Why aren’t journalism students interested in journalism?

Freelance writer Justin Ling, who tried journalism school but abandoned it, makes a point during a recent panel discussion hosted by the McGill Daily

Freelance writer Justin Ling, who tried journalism school but abandoned it, makes a point during a recent panel discussion hosted by the McGill Daily

A few weeks ago, I was invited by my alma mater The Link at Concordia to give a talk. The editor didn’t really care what it was about, she knew me and had invited other people from The Gazette to speak to her staff and contributors on various topics, so she figured I’d be good for just about any subject. I decided to focus on something I thought might be useful for student journalists: how to become an expert in something to increase your chances of getting hired or getting regular freelance work when you graduate.

I came in with the notes I’d scribbled onto a notepad during the metro ride over, and for about half an hour bumbled on about how good it is to become specialized, and how starting a blog and starting to write about something that isn’t getting mainstream media attention would be a great way to start that. It is, after all, how I became an expert on local media even though I started out having no contacts and no formal education in media analysis.

After lots of “umm, one more thing I wanted to mention” and other disjointed thoughts, I opened it up to questions. I got a couple of the pity questions the organizers plant so you don’t feel bad, and a couple of actual ones that I tried my best to answer. But of the 20 or so people present, I could tell by the way they were playing on their smartphones that there wasn’t much interest in what I was saying.

It’s okay. I won’t be auditioning for TED any time soon. I didn’t mind so much that I wasn’t the most riveting speaker they’d ever seen. But I was curious about these 20-somethings (or even 19- or 18-somethings). What were their plans after graduation? What kind of careers do they want to fashion for themselves? I tried to get an idea through a show of hands, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it was because they were shy or because they didn’t know, or because their vision of the journalism industry was fundamentally different from mine. Without grilling them individually I wasn’t going to get an idea what these journalists of tomorrow were thinking of their future, or if they were thinking of it at all.

What bothered me wasn’t so much that they weren’t interested in me (I’m not terribly interesting, or at least I wasn’t that day), but that they weren’t interested in talking about their future as journalists. If they didn’t want to specialize, find beats to cover and become experts in their fields, just what exactly did they plan to do? Be the 100th applicant for that general-assignment TV reporter job that’s going to go to an industry veteran anyway? Coast on internships until their 30s? Find that mythical left-wing publication that has perfect ethics and yet is stable enough financially to pay its writers? Freelance for pennies for the few publications out there that pay but don’t require much effort? Or just leverage that journalism degree into a cushy PR job? I couldn’t figure it out.

What’s worse is that the students I saw that day are the involved ones. These are the ones who will show up at the office of a student newspaper on a Friday afternoon. Many of them applied for editorial positions at the paper (the deadline for candidacies was the same day I was speaking). When you look at Concordia’s journalism school as a whole, and I suspect many others like it, the situation looks even worse.

I want to be a travel writer for the New York Times

On Thursday, I didn’t have much to do, so I sat in the audience of a panel discussion, hosted by the McGill Daily as part of their student journalism week, about whether or not people looking to go into journalism should bother with journalism school (McGill, I should note, doesn’t have one.). Take a moment and imagine this question being asked of any other field, of people contemplating becoming doctors or engineers or teachers or bankers without getting educated in those fields first.

Justin Ling, a freelancer who writes for a variety of publications, told an anecdote of being in a journalism class and the teacher asking what types of journalists the students wanted to become. For most answers, only a few hands were raised. But when the teacher mentioned travel writing, those hands that had stayed down suddenly shot up. Ling pointed out in recalling this story that travel writing is essentially dead, replaced by wire stories or by stories written by people sitting at desks looking at tourism websites. It’s gone, just like the foreign correspondent and other dream jobs young journalists aspire to.

When I talk to young student journalists these days, they still aspire to these kinds of jobs (foreign correspondent and magazine feature writer are common dreams), though the good ones are realistic, knowing that the chances of them scoring such prestigious jobs are one in a million.

I don’t want to trample on any dreams here. Most journalism students are well aware, or at least they say they’re well aware, of the difficulties the industry is going through. They know they’ll have to make compromises once they enter the workforce, sacrificing the salary they would like, the location they would like to work in, or the exact type of job they would like to do. And the truth is that there actually are journalism jobs out there, if you look hard enough, if you’re willing to make those compromises and think outside the box.

But you get the impression that few of these future journalists are spending any time thinking outside that box while they’re in school. Journalism schools have to practically force some of their students to get published at some point during their three-year degrees. Many graduate having barely or never been published even in their student newspapers, but apparently expect a job to be waiting for them when they get that certificate.

