stop.” What is needed is a “paradigm shift,” as was proposed by the Ryerson Research Center in 2015 in its volume of essays,Toward 2020: New Directions in Journalism Education. In one essay, “To Turn or to Burn: Shifting the Paradigm for Journalism Education (PDF),” professor Ivor Shapiro writes, “journalism is an approach to knowledge, not just a job.”

That same year, Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab and The Knight Foundation also released reports in response to the changing journalism industry, outlining improvements that schools could make to their programs. They emphasised the need for educators with updated skill sets, nimble curricula to account for continuing change and, most importantly, practical experience in digital-first newsrooms. Other suggestions included a more diverse course load – including economics and sociocultural and political classes – partnerships between universities and tech companies, as well as courses in entrepreneurship.

At least one Canadian program appears to be hitting all the marks. UBC’s graduate school of journalism was overhauled over a decade ago, around the time Dr. Hermida arrived. The small full-time faculty of five made a collective decision to go all in on multimedia journalism and transformed the first-year curriculum, vowing to continue to be responsive to the students and the industry over time.

“We’re trying to shift away from journalism defined by the means of production,” says Dr. Hermida, “towards journalism defined by the needs of community.” Each year they consider the syllabus with “a digital mindset” rather than reacting to specific technologies. For instance, instead of teaching the technicalities of using Snapchat, UBC analyzes the app’s storytelling potential (Dr. Hermida calls the social media site a “light news” application). “You can always pick up new technical skills,” he says, “but that’s not going to allow you to be an effective journalist if you don’t understand the environment you’re in.”

And, even though Dr. Hermida already considers journalism entrepreneurial – through the conception, production and dissemination of stories – UBC is launching a dedicated entrepreneurial course in 2019. Carleton also has started offering a new course, “Freelancing for Media Professionals,” while Ryerson has found success with its “Building the Brand” course.

Ms. Neil says Ryerson’s curriculum continues to evolve. When President Trump was elected, classes were cancelled and a brief alternate syllabus was offered with guests speaking on the state of journalism and intersectionality. “One of the things we try to emphasise with our students is to produce real journalism for real audiences,” says Ms. Neil. This also involves real-world partnerships. Ryerson has a deal with TVO, the publicly funded educational broadcaster serving Ontario, while Carleton is paired with the Canadian news source iPolitics and ARTSFILE, a site for Ottawa arts coverage.

Photo by Paul Weeks.

Partnerships are also at the heart of the recently announced Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University, which launched in June. The new institute, led by Patti Sonntag, a former managing editor at The New York Times, will host the National Student Investigative Reporting Network, which connects major media outlets with journalism students and faculty from across Canada to investigate and report on stories of national interest. “This is the blueprint for a new model of journalism that serves the public interest through cooperation, not competition,” says Ms. Sonntag in a news release.

The network was the brainchild of Ms. Sonntag and Ryerson journalism instructor Robert Cribb. Its first project, in October 2017, was entitled “The Price of Oil,” a collaboration involving more than 50 journalists and editors from three Canadian media outlets, and four journalism schools. The higher-ed institutions planning to join with Concordia in the 2018-19 project are UBC, Ryerson, Carleton, Humber College, Mount Royal University, University of Regina and University of King’s College in Halifax.

King’s, which offers a master of journalism program in partnership with Dalhousie University, produced an investigative series on mental health in 2017 with three media partners, including The Walrus. “We’re trying to take more of our journalism public,” says Tim Currie, director of the King’s school of journalism. To that end, the school migrated all of its reporting to one site (signalhfx.ca) and promotes it regularly on social media. “We’re trying to instil in our students that the process of journalism doesn’t stop with producing stories,” Mr. Currie says.

UBC’s emphasis is on teamwork. “So much of journalism now is about working with others, working across boundaries and collaborating,” Dr. Hermida says. One of the more notable examples of this is its international reporting program, an elective course established 10 years ago by associate professor Peter Klein to address under-reported global issues. The program offers one semester of study, field work and, ultimately, publication with a major media organization. “It’s not presented as student work, it’s presented as works of journalism,” says Mr. Klein. An advisory board determines who is admitted to the program and the topic to be reported on that year.

The program’s most recent project, Surviving the City, is a multimedia and multidisciplinary piece of reporting on the subject of global “urban resilience” produced in collaboration with Nanjing University in China, India’s Institute of Journalism and New Media, and Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. The work was published in 2017 in The Guardian, the Toronto Star and on BBC News. UBC’s Global Reporting Centre, which also explores neglected stories around the world through international media collaborations, was borne of the international reporting program and, according to Mr. Klein, “takes this model from student level to the professional level.”

Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash.

While collaboration might have been a rarity a decade ago due to a tradition of competition among journalists, the current economic reality has changed that view, says Mr. Klein. Collaboration also means the freedom to work with non-profits (which Mr. Klein believes are producing some of the best journalism in the U.S. right now) and the alternative press, as opposed to corporate newsrooms with more rigid hierarchies. Though the trade-off is less money for budding journalists, he thinks these organizations can foster new talent better than the mainstream press. “[Students are] in a position intellectually to actually advance journalism, to challenge some of those assumptions of how we do things,” says Mr. Klein. “But then you throw them into a newsroom and there’s not a lot of space [for that].”

