Senior editors differ on value of j-school in mid-career

QUESTION: I’m 43 and for the past 13 years I have been working as a freelance photographer and writer. During that time I have published a strong portfolio of magazine features and newspaper articles. The financial challenges of freelancing, however, have always required working at other unrelated jobs to help pay the bills. Lately, I’ve been applying for staff positions at community newspapers and magazines but with no success. In spite of strong writing and photography skills, my feeling is I need to acquire skills in layout and website management to compete against more recent computer savvy graduates. With a mortgage to pay, I‘ve looked into education with a maximum length of two years. I have been accepted into the book and magazine publishing program at Centennial College [in Toronto] but I’m now considering a journalism program for university graduates. Do you have any advice on which program I should take and do I stand any chance of finding employment when I graduate at 46 years of age? Are there any other options available you care to suggest? 

Answer by
Roger Gillespie

Tough question. Tough call.

How do you find a job in a field flooded with downsized veterans and fresh-faced j-grads?

It has always been a challenge to land a job in journalism. It takes two parts sweat, one part luck. Talent doesn’t hurt, either.

But the radical disruption of the business model and consequent sharp decline in revenue have made it a lot tougher as newspapers trim their sails.

I put the problem to a few senior newspaper editors across the country.

Their answers? Good luck; go with what you know; or boldly go where few folks are going right now.

Edmonton Journal editor Allan Mayer figures you should play to your current strength:

“I’m not sure if more schooling is going to make a big difference in his career options because he’s going to be up against younger people with the same set of skills who are willing to work for a lot less than he would expect. He does have an edge on the writing and photo front. It might make more sense for him to continue pounding on doors and hoping for a break.”

Ray Brassard, managing editor at the Montreal Gazette, says the web is the future, uncertain as that may be:

“It’s very difficult to imagine a bright future for journalism aspirants, given the state of the industry. The question mentions competition with computer-savvy grads.That is the honest truth. Whatever program he chooses he is best to take as many web-oriented courses as possible.”

Diane Rinehart, editor-in-chief of Metro, thinks the answer is more school, more training and more experience:

“I’d suggest he does the MA, but he gets the layout experience in a night course right away. It doesn’t take two years to master Quark Express or web based programs. It’s just skill building. The MA will give him an edge over other colleagues his own age and experience level. But he’s right: all pages laid out at Metro are done so by journalists. There’s no such thing as graphic artists in the editorial department at most papers anymore.”

Hamilton Spectator managing editor Jim Poling says more school can’t hurt:

“The Centennial option is practical, focused and zeroes in on the current skills being employed in the industry. The programs at Centennial (Humber/Guelph also has an excellent multimedia program) tend to be micro-focused on the skill sets you are looking to develop. The university j-programs are broader, but will give you access to other areas of journalism you might not be aware of or need: computer-assisted, ethics, business of journalism, etc.There are no guarantees but more you learn and practice emerging trends and techniques, the more value you will offer an employer or prospective client.”

Marissa Nelson, senior editor, digital news, believes you have to get your foot in the door and j-school can help:

“I think he should go into a j-school program. I have done internships at two newspapers and still couldn’t get full-time employment — went to j-school, got three more internships, then got a full time job. I’d say, if he’s already tried to get a job with no success, he should go to a journalism program — it opens doors to interviews. Employers want to see not just good photos, good clips, but proof they can survive the hurly-burly of day to day journalism. I’d go even for an internship, mat leave, short-term contract, those are the things that get you in the door. Having that journalism diploma should help with getting employed. There’s no guarantee, but it can’t hurt.”

And I would point out an interesting development:

There is some evidence that charting a course to the web through more schooling is a good strategy. In this TechCrunch post you’ll see that Northwestern University’s prestigious journalism school is offering scholarships to skilled programmers and Web developers.

Roger Gillespie is Senior Editor/Training and Development at the Toronto Star. He is responsible for in-house training at the Star and has been recruiting and hiring journalists for the past 10 years.