Education Matters: How to keep your j-students motivated when the industry is facing a crisis

Photo courtesy of Aeman Ansari

Photo courtesy of Aeman Ansari

By Janice Tibbetts 

A journalism student recently came into my office at Concordia University, musing about leaving the program because of the grim job prospects. She was looking for a lifeline ,some assurance that she might be able to work in the field after graduation and earn enough money to pay off her student debts.

I’m sure this is a relatively common occurrence in journalism schools these days—where many teachers and students are doing some soul searching about teaching and studying in programs that could be cul-de-sacs en route to the job market, or “elevators to nowhere,” as David Carr, the New York Times media writer, puts it.

When I tell people outside the school that I teach journalism, reaction is sometimes a snicker, followed by comments along the lines of “what the heck do you tell those poor students about the future of the industry?”

I say I couldn’t teach with a clear conscience in a j-school if I believed the end is nigh.

That doesn’t mean one should be dismissive of the problems that plague the industry. It would be foolish to ignore them. Sure, the business is uncertain. There have been thousands of layoffs in Canada alone. Downsizing at established media outlets has become matter of course. Traditional reporting jobs at large organizations are the stuff of dreams. And newspaper journalists are on the endangered jobs list.

But here is the approach I have taken in the year or so that I have been at Concordia:

1. Acknowledge in class, at the beginning of the semester, that the business is in flux and that nobody really knows how it will all turn out. There are no guarantees and it is a rough slog—both in securing a job and working in the field. It has been that way for decades, in journalism and in many other fields. But if students really want it, they can make it happen. Most are aware of the problems in the industry and they are in j-school anyway—not because they are off their rockers, but because they want to be journalists.

2. Tell students that despite all the naysaying, there are jobs out there, just not necessarily traditional reporting jobs at large organizations. (Although there are still some of those jobs as well—I know of at least two Concordia grads this year who have secured jobs at large newspapers, which is about the same number who got newspaper jobs upon graduation when I entered the workforce in the late 1980s.) On any given day, there are roughly half a dozen or more jobs posted on Jeff Gaulin’s job board, many of which are ideal entry-level spots for people willing to relocate.

3. Suggest pursuing data journalism. This, however, isn’t necessarily good advice for students who have their hearts set on other areas, such as sports broadcasting or fashion or arts reporting. The thing about knowing data journalism is that it’s probably what you will spend your time doing if you get a job because employers are keen on data these days.

4. In this multimedia, multi-platform world, tell students they should be prepared to do everything, and they should make a point while still in school of becoming as versatile as they can.

5. Don’t dwell on the gloom. True, newsrooms are shrinking, but digital startups are growing and there will always be a demand for reliable journalism. According to an analysis by Chad Skelton, a data journalist at the Vancouver Sun, there were 13,000 media jobs in Canada in 2011, about the same as a decade earlier, although these jobs pay much less than traditional journalism jobs. (A student, undaunted by the low pay, emailed Skelton’s report to me, wondering why there is so much negativity about the industry.)

6. I share what it was like when I started out in the field. It was a few years before the onset of the recession in the early 1990s. I got a job at a daily newspaper, but movement was stagnant. I made terrible money and I had to have a car. But I didn’t care. Some days I had to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming that someone was publishing my stories every day. I would have paid them to work there—I wanted it that much. And I wasn’t in the enviable position of having affluent parents who could help me out. On payday, I would rush to the bank at lunchtime because I was dead broke.

I don’t know how well my pep talk works. The student who came into my office did decide to leave the program. It could have been something I said. Or something someone else said. Or it could have been that, in doing her cost-benefit analysis, she decided she just didn’t want it enough.

Janice TibbettsJanice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, the Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Daily News. She has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics, and legal affairs.



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