A number of digital startups like CANADALAND, The Discourse and The Narwhal (previously DeSmog Canada) are also altering the journalism landscape. Earlier this year, the Facebook Journalism Project, established in 2017, announced a partnership with Ryerson’s school of journalism and the university’s DMZ business incubator. Called the Digital News Innovation Challenge, it will offer $100,000 and business development expertise to five new Canadian media startups.

Despite recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data for political advertising during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Charles Falzon, dean of Ryerson’s faculty of communication and design, says the university’s collaboration with the tech company will continue. “Facebook was a good partner because, you could say, they are part of the reason there is this disruption in the first place,” he explained before the news broke. Mr. Falzon argues that what is being disrupted is not the content itself, but how it is being communicated from reporter to audience. He believes, therefore, that reporters need to be more involved in the distribution of their work. The way he approaches the journalism business is similar to the way Canada’s universities are approaching journalism education: “We need to build it, we need to shape it, we need to own it together.”

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  1. Alexandra Kitty / July 26, 2018 at 10:59

    This article is certainly a Pollyanna view of things, given that the number of job losses speak very poorly about the quality of education these programs provide. It is the same model and the same methods, and the collapse of journalism, particularly in Canada shows how universities have failed their own students.

    Universities have ignored the changing reality and the window-dressing shell games the article cites will do nothing to change the profession’s fortunes because they do not address the real systemic problems of journalism — or journalism education. J-schools did not revolutionize the industry with experimentalism or empiricism, for instance, or provide research the profession needed to make the necessary changes to prevent its collapse, and the fact that Canadian newspapers have resorted to begging for government handouts to rescue them is as much of an indictment of academic incompetence as it is of the profession’s arrogant unwillingness to face the truth.

    And when you are a profession whose sole mandate is to chronicle reality, it speaks very poorly of the quality of education its workers received.

    There is no happy ending. There is no hope. The only way for real change to happen is to shut down every single j-school in Canada, and start from scratch with a plan that brings true change to the methodology of how information-gathering is conducted. The rigs journalism once enjoyed are gone. Every one of its weaknesses that those rigs propped up have contributed to the profession’s demise.

    I have written about the problems of both the profession and its educational system for years, and have a book coming out tomorrow about it. I have appealed directly to numerous universities about their failures to adequately respond to deaf ears. This article does not even mention how j-school’s lack of foresight directly contributed to the profession’s collapse, and make no mistake, they are responsible.

    Instead of pretending there is hope or that the other shoe hasn’t already dropped, a more honest assessment of how universities failed to see the obvious problems or address should have been the focus of this article. Those foolish enough to go to j-school and believe they are being educated properly need to face the truth their educators have so far been unwilling to confront: journalism as a profession was destroyed because no one had the courage or the foresight to admit flaw and then do something fundamentally different about it.

  2. Jerry Chomyn / July 27, 2018 at 13:21

    There is an axiom that says “can’t see the forest for the trees”. This applies to this article and throwing money at journalism is not the solution. The world has changed in the twenty first century, but journalism has not. True, technology has made the job different but in the end it is as it has always has been – storytelling.

    Technology has destroyed the protected monopolies that many media outlets enjoyed for over a hundred years. Gone are the geographical barriers that kept newspapers secure in their own private domains. Distribution challenges and costs prevented media from venturing beyond their zone, likewise technological limitations of television over the air broadcasting and AM/FM broadcasting. No longer are we tied to the “kitchen phone” to communicate or by cable to watch television in the recreation room. Technology has created problems but it has also solved so many more.

    So in the end, the environment has totally changed and journalism has not kept pace. While the industry must take ownership of this challenge, university and colleges share some of the responsibility. Journalism has to be more than a race for clicks and eyeballs and “bums in seats”.

    Recently at a conference I said “we don’t need more journalists, we need better journalists”. The idea that journalists should be activists or “social justice warriors” is totally flawed. To engage and be part of the news rather than reporting on it risks alienating an entire generation who already view the media with skepticism and disbelief. Yes strong journalism is a central pillar of democracy but partisan hyperbole is not journalism, it is propaganda. In a very complex world we not only need journalists to ask the questions but also explain the context. We need quality over quantity.

  3. Shelley Ambrose / July 31, 2018 at 15:36

    Hello – The Walrus has been training future editors and journalists through a paid Editorial Fellowship Program – funded by donors – since 2015. In addition to this six-month training program, The Walrus provides internships in partnership with both Western and Ryerson – although these internships are in areas other than editorial. Have a look at thewalrus.ca under About Us if you’d like the update on all things Walrus or to check out the guidelines for Fellowship, and have a look at our 2017 Year in Review. You’re right – never has fact-based journalism been more important.

    Best – Shelley Ambrose, Publisher and Executive Director

    • Léo Charbonneau / August 1, 2018 at 08:32

      Thank you for updating us on the status of the Walrus internships. We regret the omission.

      Léo Charbonneau, editor, University Affairs

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