Journalism: Living in a Dying Industry
Ninety staff fired across the country, 35 of which were right here in Edmonton: in light of the most recent spate of Postmedia cuts at the end of January, how is the next generation of journalists being taught—and how do they feel about a future career in a supposedly dying industry?
There are still plenty of options for those inclined to pursue an education in journalism. Last year, MacEwan University graduated its first class of students from its newly minted four-year journalism degree. SAIT in Calgary offers a two-year diploma in journalism, while NAIT offers journalism courses as part of two-year diplomas in related areas, like radio and television. While not a formal journalism program, the University of Alberta’s student paper, The Gateway, has served as a de facto training ground for many local journalists to gain hands-on experience in the field. Then there are the prominent journalism programs at a handful of universities in Canada: Carleton, Ryerson, University of British Columbia, King’s College and Concordia.
But as countless post-secondary grads can attest, getting that piece of paper doesn’t guarantee you a job—especially in a field going through a massive identity crisis.
“The days when you could come out of the journalism school and work for a big media organization, do 25 years and collect a golden watch, may be gone,” says Brian Gorman, an assistant professor in communication studies at MacEwan.
Gorman has been actively charting the course of the Canadian newspaper industry for decades. In 2015 he published a book, Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption, in which he posits that the current situation faced by mainstream papers (ie, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy) was self-inflicted. The papers’ owners have acquired too much debt (Postmedia currently owes over $650 million) while simultaneously slashing journalists’ resources and alienating themselves from their readers, he argues.
He also believes that the radical changes in journalism are a big opportunity for those who are motivated.
“I like to think of it as post-war Europe, and my students are going to be the Marshall Plan and they’re going to go out and rebuild it,” Gorman says. “For resourceful people who have talent and are determined, I think there are opportunities there. [There’s] a lot more room for entrepreneurial journalism, a lot more room for small start-ups, alternatives. … There are other ways to fund journalism. I find it disheartening that the mainstream media organizations like Postmedia are so reluctant to wean themselves off the advertiser and so insanely immune to the needs of their readers. They seem to be more inclined to shove their neo-conservative values down the throats of a progressive generation and then wonder why young people don’t want to read their papers.
“I don’t think the craft of journalism is dying,” he continues. “If anything it’s expanding; it’s more exciting. It’s probably more fun to be a journalist right now.”
Fun, perhaps—but also disheartening. Even those who don’t intend to pursue a career in a mainstream newsroom (and Gorman believes most of his students do not), the weight of Postmedia’s recent actions and seemingly inevitable trajectory hangs over the heads of everyone in the field, especially those just entering it.
Lloyd Wipf, who’s graduating from MacEwan’s journalism program this spring, got firsthand experience working at Postmedia last year during a two-month internship in the Arts and Life section at the Edmonton Journal.
“I had a great experience there, and I would have loved to stay on and work with them more, but in light of what has happened in January—no, I don’t think I would want to work for the Journal anymore,” Wipf says. “It seems like journalism is taking a backseat to the bottom line and making money—which is not why I pursued an education in journalism. … I did it because I care about information and I care about the craft, and it seems to me that the company who owns the Journal does not care about that. So it’s very disheartening.”
Wipf chose MacEwan over Mount Royal University in Calgary, where he was also accepted, because he thought MacEwan’s brand-new program would be most suited to a career in the industry.
“We thought that, OK, this program is going to be cutting edge,” Wipf says. “That’s why they redesigned the entire program; it’s going to focus on this new New Journalism, I guess—whatever they call it. And it was really not that.”
MacEwan’s program focuses on print and writing, especially narrative and magazine-style journalism, Wipf says. While those are necessary skills, he points out that the program has a serious lack of training in technical skills like web development, digital storytelling, video and radio.
“I think you still need an overview of technical skills, because that’s what everyone wants you to be; you kind of have to be a jack-of-all-trades nowadays,” he says. “Everyone wants video; at the Journal every story I had to do, it required video. … I was looking at some of the job applications at the small-town papers … they all expected those skills too, because they like posting video up to their website, or at least onto Facebook.
“I’m still quite happy with the education I got,” he continues. “But a lot of the skills that I’ve learned, technical skills, I basically learned it on my own.”
Disheartened with the field of journalism, Wipf has decided to go straight into MacEwan’s two-year public relations diploma program—acknowledging that he’s probably more suited to a job in PR than in journalism right now, he wants the diploma to boost his résumé.
Gorman agrees that MacEwan’s program teaches a variety of transferable skills that can land candidates easily in positions other than journalism. But he also states that MacEwan’s program needs improvements and refocusing to align better with the changing expectations placed upon journalists by publications—and to offer the skills that are absolutely mandatory if someone is trying to forge an independent route. To that end, MacEwan is currently undertaking a curriculum review of its journalism program.
The Gateway, which has always served as an informal training ground for young journalists at the University of Alberta, just announced a major change: after 106 years of printing a physical newspaper, The Gateway will be moving to an online-only model, along with a monthly features magazine.
“It’s an idea that’s been thrown around for years,” says Cam Lewis, current editor-in-chief at The Gateway. “I’ve been on the board of directors here for three years now, and it’s always like, ‘Oh geez, in five years we’re probably going to be online only.’ I’ve just been hearing that for so long; it’s kind of a joke. … When I planned for my job this year, I thought, you know, let’s make a big change here and do something and do it really well; let’s not be forced online in 2019 because we’re literally broke and we have to chop all of our staff and we have to, I don’t know, just cease to exist. It would be just a really sad, slow and painful death for The Gateway. But let’s do it now in 2015 and ’16 when we still have the resources to do it and, you know, nobody else has really done it in terms of a student newspaper—so let’s be that big change.”
The move makes sense, Lewis states, given The Gateway‘s declining pickup numbers and increasing online traffic. The online model will result in major savings on printing costs, as well as in the time that editors previously spent on layout and design. Now, he says, staff will have more resources to spend on providing a daily feed of information, as well as writing longer narrative features for the magazine.
The Gateway staff planned a meeting to propose the online model; as fate would have it, that ended up being held the day after Postmedia announced its cuts. While Postmedia’s news felt initially discouraging, Lewis says everyone quickly rallied around the proposed online model as a necessary step to adjust to the changing landscape of journalism.
“I think the fact that we are making a change kind of helped compensate for the general sense of gloom with the way the industry’s going,” he says. “I really want people, when they read about what we’re doing, to realize that this is something that we want to do and that we’ve put a lot of thought into doing, and doing well. This isn’t something we’re being forced into doing.
“I want this to be viewed as students being proactive and taking a big risk,” Lewis continues. “Because if you’re not really willing to take a risk while working at The Gateway at the University of Alberta, then I don’t think you ever will be.”
As newspapers shrink, close or radically alter their structure, they require versatile individuals who are able to adapt to the ever-shifting industry. The onus is on the journalists themselves to diversify their skill sets as much as possible, since highly specialized positions—in which you could spend your entire career only shooting photos, or only reporting on news, or only editing—are disappearing rapidly.
“It’s going back to the days before specialization, the days when you were expected to be an all-around journalist,” Gorman says. “Maybe up until now it’s been too easy to be a journalist in Canada, and we’ve got to wash out some of the people that shouldn’t be doing it.
“That sounds cold-blooded, and I don’t really mean it in that cold-blooded of a sense,” he continues. “But I think the sooner the new stuff gets built to replace the old stuff, the better.”
(This story originally appeared in Vue Weekly on February 24, 2016.)