How to stand-out at j-school

We asked some of the top journalism profs across Canada for their top piece of advice for students. Follow these tips to get the most out of your program.


Be a critical consumer of news. Have a double major. READ!  READ! READ! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE!

–Brian Gabriel, MA program director and assistant professor, Concordia Department of Journalism

Read and view news. All sorts of news. Blogs, mainstream, dailies, local, international. It continues to surprise me how many students resist this, but it is a habit — a hard one to break once established. There are so many ways to structure and produce information within our public sphere. And it is a j-student’s job to familiarize herself with the world of news much as a medical student must learn every aspect of human anatomy. At least an hour a day is the minimum I’d recommend. Over time, you’ll feel the nuanced differences, pick your favourites and be able to effectively navigate (and, more importantly, critique) all forms. And if you start now, you’ll be miles ahead of your peers who are waiting to be “taught” these things in some sort of sequence in class.

–Maija Saari, assistant professor, Journalism, Wilfrid Laurier University (Brantford)

Plug into the news.  It amazes me how many students believe they can be good journalists without actually following the news in a regular, sustained and methodical way. As a journalist, you need to have a more-than-passing knowledge of what’s going on in your community, your country and the world.  This will this help you shine when you get thrown into breaking stories without notice. It will help you make the kind of informed connections about people and events that often lead to groundbreaking stories. It will also help you recognize and respond immediately when someone says something that isn’t accurate. Being well informed makes it harder for others to manipulate you. So find a time every day to read a range of news sources. Multitask if necessary – do it while eating breakfast, riding the bus, whatever.  And watch at least one television newscast every day. You want to SEE who is in the news. That way you’ll recognize them if they sit down beside you on the bus. Understand that knowledge makes you a better journalist. Read widely. Try to learn at least the basics of many different subjects. That can help you when you least expect it. It’s obvious, for example, that knowing something about economics can help a business reporter, but so can a little knowledge about science and physics.

–Alan Bass, journalism faculty, Thompson Rivers University

Pick up a newspaper. There’s inspirational work being done by journalists all over this country, on big papers and small ones. Read their work. It will teach you about ideas you can mine for stories and expose you to a variety of good writing.

–Linda Kay, undergraduate program director and associate professor, Concordia Department of Journalism


Buy your domain name to house a website that reflects your professional identity. This will be your digital calling card. Journalism is entering an era of the personal, rather than institutional, brand. This was highlighted in the 2009 State of the Media report which found that “Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions”

It is important for an enterprising journalist student to have an online presence that reflects who you are, your interests and background, and showcases your best professional work. How far you go in building up your personal brand, your online identity, is up to each student.  For some, the best way could be starting a blog on a specific topic to develop a reputation as an expert in this area.  It might commenting on stories of interest. Or simply following key people in your field on Twitter.  

An aspiring journalist has to be visible, and today that means being visible online.

–Alfred Hermida, assistant professor, University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

Many employers are looking for not just content creators, but people who can build an online community and strengthen engagement. Go beyond Facebook. Comment on stories. Share what you are reading. Build a presence online. Blog or tweet – by all means. Many employers want to know: Do you “get” the Internet? Do you play with different toys and share with others?

–Tim Currie, assistant professor, online journalism, University of King’s College School of Journalism

Start a blog about something you’re interested in or passionate about. Its focus could be broad (Canada’s fashion industry) or narrow (what’s happening on your city block or in your residence); mainstream (tips for living on a tight budget) or eclectic (graphic novels). Think about your newly created blog as a personal workspace. For a journalist-in-training, it’s the modern equivalent of a woodworking shop or a potter’s studio: a place where you both practise your skills and show your work to those who might drop by. It also serves as a living portfolio, where you demonstrate your unfolding abilities and competence. Eventually, it might even become an important part of your resumé.

In fairly short order and regardless of its subject matter, a good blog becomes a kind of teacher. It reinforces the habit of writing regularly. It provides a place for you to practise posting text, audio, photos, slideshows and video. It trains you to become a bit of an expert on something. It teaches you what people like to read, listen to and watch — and what bores them. It’ll even give you a little experience with some of the geeky stuff that goes on behind the scenes of a good blog.

You can start right now. You can get started for free. You want to be a journalist, right? So go to or and get started. Then read some advice, such as this post and this one, on how to make your work compelling.

Oh, and, by the way, don’t forget to go to your classes and do that work, too. Before long, you’ll find that your school life and your blogging life will begin to reinforce one another.

–Larry Cornies, print journalism co-ordinator and professor, Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning


Intellectual curiosity is not something you’re going to learn in school because no one can teach it to you. But the desire to know stuff just may be a journalist’s greatest asset. Read widely (obviously). Ask lots of questions of lots of people, even when you’re not doing interviews. Look up words, people, ideas, everything. Be omnivorous about information. Aim to know a little—or more—about a lot. If nothing else, you’ll be a delightful guest at dinner parties.

–Tim Falconer, freelance writer, author and instructor, Ryerson School of Journalism

Seek out new experiences and sign up for courses that will teach you new skills. Never assume that you won’t like something, won’t find it useful or won’t be good at it, just because you haven’t tried it, or it doesn’t interest you at this moment in your life, or you don’t see how it will be relevant today. Time and again I have seen students resist taking courses, for example, in radio or business or even online journalism only to discover they enjoyed them and appreciated the doors they opened to new opportunities. Time and again I have also enjoyed watching some students grow as reporters, writers and even human beings by daring to meet people, explore places and try things that were new, different and, perhaps, even uncomfortable for them. Dare to be one of those students. Being open to new experiences and willing to learn new things has never mattered more.

–Mary McGuire, associate professor, Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication

Be curious about your surroundings and your world. Be a (healthy) skeptic of those who provide information to you.

–Brian Gabriel, MA program director and assistant professor, Concordia Department of Journalism

Get off your butts. This means leaving the cocoon on your journalism school as often as possible. Walk around. Talk to strangers. Listen. Take note of everything around you. Get involved in something. Follow your nose. Read voraciously – politics, current events, history, philosophy. Then argue with your friends about it. Most of all, give a crap about the person standing next to you on the street corner. Then, when you come to class, your stories will be spilling onto the page way ahead of deadline.       
–Patricia W Elliott, assistant professor, University of Regina School of Journalism

Dig deeper in everything you do. When working on a routine assignment, go the extra distance. Find the extra source. Ask the extra question. Don’t accept pat or routine answers. If something doesn’t seem right, follow your instincts and figure out why. If something is unclear, keep asking questions until you understand. Find the orignal documents rather than just relying on second hand accounts from sources. The more you dig, the better your stories/assignments will be, and one hopes that will reflect in your marks, and in your career.

–Fred Vallance-Jones, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Print, University of King’s College School of Journalism

Adapt to the fact that you are never completely off the clock as a journalist. Everyone you talk to, everything you see, everywhere you go, there’s the possibility of news. Stories can pop up anywhere, anytime, even on your days off. In most cases, it only takes a moment to jot down a name and a telephone number with a promise to follow up later. (Which reminds me: NEVER leave the house without a piece of paper and a pencil or an electronic note-taking device like a smart-phone.) And if a really big story breaks out right in front of you while you’re out on the town with your sweetie … well, make sure your sweetie has cab fare.

–Alan Bass, journalism faculty, Thompson Rivers University