Is a journalism degree worth doing?

A Ryerson graduate shares some advice

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I’ll never forget my first week of journalism school.

Fresh out of Queen’s University’s English program, I entered Ryerson University’s Master of Journalism program in the fall of 2010 with a stint as co-editor of the Queen’s Journal and two solid internships—at the Kingston Whig-Standard and Maclean’s—under my belt.

Ryerson’s serious-looking website promised a hands-on, “rigorous and intensive” program. I was only 21, and I figured I’d be competing for lucrative paid internships alongside people with diverse but equal, if not better, experience. It was called a ‘master’s degree’ after all.

It wasn’t meant to be. During my first reporting class, the instructor mentioned in passing the “lede,” basic newsroom shorthand for the first sentence of an article because it (surprise!) leads the story. One of my classmates raised her hand. “Um, what’s a lede?”

Alarm bells sounded in my head about what I’d gotten myself into. What followed was two years of tedious coursework, student-teacher clashes and, with tuition totalling over $3,000 per semester, a very expensive lesson in how quickly the industry is shrinking.

At a time when the number of journalism programs is growing despite the industry adjusting to its digital growing pains, I find myself wondering, is going to journalism school worth it?

Some of the more persuasive arguments I’ve heard in favour of j-school come from Melanie Coulson, a senior online editor at the Ottawa Citizen who graduated with a Carleton University Master of Journalism in 1999. The first-ever recipient of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education, Coulson teaches a third-year undergraduate multimedia course at Carleton.

Last year, she penned an open cover letter to Sun Media defending j-schools in response to a job posting for a parliamentary correspondent that suggested j-school graduates need not apply.

“Ezra [Levant] never called,” she says with a laugh over the phone from Ottawa, but she remains bullish on the benefits of a formal journalism education.

“The lessons you learn in journalism school are not just skills, they’re critical thinking lessons. It’s not just fairness and objectivity,” she says, adding, “it’s a luxury to look at why we do what we do and how we do what we do and not get caught up in the sausage factory of pumping out stories.”

The multimedia course she teaches is a mix of academic thought and technical how-to.

Like me, Coulson studied English and was the editor of her student newspaper before heading to j-school. We have a lot in common, but I’m far less optimistic. I couldn’t agree more that it’s important to discuss the bigger issues circling journalism. And it is indeed a luxury—an increasingly unaffordable one.

A popular line toed by professors and program directors is that there are never enough jobs for every single graduate, and that no one goes into journalism expecting to make a fortune. I’m sure that sentiment isn’t lost on several of my classmates who, as of today, are facing the end of the six-month grace period for repaying student loans.

For every talented journalist in my class who found steady employment after graduation (and there are several), there’s another cobbling together freelance and short-term work to make ends meet—my personal record for shortest contract is seven weeks.

Wages in Ontario, at least for those with undergraduate Journalism degrees, have been falling. In 2009, those who had finished j-school in 2007 were averaging $45,000. Two years later in 2011, those who had finished in 2009 were making just $41,151. Overall median wages for university graduates over that period barely changed from $49,169 to $49,151. And the numbers don’t capture how many grads moved into other fields in those two years.

If journalism schools are as in touch with industry trends as they claim to be, it’s irresponsible to narrow the path to the newsroom through accreditation while maintaining arms-length culpability for churning indebted graduates out into a market where they would kill for even a six-month contract.

That said, my stint at Ryerson wasn’t a total time-suck: I received a grounding in the basics of research methods and libel law, and benefited from the advice of seasoned journos-turned-instructors who offered boundless after-class support and brought in impressive guest speakers.

For me, Ryerson’s biggest value was that it probably helped me land paid internships—at The Globe and Mail, for example—where I made valuable contacts and produced work I’m proud of. Arguing about political correctness in a classroom won’t prepare anyone to door-knock the family of a murder victim, or approach total strangers on the street—only doing it day after day will.

Many newsrooms use journalism schools as farm teams for summer programs, and Coulson says someone would need to have a “pretty special background” to make the Citizen’s shortlist without one. She and I agree that cultivating skills and interests outside of school is crucial —it’s foolish to think that a journalism degree (or any other) on its own will land you a job.

But if journalism schools want to remain viable, they should consider condensing courses to make them hyper-practical and forge stronger connections with media outlets to provide real (and ideally, paid) work experience during the school year.

The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs launched its inaugural journalism certificate program last fall under the premise of “mentored freelancing,” pairing students with experienced journalists to produce real work throughout their studies rather than during a summer internship or after graduation. This model is much better suited to the new reality.

But every program, and every journalist, is different: Coulson told me she’d do a PhD in journalism, but I’d rather take Spanish classes, freelance or travel than step foot in another j-school classroom.

