Why do students go to journalism school?

Traditional media outlets suffer,
yet J-school enrolment holds steady.

By Clark Jang

J-school enrolment holding steady, but applications to some schools are down

By Clark Jang

Journalism students at the University of King’s College. (Photo: Kate Ross)


Nick Salvatore believes he has the most interesting job in the world.

No, he’s not the guy in the Dos Equis commercials. He’s not an astronaut or a secret agent, and he won’t solve global hunger.

Every day he helps student after student turn passion into a rewarding career.

Salvatore is a career counsellor at Burnaby Mountain Secondary School, just east of Vancouver. Since he began advising in 2005, he’s worked with students who aspire to study everything from law to tourism, education to carpentry. He’s even met a handful of students curious about journalism.

And it’s the future journalists who pique his interest and trigger his nostalgia. As a former journalism student and journalist, he knows what it takes to succeed in a competitive industry. 

[pullquote]“It may not get you where you want to be as quickly as you want. It might not get you there at all.”  

Nick Salvatore, career counsellor at Burnaby Mountain Secondary School[/pullquote]

“If I get the sense that students are really possessed with this demon to want to write about world affairs or social issues or politics,” he says, “then I try to steer them in that direction.”

Like a Grade 10 student interested in feature writing. The student was composed and exuded a quiet confidence. They chatted about social justice, current events, and the media. “Right away I could tell (journalism) was something he enjoyed.”  

Near the end of their meeting, Salvatore looked over a collection of writing samples. They were impressive. So impressive, Salvatore called YouThink – a magazine in B.C. and Alberta run by students, for students – to inquire about a work placement.   

“(The editor) said, ‘We don’t normally take (students) in Grade 10, but if you think he’d be good…’” Salvatore trails off. “He’s been asked to contribute on a weekly basis to their online paper.”  

Not all students are right for journalism. Many have misconceptions. Some are caught up in gossip. Others don’t understand the connection between journalism and writing.

 “It may not get you where you want to be as quickly as you want,” Salvatore tells his students. “It might not get you there at all.” 

 Why? Because the traditional news industry – including print, radio, and television – is slashing jobs and funding to curb revenue losses. Think of it as damage control. 

[pullquote]”If you’re a parent sitting at the breakfast table and your child says, ‘I want to go into journalism,’ the parent may choke and suggest going into something else.”

– Chris Waddell, director of journalism and communications at Carleton University[/pullquote]

Here’s a snapshot. 

In Canada, paid newspaper circulation slipped 17 per cent from 2007 to 2009. In the United States, newspaper advertising in 2011 plummeted more than nine per cent, shredding $2.1 billion. In April 2012, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced plans to axe 650 employees over three years. And in October 2012 Newsweek magazine announced it would cease its printed publication and switch to an all-digital format in early 2013.

To say traditional media is fine is like saying losing an arm is just a flesh wound. Meanwhile, fewer students are applying for journalism school across the country. The same number, though – if not more – are being admitted.

In Ontario, the University Admissions Council reports applications to journalism programs dropped 21 per cent between 2008 and 2011, while enrolment crept up five per cent.

Enrolment in Ryerson University’s four-year journalism program has climbed from 345 students in 1990 to 556 in 2011. The ratio of applications to seats has recently dropped, though – there were roughly 10.1 applications per seat in 2010-2011, down from 12.6 the year before, and the peak of 20.1 in 2003-2004.

At UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism, enrolment and application numbers are steady. About 180 applications are received for the 30 seats in the class, facilities and technical coordinator Barry Warne said in an email.

Chris Waddell, director of journalism and communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, estimates that three years ago the school received around 1,300 applications for 200 spots in the journalism program. This year the number was closer to 1,000. 

Journalism classes are full even though thousands of media jobs have been cut since 2007. Students hoping for a media career after graduation may find themselves – like their liberal arts-educated counterparts – struggling for a job in a cut-throat market.


View Media Jobs Lost in a larger map

“If you’re a parent sitting at the breakfast table,” says Waddell, “and your child says, ‘I want to go into journalism,’ the parent may choke and suggest going into something else.”

But something else might not be the answer.

Many journalists and pundits have voiced concerns about the next generation of university graduates. In 2011 the National Post explored the hardships faced by graduates. In 2012 Megan McArdle of The Daily Beast questioned the value of post-secondary education when the college bubble in the U.S. is bursting. Also in 2012, pre-plagiarism Margaret Wente blasted liberal arts students as “the baristas of tomorrow.”

Despite Wente’s criticisms, journalism schools are adamant their students are not going to be working at Starbucks.

Kelly Toughill, director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College, says graduates are getting jobs in new and traditional media. “Our graduates who want journalism jobs are getting journalism jobs,” Toughill says. At the same time, in a 2009 Toronto Star column Toughill declared the obvious: “Canada grants far more journalism degrees every year than there are journalism jobs.”

She believes the reason students are filling journalism schools is because they learn extremely pragmatic skills. Students learn “critical thinking, the ability to write quickly, and something we call the journalist mindset. The ability to find things out, to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, to be bold when you aren’t feeling bold.”

Journalism schools aren’t factories churning out workers, she says. Nor do they prepare students to exclusively become journalists – they prepare students for careers ranging from business to law. “We even had a student go straight to med school last year.”

