UPDATE: Specialist or generalist; what kind of journalist should j-schools be producing?

UPDATE for CLARIFICATION Dec 20, 2010: The language in this story has been changed to clarify the program is at the proposal stage, and, that the memo outlining the suggestions was obtained from sources outside of the University of Toronto. As well, we updated and corrected information about other programs in journalism.

Does journalism need a new approach? The University of Toronto thinks so. In fact, Robert Steiner, director of the journalism lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and former Wall Street Journal reporter, thinks a proposed master’s of journalism program currently under consideration is the future of journalism.

Last month, Steiner asked 30 working journalists for feedback regarding a proposal for a new specialized MJ program. The letter, obtained by J-Source from more than one third party, says that Steiner and his colleagues in the investigative group — Janice Stein of the Munk Centre of Global Affairs and John Fraser, award winning journalist and current Master of Massey College in the University of Toronto — want to recruit students from around the world who have expertise in a given field to teach them to be correspondents in the global media covering that specific field. Essentially, the letter said, the program will cater to “professionals who want to become journalists or who want to add journalism to their professional work.”

The proposal includes details about an 18-month practicum where seasoned journalists with international experience will mentor students. So far, students will be expected to freelance by the second semester and will graduate with a year’s worth of “genuine clippings.”

In an email* to J-Source, Steiner said that any public discussion on specifics involving the MJ program is “grossly premature.” Steiner said it would be at least spring before the university seriously considers implementing the program.

There are already a handful of graduate j-programs in Canada: the University of Western Ontario, Carleton University, University of British Columbia, and Ryerson University, as well as grad programs in journalism studies at Concordia. To distinguish themselves from their competitors, Steiner and his colleagues have taken on a strong position against the current model of journalism education.

In defence of a new program, the letter said that students are being trained to work as general assignment reporters when there is more demand from niche publications for specialists. As well, it said that newsrooms are no longer strong teaching environments, citing the fact that staff reductions have left fewer people able to mentor young journalists. Staff reductions, the argument goes, have created the expectation that interns will teach older reporters how to use new technologies and social media – not necessarily a bad thing for rookie reporters who want to establish their credibility.

Don McCurdy, who recently designed a diploma journalism program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, ON, thinks specialized training is valuable in certain circumstances, but fledgling reports need to be able to write stories about a wide-variety of topics if full-time work is what they’re seeking. The MJ program at U of T may be useful to people who want to do journalism on the side. 

“(Steiner’s) not talking about run of the mill freelance, they’re talking Scientific American or Time magazine, something that pays well, something that’s well researched. Technically, you could survive doing one piece a week but you got to build that base, you can’t just start good,” said McCurdy, who is also the executive director of the Ontario Press Council.

The Toronto Star’s Roger Gillespie, one of the senior editors in charge of hiring at the largest newsroom in Canada, said that all the expertise in a single area doesn’t help unless you are also in the right place at the right time. As an example, he cited a recent National Post front-page story about the bridge collapse in Cambodia was written by a young freelancer who happened to be in the area. The reality is, he said, is “there’s a long time between those assignments.” Opportunities to write those kinds of stories don’t happen everyday and most publications don’t routinely assign those kinds of stories to young, unseasoned freelancers.

Gillespie said it’s “hazardous” to predict a single approach. The market is changing, he said, but that doesn’t mean the focus is on specialization. The journalists he hires are nimble, technologically adept and write easily about any topic that needs coverage.

Steiner’s proposal is quick to pronounce the end of staff positions and general assignment reporters, but a new report by Toronto-based marketing research and consulting firm Canadian Primedia surveyed over 400 newspapers in North America and predicts that 2011 will bring increased revenues from advertising and likely more editorial job opportunities — a drastic change in tune from 2008.

The economic slow-down hasn’t curbed j-school enrollment and U of T isn’t the only school trying to meet the demand: the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University will jointly offer a new 10-month MJ program as of June 2011. For the first six months, students will branch off and specialize in either investigative journalism or what the school website calls “new ventures in journalism.” Both streams will take classes on digital journalism.

Carving out a career in journalism has always been an entrepreneurial endeavor, so if a j-school grad wants a job in journalism, they will find one, Gillespie said.

Gillespie entered a dismal market when he graduated but still managed to land a job and said that, today, he knows many graduates who have found jobs in the media.

“I don’t know that we can forecast the market. We’ve been hiring people at the Star, that’s not something I would have forecast.”


In a follow-up email to J-Source on December
20,2010, Robert Steiner explained that “This draft memo was sent to a few
colleagues and friends for their guidance. It is something of a ‘straw dog’; it
reflects one concept of something that we may or may not ever do — or may not
do in this form. The University of Toronto has a very long and rigorous process
towards the approval of any program, and we have not yet even begun that