I didn’t get my first paid freelance gig until a year after I was hired at The Gazette, so I’m not going to sit here and lecture university students on not getting a front-page Globe and Mail story in their first year. But I was actively involved in my student newspaper for three years before entering journalism school, and my being hired as an intern at The Gazette had a lot more to do with that than it did my grades in that magazine writing class. My application for that internship included five clippings of articles I’d written (and laid out and even taken photos for). It did not include a university transcript.

Experience > grades

You can’t practice medicine or law or even operate heavy machinery before getting an education and a licence. But you can practice journalism. While that fact kind of puts the very existence of journalism schools into doubt, it’s also a big opportunity for students to get started in their field before they’ve finished their education. And that’s an opportunity that, if you’re not taking advantage of it, someone else will.

This is why, when I talk to journalism students, I implore them to start doing journalism, to start covering stories that aren’t being covered. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a blog or a university paper or the New York Times magazine (though the latter would certainly be preferred over the former). It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a big name publication behind you. If you’re covering something that isn’t being covered, you’re not competing with the big guys for access.

Practicing the art not only allows you to get better at it, it shows to potential employers that you know how to do it. Writing for a university newspaper doesn’t bring in money, but it shows to that person hiring for that internship that you can meet deadlines, write to assigned word lengths and turn in readable copy in real-world situations. That’s always going to be an advantage.

Being an expert is an even bigger plus. Covering an industry or a topic regularly makes you familiar with it eventually, and turns you into an expert that can be relied upon by others. Knowing your stuff is a big part of being a successful journalist, and having a beat already established is a big plus in finding work.

The faster these young journalists realize this, the better off they’ll be in this industry that is already extremely difficult to succeed in.

I’m participating in a panel discussion hosted by the Professional Writers’ Association of Canada called Working in the Blogosphere: How to create and maintain a successful blog (spoiler alert: I have no secrets about how to make money directly from a blog). It’s Monday at 7pm at the Atwater Library, and it’s free. Hopefully I can impart some of this wisdom on the attendees, though many will be well past journalism-school age.

23 thoughts on “Why aren’t journalism students interested in journalism?

  1. Kevin

    First thing I’d do if anyone ever invited me to talk to a bunch of journalism students would be to tell them how many people I graduated with are actually working journalists.
    There’s me, and 1 other person working full-time in Montreal. Possibly 3 more scattered across North America. Out of 60 graduates.

  2. Anonymous

    Steve, great post as usual, and one that I particularly enjoyed as someone who began getting published (and paid for my work) after my first year of J-school. Mind you, that was back in the early-90s, when paid freelance opportunities were more plentiful. I do however object to one phrase in your post, where you refer to students who may want to leverage that journalism degree into a “cushy PR job”. As someone who has worked on the PR/organizational communications side of the business for more than 15 years now, though mostly for non-profits in community service and now higher ed., let me assure you that there is nothing necessarily “cushy” about the work. The hours are long, the work can be as cutthroat as journalism, and the politics of representing competing interests can be wearing — anything but cushy. That said, it also provides wonderful opportunities to translate one’s journalism training into a very rewarding and satisfying career. I only wish my J-school profs, and some of my classmates, had spent less time thumbing their noses at this side of the biz, and I would strongly encourage any J-school graduates to consider the PR/organizational/corporate communications world, either as an entry into the job market or as a lifelong career.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I do however object to one phrase in your post, where you refer to students who may want to leverage that journalism degree into a “cushy PR job”

      To be clear, I’m not suggesting all PR jobs are cushy, merely that this is what some students might be looking for. (I don’t actually think most are doing this, though.)

  3. Stephane Giroux

    I see things haven’t changed much since I graduated 20 odd years ago. It just diminishes the competition when we’re fighting for that one-in-a-hundred dream job. Good analysis, Steve.

  4. Marie-Ève Martel

    I couldn’t agree more. I remember being back at journalism school and spending more time on my articles for the school’s papers than on my regular homework.
    Though, as far I as remember, we were being taught how to write, how to build the paper, but we were less prepared to the life as future workers. Freelance was almost never talked about, and if so, we were being told it was hard. Though, with fewer job opportunities, journalists might all have to work freelance to live their passion.
    I felt there was also a lack of preparation regarding the changing demands of the employers, such as multiplatform and multimedia tasking, as it is a reality we face everyday.
    I also feel many students are aiming for quick work and less efforts, picking up the phone and forgetting about going on the field. But sometimes, getting the nose out of the office leads to some unexpected and good, really good, stories!