The King’s 2012-2013 guidebook reads, “Journalism offers a superior academic education as well as the skills essential to success in this profession, and many others (italics mine).”

The skills journalism students learn include writing, editing, interviewing, asking questions, producing multimedia, taking pictures, recording audio, communicating, resourcefulness… The list is extensive. 

Paul Gillin, a technology journalist and founder of the website Newspaper Death Watch, says the Internet has shredded the entry barriers to journalism, allowing anyone with a blog or website to participate online. Traditional skills learned in J-school are still critical to success, he says, but a journalism education may not be a prerequisite for a media job.

“I’ve read interviews with (online) journalists who have said they are glad they didn’t go to journalism school, that it would have corrupted them,” Gillin said. “It would have taught them what not to do.”

Waddell believes the skills students learn in journalism school give them an advantage in a tough job market.

“Employers in the media don’t want to pay to train their people, they want someone else to train them. And it’s a journalism school that provides that combination of training.”


What are the job prospects?

When Cameron Love stepped into his first journalism class at Carleton in 2009, he didn’t know what J-school entailed. His expectation was that the program would make him a better writer.

He had no idea traditional media was floundering, but he caught on pretty quickly. “The faculty of the program did not try to conceal the fact that newspapers are struggling right now.”

Love’s penchant for writing would remain resolute, but his fascination with journalism began to wane. The coursework was tedious and he wasn’t getting enough writing practice.

He found himself skipping lectures, dozing off in class, and second guessing his journalistic education. One night, he sat down with his roommate and had an intense conversation about their futures in the journalism program.

“I kinda thought, ‘Why am I going to continue with this if a) I’m not passionate about it, and b) there aren’t a lot of opportunities at the end of the road?’”

By the end of the year he was a history major.

Where the opportunities will be for J-school grads depends on the media’s response to a revamped online model. But alas, no one knows what’s going to happen, no one knows when it will happen, and no one knows what it will look like when it does happen.

Twenty years ago, traditional media employed a veritable horde of journalists by today’s standards. Gillin says whether or not the new Internet-based model will retain as many journalists as the old model is unpredictable. [pullquote]“Job prospects are crummy for everyone this year.”

Paul Gillin, founder of Newspaper Death Watch[/pullquote]

“The traditional career path is disappearing and that’s creating some uncertainty. So career prospects are dim considering what journalists have traditionally done.”

Natalie van Rooy, a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton, believes a stale job market is extra motivation to outshine the competition. “Everything is really competitive right now, no matter what field you’re going into. You just need to have that competitive edge.”

Gillin says people need to keep things in perspective. “Job prospects are crummy for everyone this year.”

South of the border, the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics reported a 7.8 per cent unemployment rate for September. In Canada, that figure was a smidgeon lower at 7.4 per cent.

Grady College in Atlanta tracks employment rates in the Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communications. In 2011, 11.6 per cent of new journalism graduates in the U.S. were unemployed, down from a peak in 2009 of 14.9 per cent. To put those numbers in perspective, Time in 2011 rated counselling and psychology the least desirable university degree in the U.S., with an unemployment rate of 16 per cent. There is no comparable study in Canada indicating a journalism grad’s chance of finding a job.

So while journalism grads in the U.S. sit above the national unemployment average, at least they can take solace in knowing they didn’t study counselling or psychology.


Should J-schools limit enrolment?

When Geoff Bird graduated from the one-year Bachelor of Journalism program at King’s in 2011, he had few reservations about finding a job. Immediately after graduation, he was hired at the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, New Brunswick. After an eight month stint there, he secured a job at AllNovaScotia.com as a business reporter.

“Anyone who knows what they want to do can find a job,” he says.

But not all graduates are so so fortunate.

Take Mohawk College in Hamilton, for example. Their 2009-2010 graduate survey showed only 15 per cent of the print and broadcast grads secured full-time, related work. Print graduates at Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake had similarly dismal full-time, related work numbers in 2010: 12.5 per cent.

While Carleton and Ryerson boast high graduate employment rates (95 and 93 per cent respectively), their surveys do not distinguish between related and unrelated employment. King’s  did not provide graduate employment rates.

Should journalism schools be limiting enrolment to market demand?

“No,” chuckles Toughill of King’s. “It’s up to students and their families to do that research.”

Like Toughill, Waddell of Carleton considers it a student’s responsibility to figure out if journalism is the right move.

“I don’t think it’s a university’s responsibility to anticipate how many students they will train based off market demand.”

Erica Smith is a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist and founder of Paper Cuts, a website tracking newspaper layoffs in the U.S. She believes instead of limiting student numbers, J-schools should ensure professors are properly trained.

“When I talk to professors at different universities, they really seem to have no idea what’s going on in newsrooms. I would hope… the professors or people in charge actually have a grasp on the  skills that need to be taught, and the jobs that are available.”

Unless something drastic happens to further plunge traditional media into doubt, expect to see thousands of students filing into J-schools next September. Where the majority of the jobs will be for those graduating journalists is as uncertain as the fate of the newspaper.

“In India,” predicts Waddell, cracking a smile. “Just kidding.”