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Margin Notes

While the journalism industry contracts, journalism programs continue to expand

There are 50 journalism programs in Canada, with more being added. Is that too many?


If you take a look at Canada’s J-Source journalism website, under the “business of journalism” category, you would quickly conclude that journalism as an industry continues to decline. On the site you’ll find article after article on media layoffs, buyouts, dropping advertising revenue, the shuttering of regional and ethnic newspapers, and on and on (and those examples are from just the last six weeks). However, journalism programs at colleges and universities are a growth industry, said Janice Neil, an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University and editor-in-chief of J-Source.

Ms. Neil, speaking on a panel discussion at the Worldviews 2013 conference on global trends in media and higher education June 20 in Toronto, said there are currently 50 journalism programs at postsecondary education institutions across Canada. That includes 25 universities that offer either a certificate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in journalism, according to a quick search on the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada website. And, the programs keep coming – two started within the last couple of years, the latest being a joint program offered by Trent University and Loyalist College, which started last fall. At any given time, there are 1,600 students in journalism programs in Ontario, said Ms. Neil.

This raises the obvious question of whether these journalism graduates are actually landing jobs in journalism. The data are hard to come by, but anecdotally many former journalism students say they haven’t found full-time jobs in their field and have resorted to unpaid internships and freelancing. A couple of journalism graduates, commenting during the Q&A portion of the panel discussion, complained that they’d essentially been sold a bill of goods. Reports on the plight of freelancers working for a pittance are legion. Adding to the funk, the U.S. CareerCast survey for 2013 declared newspaper reporter the worst job of the year.

This raises an even thornier question for universities and colleges: why are there so many journalism programs across Canada pumping out so many graduates? What’s their responsibility in this matter? Should they be more explicit in their program descriptions about the career prospects for their students?

Ms. Neil responded that the skills the journalism students learn – writing, researching, reporting, editing, multimedia production, etc. – are “highly transferable.” And these programs continue to be in high demand, she notes, with many applicants turned away. She also doesn’t believe the job situation for journalism grads is as desperate as some describe it. Those who find journalism is not for them can take the skills they’ve learned and apply them in areas like public relations, communications and elsewhere. Those who really apply themselves usually find success, she said. Another panelist amplified that message, saying those who are highly entrepreneurial and “go-getters” will do fine.

“Absolutely unscrupulous”

But fellow panelist Adrian Monck, managing director and head of communications and media at the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, and a former television journalist and journalism professor, wasn’t buying that argument. He said it was “absolutely unscrupulous” that journalism schools continue to fan the dreams of these students “who think they’re going to get jobs” in the industry. Mr. Monck said there are tens of thousands of journalism students in the U.K., but only about 500 jobs that open up in the industry in any given year.

Mr. Monck also seemed unmoved by the “go-getters will get jobs” argument, saying that would be the case no matter what the endeavour. He also wondered whether students entering journalism school were all that entrepreneurial. He posited that many journalism students are “liberal arts” types who might otherwise take a program in English or history, but opt for the “safer” choice of journalism because it sounds like a program that will lead to a career.

The debate brought comparisons from the audience to teacher education and law programs, two other professions where graduates are having difficulty finding jobs. Ontario recently announced it will halve the numbers of students allowed into teacher’s college, and there have been similar calls in the U.S. and Canada to restrict law school enrolment.

Toronto blogger Jennifer Polk, who attended the conference, says the situation reminds her of the plight of PhD graduates. “I was struck by similarities between the terrible job market for journalists qua journalists and the academic job market,” she wrote on her blog.

Go west, young graduate

But not all is doom and gloom, apparently. The University of Regina does describe on its website the career prospects for its journalism grads, and the situation looks pretty good:

In a July 2010 survey of recent U of R Journalism School graduates, 90.2 percent reported they were in salaried employment during the first year after graduating, while 24.4 percent did freelance journalism work either solely or on the side to add to their income. None reported being unemployed, with the remainder spending their time traveling or continuing their education. Asked to describe their first ‘real job,’ just 13.3 percent reported that it was outside the field of journalism. The majority of first jobs were full time.

That success, admittedly, is partly due to the strong economy in Western Canada. The website continues:

While a tight economy has affected the news media in central Canada, journalism employment has continued to grow in the west, particularly in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan Job Futures notes the Saskatchewan has undergone an explosive growth in journalism employment in recent years, rising an “incredible” 63 percent between 2000 and 2005. This growth is expected to begin levelling off through to 2013, due to the relative youth of the incoming workforce, however the outlook remains fair. Our own July 2010 survey of Saskatchewan and Alberta employers revealed surprisingly optimistic employment prospects in a tight economy. In the past five years, the majority (58.3 percent) had added positions, and the same percentage anticipated they will add more positions in the next five years.  None reported that they expected to lose positions.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Tema Frank / June 30, 2013 at 11:09

    Whether the program is English or Journalism, I think our universities should be including some courses that teach students the skills to create their own jobs or find them in unusual places.

    There is a strong need for people with good communications skills in the Web world, but I suspect that far too few grads are aware of these possibilities.

    That said, I chose not to go into journalism in the early 1980s because the job prospects looked so bleak. And the rates of pay for freelance writers don’t seem to have gone up at all in the past 20+ years.