  5. Alex H

    Nice article, but perhaps a little too close to the subject to spot the reality.

    Reality: There are fewer and fewer journalist type jobs in Canada (and many places in the world). As online news becomes more and more of the dominant player in the field, it takes away from the number of people needed to report. Now most news sites are echo chambers of the few actual news producing organizations. That has also bled solidly into other forms of media such as print. The Gazette has shrunk over the years as local content has been removed, and the remaining pages more likely to contain stories produced by others and basically cropping to fit the pages.

    It’s even worse in the TV world, where stories are often produced in one place, and used on every newscast of the same network all across the country. In Canada, it’s one of the reasons Bell works so hard to make all of it’s local news programs into generic packages, so they can lift stories from one city, run them in another, and make it appear to be part of the same package. Heck, most of the local news programs in Montreal cannot run without servers and switching done in another city. That’s less people involved to make the same amount of stuff happen.

    What it also means is that the local paper is less likely to send a reporter to a more distant story, and instead will rely on they local affiliate to produce a generic story for them. When journalism is about filling column inches and minutes instead of really reporting the stories and getting the local angle, you know you are lost.

    Further, with the downturn in advertising and the downturn in readership, magazines are quickly disappearing. There are literally hundreds of titles that have dropped off the shelves due to a lack of readership. Moreover, the magazine store / newsstand is almost a lost concept these days in Canada, as fewer and fewer people look at printed matter, and instead read the stories online – you know, the ones that have been written once and echoed all over the place.

    The only growing demand for “journalists” these days seems to be in the people who write what I call “press release articles”, you know, those things that get sent out as press releases but are really a well written one sided version of a story. Those things often end up being published verbatim as “news”, which further lowers the credibility of everyone involved.

    As Stephan Giroux said, it’s about that 1 in 100 dream job. That may not be entirely true, because the way it’s going it is much more like 1 in 1000 or worse. The collapse of the printed newspaper business is almost upon us, the companies running the papers are generally all losing money, all trying to cut costs, and all dealing with continued declines in ad dollars. Regional / local TV is nearly extinct in Canada (outside of Toronto and Vancouver it seems), we are only one or two steps away from Bell, Global, and such pretty much accepting that their stuff is all national, with at best “local inserts”. Give it another generation, and the concepts of “local tv” will be as common as rotary phones and street corner phone booths.

    So my suggestion for Journalism students: Unless you are absolutely best in your class, totally motivated, and producing NOW at this level, you probably just want to quit and spend your education time on something that might lead to a job. Things like being a history major or perhaps an degree in Latin would be more useful.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Reality: There are fewer and fewer journalist type jobs in Canada (and many places in the world).

      I don’t know if this is true, or if there has been some scientific study of this. I would agree that there are fewer journalism jobs at major newspapers, but there are also more alternative media out there than there used to be, especially online. I find the problem is that people think of the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Gazette and the CBC and don’t spend much time thinking about other sources of journalism work out there that aren’t so universal or well-known.

      1. Alex H

        Sadly, “alternate media” usually means “poor paying media” or “not paying at all media”, projects run by like minded people as a sideline to their real jobs. You know the old joke right? Nobody online knows your a dog! Well, online, nobody knows that the fancy ass looking website is actually run by one guy out of a basement, with content feeds from everyone else jammed in there. What passes for journalism online is often pretty weak, and sadly appears to be mostly vanity projects and such. How much does Huffington pay their bloggers again?

        We all know how the open media world has done in Canada.

        As for a scientific research, I am sure there has been studies done. I am basing my opinion (key word here) on what I can see online and in the print world – news rooms shrinking, more and more newspapers using the same stories nationwide, more and more websites packed full of content “borrowed” from other sites, and so on. There is plenty of blogger media, but it’s a pretty rare thing to find someone who is an online blogger as a profession, rather than as a sideline to something else they do.

        Magazines are disappearing, probably 1000 titles have folded in a decade. Even the big names are disappearing at a scary rate. The ones that are left are skinny, skinny things, and seem to point more and more to “more of this story online”, where it’s cheaper for them to publish. Most of them see a move online as an attempt to make enough money to keep publishing, not realizing that they are playing an end game with little upside.

        Let’s not forget the move toward citizen journalists and crowd sourced news reporting. CNN’s Ireport being sort of the obvious example, but even Quebecor is using it, these are unpaid people providing them filler content, the bulk that use to be created by journalists working for the organizations. Why pay people to work when other people will give you the content for free?

        I try hard, but can you tell me where to find an actual PAYING upside anywhere? You know, actual jobs in media, ones that pay rather than expect you to work for free or the vanity of having your name on the bottom of the page. It’s bad enough that newspaper and such profit grandly from underpaid (or unpaid) interns, it’s getting worse that they don’t feel like they should pay for content either.

      2. Horton

        Certainly there are fewer journalism jobs at major newspapers. There are also fewer major newspapers. Montreal in the 1950s had three daily English newspapers, then two until 1979 and finally today we have a very thin Gazette. There are also fewer radio journalists as many radio stations have cut back on their newsroom staffing in the past few decades. Yes, there are other media outlets today like websites but how many pay or pay at a reasonable rate? Very few.

      3. GHG

        Re: number of journalists…

        According to the 2006 Census, there were 13,320 total, of which 7,310 male, 6,010 female.

        The 2011 Census results are slowly being analyzed and they haven’t released the occupational breakdown yet.

        The full occupational tables are here:

        complete URL:

    2. Kevin

      “It’s even worse in the TV world, where stories are often produced in one place, and used on every newscast of the same network all across the country. In Canada, it’s one of the reasons Bell works so hard to make all of it’s local news programs into generic packages, so they can lift stories from one city, run them in another, and make it appear to be part of the same package. Heck, most of the local news programs in Montreal cannot run without servers and switching done in another city. That’s less people involved to make the same amount of stuff happen.”

      How on Earth do you consider one TV network whose news programming is watched by 1-2 % of the anglophone market as “most”?

      And the practice of airing TV reports done in other cities has happened, oh, since the beginning of TV. CBC and CTV perfected it decades ago, long before Bell got back into the TV business. In fact you could argue that the creation of the CTV network was done expressly so local newscasts could air reports created by people in other cities — and 90% of the time those items are reworked for a national audience.

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  7. Steve Kowch

    I taught the future generation of broadcast journalists and talk show hosts at two Toronto area colleges (Humber and Seneca) for more than five years. There are a lot of former students working in media. There are a lot more, unfortunately who don’t have a job.

    Yes it is tough out there. But one thing I can say is those who took charge of their career and spent time working at it, are the ones who succeeded. Those who waited for opportunities are still waiting.

    I told my students they needed to be part of the 25% Club. Members aren’t negative. They do what they can to stand above the crowd by working hard, having a positive attitude and always going the extra mile to beat the competition. When you understand that 75% of the people in media border on being lazy, negative, and don’t make the extra effort, it is easy to to rise above the crowd to beat those people.

    Twenty-Five Per Cent Club Members are the ones getting the jobs today. They’re the ones working their assess off for free at the college/university radio station or newspaper.

    Twenty-Five Per Cent Club Members understand being an intern and working for free is not exploitation but an opportunity to learn and show off their talent to a potential employer when an opening suddenly occurs in the station.

    Twenty-Five Per Cent Club Members understand they have to chase their dream and let no one tell them they can’t do that.

    Twenty-Five Per Cent Club Members include people like Toronto morning show host John Moore who was one of my interns at CKGM/CHOM-FM News; CJAD Program Director Chris Bury who was one of my interns at CJAD and former CJAD Program Director/News Director Mike Bendixen who was one of my interns at CFRB Radio in Toronto.

    All three would later get full time jobs and work for me. Two of the three (Chris and Mike) would later replace me as program director either at CFRB or CJAD. The old saying is true, some days you hire the person who will replace you. When that happens, it was obviously a good hire.

    As a shameless plug, (Steve feel free to delete this paragraph if you want) my book is all about being part of the 25% Club. It was written because of my experience teaching the future generation of broadcasters and broadcast journalists. But as some old timers tell me, it also helps people in the biz remember why they got into the media in the first place. Check it out at http://kowchmedia.com/book

    All this to say, there are still opportunities in the shrinking world of media. It is harder to get your start than when I worked as an office boy at the Montreal Star and told the paper’s Editor I wanted to be a reporter and handed him my stories for him to read.

    1. Alex H

      It’s all fine and dandy, sir, but it doesn’t play very well.

      What you are suggesting is that the 25% are the 25% who can afford to work for free for an extended period of time for the hope of having a paying job. That means that people who don’t have a well off family to pay for their living, or who don’t have enough money in the bank to not work for years at a time are pretty much shut out.

      That is a pretty sad way to narrow the voices in media down, don’t you think?

