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.