Hope and travel:key to a journalism career

Still jobs for grads despite journalistic doom and gloom.

By Sunni Vann

The 2006 graduating class of the University of King's College on the library steps. (Photo credit: Kerry DeLorey)
The 2006 graduating class of the University of King's College on the library steps. (Photo courtesy: Kerry DeLorey)

By Sunni Vann

The graduates of 2006 stand on the library steps of the University of King’s College waiting for their picture to be taken. The sky is the colour of an old pair of woollen socks, and the tree branches are rubbed raw from months of icy ocean wind. For the journalism grads scattered throughout the black-robed crowd, the job market seems as dreary as the sky. The journalism scene was tough then, and the impression is that it’s tougher now.

They’ve ended up across the country and across the board. About half of them are still in journalism. But despite the reports of dissolving newspapers and journalistic doom and gloom, there is a surviving sense of hope. Believe it or not, the jobs are still there.

Mike Gasher is the chair of journalism at Concordia University. Year after year he sees his students get hired. And this year, he’s seeing the same thing. The market may be a little tougher, but it’s never been easy. “There are probably fewer opportunities, but there are still opportunities,” said Gasher. “No one has ever been beating on the door,” waiting for grads to come out.

Dianne Rinehart is the managing editor for Metro Canada. She’s seen a dip in the job market, but only for this year. Rinehart agrees that times have often been rough for journalists looking for work. When she graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1975, she competed against a class of baby-boomers all vying for the same positions. Fifteen years later she returned from a stay in Moscow to find the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star laying off workers.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll never get a job!’ But I did,” said Rinehart. “Journalism is always like that. It always feels like something is being threatened.”

KJR surveyed 37 of the 71 King’s 2006 journalism graduates.
KJR surveyed 37 of the 71 King’s 2006 journalism graduates.

Granted, the notion of a failing market in Halifax makes sense. Almost a quarter of the journalists at the Chronicle Herald newsroom lost their jobs. CBC Halifax cut half of its staff. One of the two daily newspapers, the Daily News, locked its doors for good. A number of grads were laid off. A print job in this coastal city is harder to find than your front door in a thick, ocean-bred fog.

For a grad in Halifax, and across Canada, the key to getting a job is adaptability.

A grad may have his or her heart set upon a lifelong print career. He may crave to see his work in black and white on a broadsheet with his morning coffee. But if radio jobs are the only ones available, print dreams need to be put on hold until the right opportunity comes along. Instead, the grad’s voice will have to warble on the CBC, over that old kitchen radio.

No hope for the half-hearted

KJR tracked down 37 of 71 graduates of 2006 from the journalism program at King’s. Seventeen of them are still working in journalism. The majority put in their hours at the CBC, although a smattering work at Maclean’s, independent radio stations, newspapers and online news sites among a variety of others. Six are in grad school. With a journalism degree under their belt, those not in journalism have mostly settled into communications and PR related positions.

Nadine LaRoche is one of those graduates. She didn’t have a hard news journalism job in mind when getting her degree. Instead, she honed her skills as a non-fiction writer. She now works as the communications co-ordinator in the King’s Advancement Office. She sees her fellow classmates in great places, and wants to quash any fears that grads have of not finding a job.

“For the die hard journalist I will say retain, retain that desire for a reporting job, because no one can take that away from you,” said LaRoche, smiling over a desk stacked with papers and copies of Tidings, the King’s alumni magazine that she edits.

For those who don’t need to follow the strict route of traditional reporting, LaRoche said that graduates should keep their minds and their options open. “Instead of looking at what happened to journalism, in terms of what it used to be – your father’s journalism – instead of looking at what it used to be, you’re looking at what it’s becoming. It’s exciting. Really exciting,” she said.

Trevor Murphy is also a 2006 graduate. Murphy did not expect the intense competition he encountered in fourth year, and didn’t like what he found. Graduating at the age of 22, he didn’t feel ready for the workforce. Now Murphy splits his time in Halifax between working as a PR agent for Pigeon Row Public Relations, as a grocery clerk at Superstore, and playing in his three bands; The Establishment, Quiet Parade and Sleepless Nights.

“I think this is probably the worst time to want to be in the industry,” said Murphy, “because people just haven’t figured out what the hell is going on yet.”

Murphy stresses that this doesn’t mean that there are no jobs, but that grads encounter a ‘cold shoulder’ that might be unexpected. “You’re diving head first into an industry that’s in the middle of change,” said Murphy, and the icy water is going to be a shock.

