BY JIMMY THOMSON

As of last week, I am technically a Master of Journalism. But really, I’m a master of the journalism that was practiced ten or fifteen years ago. Specifically, the way that you make money doing journalism today is not the same as it was even five years ago: it’s a whole new business.

I’ve brought up this point in previous posts, but here it is again: at this point, about a fifth of our class has secured some kind of steady work in journalism, and those are all temporary jobs. A friend who graduated from Ryerson University’s Master of Journalism program last year tells me not one of her twenty-something classmates has found full-time work yet. CBC is rumoured to be once again slashing a huge number of jobs and few other newsrooms are hiring.

It’s not UBC’s fault for failing to launch us into a career in journalism. My colleagues and I have been carefully prepared by some of the best professionals out there to be competent, ethical, and creative journalists. And here we are, trying something different on our own—something we likely couldn’t have done without the preparation we got at journalism school. Furthermore, schools can’t help but be a little bit behind: the industry is usually “revolutionized” each day somewhere between lunch and my afternoon nap.

But it’s likely that freelancing, low-budget reporting, and reporting using multiple platforms will be a major part of the future. No longer can we expect long-term contracts and big budgets and teams to work on stories. So what can Canadian journalism schools do better to prepare their students for what careers today actually look like? Here’s our curriculum:

Writing in the real world 200A

It is currently possible to graduate from any of Canada’s Master of Journalism programs without once publishing a story in a newspaper or magazine outside of the university. This is crazy. At the WORSTSchool of Journalism, a minimum number of published words or minutes of video or radio content would be required to graduate.

Using real tools of modern journalism 204

Professional videos can be shot on DSLR cameras and edited on iMovie. No, it’s not ideal; ideally we would all have $10,000 dedicated video setups and Final Cut Pro, along with an extra hundred hours of instruction on how to use that equipment properly. But we all have access to DSLR cameras and iMovie, so let’s learn to use the tools we have.

Writing in the real world 200B

I was lucky to have the support of a few faculty members who would sit down with me and talk about stories I wanted to pitch outside of the school. They would help me hone my pitches and even the final content if necessary. This should be built into any journalism program: dedicated time for faculty to spend with students while they sell stories to outlets of their choice. Professors shouldn’t be spending their own spare time, like mine did, to work with me on what I consider to be a core part of why someone would go to journalism school.

The nuts and bolts 101

What’s the difference between a percentage, a percentile, and a percentage point? Are those “groundbreaking” findings statistically significant? How do you write a Freedom of Information request? A better question might be: how do you graduate with a master’s in journalism without ever having written an FOI? That’s an invaluable skill for any journalist who wants to dig into a story (or, put more strongly, any journalist who wants to do journalism).

FOIs aren’t the only tool journalists should be familiar with, and some should be covered more thoroughly than others: reading scientific papers and economic and technical reports and knowing how to interpret them is essential to anyone trying to write about science, the environment, policy, business, and so much more, yet these skills aren’t required to graduate from today’s journalistic institutions.

Finding stories 102A

The major pressure on every young journalist, whether you are in a newsroom or freelancing, is finding unique story ideas. Stories are your livelihood. If you can’t find a story, you are a poor journalist in more ways than one. Thankfully, our real curriculum did include a lot of instruction and practice finding stories. But anticipating stories, especially ones in areas outside of your home base, is an invaluable skill, as is knowing the shelf life of an ongoing story. Far too many times have I seen a story and thought, “Well, that’s been done to death,” only to see it appear in a deeper format a few days later. Enough emphasis on daily news; journalism is so much more than being the first on the scene, as new platforms like VOX.com and fivethirtyeight demonstrate every day.

Writing in the real world 200C

How much does a freelancer earn for a story? How do you pitch to a magazineHow do you develop a relationship with an editor? How do you write an invoice? What do you pay taxes on? Where do you find a fixer for international reporting? Do you buy his meals?

There are so many tiny details of freelance writing that are overlooked by current curricula, because those curricula are written by a) people who are focusing on making us the most competent and ethical journalists we can be, instead of the best prepared, and b) people who made their careers when newsrooms hired people.

This is a demanding list, and I’m no pedagogical expert. Maybe to fit all these skills in would take an extra semester or an extra year, or maybe it’s all been done in the past, or it’s being done right now at other schools. Or maybe they’re all just stupid ideas and I’m full of shit (if so, let me know in the comments).

Finally, one last time, I can’t say enough good things about the education I got at UBC. But that doesn’t mean it was perfect. To truly prepare students for a career in journalism today means first acknowledging that those careers are not linear and not solid. They’re fluid. So although fundamental skills will always be, well, fundamental, applied practice of being a journalist today should be part of every school’s curriculum. 

Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute