Finding hope for j-students

Mary McGuire

Mary McGuireJobs in newsrooms across the country are disappearing, but the number of young people who want to study journalism appears to be as strong as ever.

While bloggers muse online about how the loss of traditional journalism jobs is bound to be the beginning of the end of journalism programs at colleges and universities, students are still lining up for them — at least for now.

At Carleton University, for example, at the same time as news was breaking about layoffs at major Canadian newspapers and television stations, applications to enter our graduate program this fall rolled in. We have received almost ten applications for every available spot, among the highest number of applications ever. We can only speculate about why the numbers are up. But there’s at least a chance it means young people are more optimistic about the future of the industry than a lot of journalists these days.  

The continued interest in studying journalism, at a time when traditional jobs are disappearing, poses a special challenge for journalism educators. There is, of course, the obvious need to change our curricula to reflect changes in the industry. That’s the long-term challenge. That discussion is already underway online.

The more immediate challenge is keeping the students in our classes engaged and motivated, even optimistic about their future, while traditional jobs disappear and working journalists sink into despair – for all to see, read and hear in print, online and on the airwaves.  It’s a special challenge this year, because students in the program now chose to study journalism when times were better.

In January, when I first met my class of graduate students, I quickly detected they were very discouraged about the job market, the state of the industry and perhaps even their decision to study journalism. From their comments I gathered they thought that until this year jobs in journalism had always been plentiful for those with talent and drive. A reality check was required.

Journalists have survived other recessions

For some perspective, I invited two special guests to visit the class. Both were former students of mine who graduated in a recession too, in the nineties. Neither of them had a job when they graduated. There were no jobs then either. Now, more than ten years later, they both have senior jobs at CBC Radio, one as a producer, the other as a business news reporter. Their stories, though different in the details, were essentially the same. They both became enterprising and versatile freelancers and made themselves valuable both to news editors and current affairs producers in both radio and television, for broadcasters in Canada, the U.S. and even overseas. They hung in working as freelancers and casual staff — not just for months, but for as many as five years. These two journalists painted a vivid picture of what it was like to go to work everyday as a freelancer, while staff reporters all around them were in tears about losing their jobs or in fear that they were the next to go. In fact, these former grads left my students with the impression that in tough times, it’s better to work as a freelancer or on a casual basis because there’s more security in that than there is any staff job. After all, they said, they kept working while all around them people were being laid off.

The visits helped a lot, based on the feedback I got. One student told me later she would never have considered hanging on without a “real” job for that long.

Advice from educators

The advice my former students gave is similar to what other journalism educators are telling their students these days. A journalism educator in the U.S., Mindy McAdams, tells students on her blog to learn new media skills and consider freelancing as a way to start their careers. Paul Bradshaw, who teaches journalism at Birmingham City University, this week shared the advice of journalists, including two Canadians, who attended a recent conference on digital media in Brussels. Be versatile, creative and multi-skilled, they said, and avoid specializing in one medium.
My colleagues are giving students similar advice to cope with tough times.

Paul Adams, who teaches television and public affairs reporting at Carleton, says he tries to provide his students perspective and hope.

“I tell them this is their first recession, but I have been around for a few. That the industry is in constant transition, and has, all the time I have been around, been in “decline” by some measures…Remember the Winnipeg Tribune and Toronto Telegram… So, now I tell them we have a recession superimposed on a period of acute restructuring. However, there is no sign that the appetite for news is going away…just the opposite. And when the Trib went down, we couldn’t imagine CNN or Newsworld, much less the Huffington Post. Then I tell them Ed Greenspon started in Prince Albert, and Susan Harada in Timmins, and Keith Boag in some 50-watt station in a New Brunswick woodlot, and that if they are really serious about this, they need to be prepared to move somewhere they maybe haven’t contemplated. But that they also have multi-media skills that the old folks being laid off and being given packages don’t, so that when jobs start coming back in a year or two they will be in a good position to start picking them off.”

In addition to suggesting students go to small markets, other instructors, like Allan Thompson, the director of the Rwanda Initiative, suggests students take a break and head overseas.

“I am actively encouraging students to seriously consider a year abroad – or longer – as a good alternative to grinding it out in our depressing job market. Many students are inclined this way anyway, but many also stop short of that leap into the unknown that is involved with going to Ghana to work on an NGO, or pursuing an internship with bush radio in South Africa or teaching English in South Korea. Personally, I don’t think a young person could go wrong with any of those types of experiences no matter what. And in the current climate, why not go for life experience abroad and hope that the media sector here figures it self out in a year or so.”

Life after j-school

To the surprise of journalists, many students use the skills they learn in j-schools in a variety of other fields such as the public service, politics, law, communications etc. Some instructors are bringing in guests and examples to ensure their students know there is life after j-school, even if it is not in a traditional newsroom.  

Others, like Paul Benedetti, who teaches journalism at the University of Western Ontario, encourage students to think about non-mainstream media jobs.

“Just had a former student in yesterday who brought good news! She’s looking for writers all the time! Offered assignments and work! Where? In a trade magazine about horses and the horse race industry. Trot.  The trade magazines and newspapers and journals are legion and we tend to ignore them (snobbery?) but they are vibrant and they pay. Doctor mags, dentist mags, horse mags, dog mags, plumbing, golf, dairy cattle, retail, etc.”

As for the students, many of them remain confident in their ability to adapt, according to Elly Alboim, a television and political affairs reporting instructor at Carleton.

“Students are obviously concerned but none seem to be regretting their career choice and are plugging ahead to finish. They seem resigned to having to be much more entrepreneurial over the next while and waiting for this cycle to reverse. I’m not sure many are focused on this being a structural change. There’s a common presumption that the future lies in multimedia on the net and they work pretty hard at developing those skills and becoming technically proficient. I’d curl up and shrivel when confronted with the skills challenge. They seem to accept it as the way it is.”

So, while journalists despair about what’s happening these days, students and their teachers are trying to look beyond today’s dreadful news. Some students tell me they realize they may just be in denial, but they prefer that to despair. Others have taken to saying  “It’s just got to get better. It can’t get any worse.”

Mary McGuire is an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and teaches broadcast and online journalism. She has won two teaching awards and served, for a time, as the president of the Canadian Association of Journalism Educators. As a journalist, Mary worked for 11 years at CBC Radio News as a reporter, editor and documentary producer. She has led training workshops in broadcast and online journalism for many professional organizations including the CBC, National Public Radio in the U.S., the American Press Institute, and the Canadian Association of Journalists. She co-authored The Internet Handbook for Writers, Researchers and Journalists.