Holly Gordon also graduated in 2006. She started out as the copy editor of the Coast right out of King’s. This past June, when the listings editor quit, Gordon was offered the position.

“If you really want to stick it out, you can, and opportunities will definitely come up,” said Gordon. “If you’re persistent, it’s going to happen.”

Jon Zacks, who was a fellow classmate, agrees. He works at a radio station in Fort St. John, in northern British Colombia. “It’s tough, it’s tough!” said Zacks. “But there’s still work out there. Radio stations are still putting news on the air, newspapers are still functioning. There is work, if you want it.”

Another grad, Ainslie MacLellan works for CBC Radio in Quebec City. MacLellan sums up what almost all the grads agree on. As long as graduates have the skills, the positive attitude, and the initiative to move wherever the work might be, the jobs are there for them.

“People are going to start realizing that we’re still important,” said Gordon, “…that we do a job that’s of service to the public. Whether that comes online, newspapers, radio or TV, we still need to be here. We just need to be flexible to the way that it happens.”

The Remix

In the mean time, universities are urging students to be entrepreneurial. Grads might have to create jobs of their own, or freelance for years. “The challenge is to try not to create jacks of all trades but masters of none,” said Gasher about his students at Concordia.

Jeff Gaulin graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1995. The job market was limited, and he and his classmates were having a hard time finding work. Gaulin initially started Jeff Gaulin’s Job Board in order to help his fellow grads get employed. Now, his website gets 20,000 to 25,000 hits a day. He said he’s surprised that there are a large number of clients still offering jobs. It’s the big news organizations that have cut back their offers on the site, but smaller ones have filled this void. Gaulin sees the jobs being posted everyday. The challenge is for grads to ask themselves, “How big is my field of possibility? The bigger it is, the more likely it is for you to get what you want when you want it,” said Gaulin.

Mike Gasher, chair of journalism at Concordia University, says it's difficult to call a newspaper a newspaper if it's online. This is one of the places where the imagination of younger journalists will come in.  (Photo courtesy of Mike Gasher)
Mike Gasher is chair of journalism at Concordia University. (Photo courtesy: Mike Gasher)

The ‘million dollar question’ is finding out how to make money online. “The more platforms there are, the more content we need, the more content we need the more writers we need [and] the more editors we need,” said Rinehart. “I see this as a remixing period.”

New journalists, new landscape

It’s up to grads to make the change. “It really needs some imagination. And it’s going to be a younger generation that comes up with the ‘Eureka’ moment,” said Gasher.

There are numbers to back Gasher up. Published in 2008 was the Middleberg/Society for New Communications Research survey of journalists. It found that 100 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 29  think ‘new media’ tools improve journalism. Only 40 percent of those aged 50 to 64 felt the same.

Eighty-seven per cent of 18 to 29 year olds think ‘new media’ helps to form a better connection between them and the audience, compared to 42 per cent of people 50 to 64. The article states that these young journalists and their adoption of new media is  “…pushing the profession as a whole to create a more collaborative, reciprocal, interactive and fluid form of journalism.”

When Rinehart taught at Ryerson for a year, she could see this change coming. It renewed her faith in journalism. “These are people who are young, but they have a rich background of challenging the status quo, looking at things from all angles, being excited about the product they’re delivering…and being incredibly energetic.” Over the fuzzy phone connection, you can hear Rinehart’s grin. The majority of her Metro newsroom in Toronto is under the age of 30, and Rinehart just hired a web editor, who Rinehart guesses is likely in her mid-twenties.

“I don’t want my former students to be discouraged. I think journalism is growing, not declining,” she said. “We go through this period where we’re all panicked and worried. We’ll hopefully regroup, rethink, and reinvest.”

Years after journalism grads leave those library stairs, they gather again at the journalism alumni night in the King’s Wardroom. There is handshaking and backslapping. A huddle of grads lean around the bar. Pool balls clack as they skid across a pool table and thick glass pitchers are passed around.

Carston Knox is the special issues editor for The Coast, Halifax’s independent weekly newspaper. To one side of the bar he speaks with a King’s professor. His rye and coke sloshes near the brim of his glass as his hands jump through the air.

Knox moves to a worn wooden table away from the hubbub. He sits down and leans back in his chair. “You have to be realistic,” he said. “We’re an endangered species right now.”