If you have two years (and money) to kill and like writing reflective essays and talking about your feelings, journalism school might be for you. But if you’re a firebrand with work experience coming out of undergrad and a knack for figuring things out yourself, it will probably bore and frustrate you. It’s a shame that some aspiring journalists think j-school is the arbiter of their professional worth, and that the journalism degree is the only route to employment. It shouldn’t be.

Jane Switzer is a freelance journalist in Toronto. Follow @JaneSwitzer.

Is a journalism degree worth doing?

  1. Jane, well said and very thoughtful. This is something I think about all the time. That being said, I have a job where I can use what I learned from taking a Journalism degree on a daily basis. But, now that I am teaching reporting to college students I see where universities are faltering. If I were to do it all over I would still spend four years sweating through Carleton J-School, but I can only wish (looking back) that I had been given more of an opportunity to get my hands dirty. I found myself in the summer of 2009 working some shifts as a fill-in associate producer at CBC and realized, I knew nothing about the real world of journalism. I have a strong base in journalistic ethics, and am so glad I do when I am challenged by a situation where I can back-up my choices with real ethical arguments. And still, I see the need for J-Schools to partake in a sort of catch-up game. Future journalists need that base in an academic environment, but nowadays it must be mixed with at least a flavour of what is expected beyond graduation’s pearly gates.

  2. Let me get this straight.
    1. You entered an expensive two-year program without researching the job prospects.
    2. You decry the lack of work, but won’t move out of town to get a job (Jeffgaulin.com is full of them).
    3. You overlooked “hyper-practical” programs outside of Ontario. B.C. has a few one-year post-bach. certificate programs that would have suited you far better.
    Journalism is a trade. You don’t need a bachelor’s to practice. And certainly not a master’s.

  3. While I agree to an extent, I think it’s fair to point out the masters programs aren’t always a means to a job. And you only need to look at law or teaching degrees to see that churning out more students than jobs isn’t necessarily a j-school problem, but perhaps a higher education problem.
    Further, news organizations aren’t exactly providing innovative new solutions for j-schools to feed into. While the Monk School program is great because it’s trying something new, it’s hard to ask j-schools to innovate quickly when the industry itself isn’t exactly moving at light speed.
    I definitely think there’s more room for j-schools to find innovative solutions. It’d be great if there were classes examining new business models for delivering the news, providing deeper analysis or even tapping new audiences. Universities really are in a prime position to help create entrepreneurs in the news industry.
    To support Melanie’s defence of j-schools, I learned valuable lessons around analyzing the news, researching ideas, structuring stories, not to mention fundamentals that I wouldn’t have had when landing my first internship (yes, even learning what is a lede). One thing that is rarely mentioned is the lack of mentorship in news organization – a gap that j-school can sometimes (not always) fill. With everyone juggling competing deadlines, would someone have taken the time to show me what a lede was had I not studied it?
    I also made friends who will (hopefully) provide a valuable network of contacts as I move through my career. There’s also change on the horizon. Many of my classmates have now landed full time jobs, or at least are on permanent contracts. Yes, many moved into new fields like marketing or PR, but the majority of people who wanted to be journalists are now working in the field in a semi-stable arrangement.
    I agree with Avery that it would have been great to get my hands dirtier (Carleton only makes internships mandatory for master’s students, which both eliminates available options and means many students don’t take advantage of programs until it’s too late), and I agree with you Jane that journalism degrees shouldn’t be the cost of entry into the industry, but at the same time, I think journalism schools have a lot to offer – even for the firebrands with experience and a knack for figuring things out by themselves. It’s just a matter of what you take from it.

  4. - there’s kind of a vast difference between the theory of ‘journalism as the very center of a democracy’ and what we are seeing with the current corporate state propaganda-indoctrination media – some of these students with a few too many stars in their eyes might benefit a bit from reading some criticism of what they are doing, rather than blind praise – you could start with Noam Chomsky and ‘Manufacturing Consent’, or for a more recent critique of the supposedly beyond criticism CBC – Journalistic safeguards at CBC – Really?? http://www.rudemacedon.ca/vgi/letters/121121-mcguire-cbc.html

  5. Good article, though it is unfortunate it is restricted to the journalism field. The messages are applicable to any career path; one must examine the job market and evaluate the potential for employment before committing to a particular field. Too often do I hear new grads complain about the lack of opportunities available to them, only to learn they studied in a field which is not in demand or which churns out hundreds/thousands of grads for few jobs. It is not incumbent on universities to adjust their enrollment based on the job market – they’re going to take as many tuition payments as they can. Rather, it is up to students to make an informed decision as to what they do with their tuition dollars.

    Unfortunately, just because one becomes qualified in their dream line of work doesn’t mean they’ll become (gainfully) employed within it.

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