      1. Steve Kowch

        No, Alex. You miss the point.

        It’s not about 25% can afford to work for free. Many of them had other jobs in bars, worked as clerks including one who worked at Blockbuster Video across the street from the radio station. They just do what they have to do to get their foot in the door.

        The other 75% just don’t share their drive to chase their dream and make it happen. That is what I’m talking about. It’s not just the rich kids from affluent families. Believe me, some of my interns shared a place with four or five other people but they understood the opportunity they were given was more important than the money.

        And it pays off. I know this because my former students stay in touch and ask for advice and I always tell them … if they can’t pay you, don’t say no. Do it anyways and most write back later telling me I was right.

        1. Dave

          I’m not sure when you taught at Humber, but I’m one of the students who left there to ultimately find full-time work reporting at a daily, so I must have just missed you. I agree with you, though, the opportunities are out there.
          It almost seems that other industries present a far rosier prospect for graduates and leave being a journo as a regretfully ancient vocation instead of a sustainable occupation. The fact is, my instructors at Humber made a point of telling us all that we would not make a fortune doing the job; that if we stuck around we would do it for the love of it, because it is the best job in the world. They were entirely right on both accounts.
          We were also told in order to make it we might have to get out of Toronto, get settled into a small weekly in the middle of nowhere Canada and work our way to the city.
          I did that. It took a few years and it worked. And with a salary far less than one might get after five years in the industries of finance, medicine, law, education, and most other professional designations, I have no regrets about my choice to pursue the goal of being a professional journo.
          There is a reason the people in this industry are the most interesting people in the world. It’s because they have all gone through some kind of struggle like that. Had they all been handed a cushy beat at a big city daily right out of school, the newsroom would be a snore.
          And because of those incredible people, the future of journalism remains bright. It may not involve producing content for a broadsheet or the six o’clock news but as we evolve and find ways to report and make money from our stories, it will continue to exist in some form with some great people at the helm.

        2. Alex H

          “It’s not about 25% can afford to work for free. Many of them had other jobs in bars, worked as clerks including one who worked at Blockbuster Video across the street from the radio station. They just do what they have to do to get their foot in the door.”

          Do you not think that it’s a sad commentary on an industry that turns out so many hopefuls with stars in their eyes, willing to work for extended periods for absolutely nothing – and worse, that the industry as a whole not only expects it, but is in fact built on it? All that to get what for most will be either a part time job, a contract job, or a relatively low paying full time job for a weekly newspaper in the middle of nowhere or a radio station in the frozen north?

          I am sure there are plenty willing to do it, but I think it’s incredibly sad. Even worse, in the case of print media (and to a lesser extent radio and TV) the shrinking ad bases for most of their products means that many of these companies are not profitable, or are only profitable by doing certain tasteless business moved. Somewhere along the line the unpaid intern or the less than minimum wage intern has become a key to their bottom lines and the functioning of their properties, which seems a little bit sad to me.

          If people can afford to work for nothing for extended periods of time with the hope of getting a job, more power to them. The journalism schools aren’t helping, turning out way more bodies that the system can support, which in turn leads people to the somewhat desperate action of working for free and thinking it’s normal. It seems that the system is stacked against the students, and not for them.

          Just my humble opinion of course.

  8. mike

    The smartphone thing is an epidemic for young generation. They act like their life whole life is on that phone. Is kind of pathetic.

  9. Alicia Bee

    I graduated from my three-year journalism program in 2011 and haven’t applied for a single job since then. Why? Because I cannot find anything in my that is remotely appealing to me. And yeah, let’s all save the, “Well, you have to start from somewhere, ie – the bottom” convo for later.

    Before I entered that program, I loved to write because it was fun. I LOVED my program at Centennial and have learned so much from that program, but when I finished it was like, now what? I honestly think that program sucked the life out of me. It seemed like most of the teachers were all for hardcore journalism, ex: news and not anything else. The ironic thing of it all is how on the last day of school, when we were all asked how much of us would get into news, none of us answered or raised our hands.

    I’m 26 years old and I’m in this rut now. It’s just ridiculous. Can journalism be fun?

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  11. Shamylah Grant

    A well written piece in regards to a wuestion Ive been wraping my head around lately. I have been consciously debating whether or not enrolling into journalism at Concordia would give Me a better edge in becoming a journalist but coincidentally as You and many others have pointed out, its experience versus academic programming needless to say. I so greatly appreciate having the pleasure of reading this article. So inspiring and gets me thinking.

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