BY JUSTIN MCELROY

A few years ago, a regulation was passed at a Media Party convention requiring every ink-stained wretch to produce a public treatise on What Journalists Should Learn. Or maybe it just seems that way.

Proposing new courses in journalism schools—be it on coding, tech reporting, digital journalism, or even how to operate drones—is the new market for thought pieces, now that “What Will Happen If Newspapers Die?” and “How ‘Bout This Social Media Stuff, Hey?” have lost their SEO charm.

As insufferable fun as journalists talking about journalism primarily for other journalists can be (and I certainly haven’t been guilty of that in the past!), I didn’t feel the need to contribute my very important thoughts on the subject. But Jimmy Thomson’s piece on what courses schools need to start teaching caused me to snark on Twitter, which caused an editor to reach out to me, and here we are.

Lengthy preamble aside, Jimmy’s piece, and those of its ilk, always seem pretty flawed to me. His ideas for courses are fairly good as far as these things go; young journalists should have more applied practice before they graduate, know how to pitch better, and so on.

But if your question is “Why aren’t journalism graduates getting jobs?”, I posit the main answer isn’t “Because schools aren’t teaching the proper skills.” There are a lot of reasons for this, but two obvious ones are:

1. Every year in Canada, there are more new journalism graduates produced than new journalism jobs created.

2. The jobs that are available in journalism aren’t necessarily the ones that graduates want to take.

Discussing these subjects is a lot more depressing than creating imaginary new courses, but it’s slightly more germane to the underemployment problem.

I think the first reason is fairly self-evident. Schools like having journalism programs because they add prestige, students like enrolling in journalism programs because it seems like a great career in spite of everything (and it often is!), but over the past decade plus, the number of programs have increased while the number of jobs in the industry has dropped.

The second point will be contentious with some, because in essence it tells underemployed young people “you’re doing it wrong,” which I understand “This Generation” isn’t too fond of.

But look—there are still plenty of full-time journalism jobs available. The trouble is that very few are with big daily newspapers or the CBC. Even worse is the quantity of positions available in the esteemed foreign correspondent, travel writing, investigative reporter, and salaried magazine feature writer positions. Unfortunately, that’s where the professors come from and that’s where many students dream of being.

You know where there are jobs? Community newspapers in rural communities, trade publications, and TV stations, for overnight and early morning desk jobs especially.

You know how I know this? Because plenty of my under-thirty colleagues, most of which didn’t go to journalism school, have gotten these jobs in the last year (and you should know this too, if you look at Jeff Gaulin’s Journalism Board). Canadian media blogger Steve Faguy made much the same point a couple months ago, and you should also read his post.

If you are the very best of the best, you will still likely get a job at the prestigious publication of your choice very quickly. For everyone else, real sacrifices are needed. Journalism is a trade: you learn by doing every day and working with mentors in the field. You practice your craft daily, even when you don’t want to, and you find places that will support it; that process gradually improves your work. You first do it for peanuts, then you do it in undesirable jobs, and, bit by bit, you get hired for better jobs.

A journalism degree is similar to many in the humanities: you will do and learn plenty of cool things, but there are few ready-made jobs at the end, and your program won’t help all that much other than perhaps passively facilitating some internships. Universities can and should do a better job about that—not just for journalism, but for all departments that produce a glut of underemployed folks.

The silly debate of “Are millennials entitled crybabies, or ambitious people justifiably pissed off at the lack of opportunity?” is flawed for so many reasons. Chief among them is that universities do a great job of giving students a platform to explore and find a passion. After that, universities do a great job giving students the time and resources to chase it. But universities often shirk the work needed to match those passions to tangible career paths.

Incidentally, UBC’s incoming president, Arvind Gupta, has spent the last decade leading Mitacs, which links talented academics to companies in ways a heck of a lot more advanced than the dead-end practicums and internships many students are familiar with. In an interview I did with him recently, Gupta spent a lot of time talking about how UBC could become more “outward-looking” in working with different stakeholders, and many smart people are curious about what shape that will take.

We’re drifting here, though. My overarching point is that there’s both a supply–demand problem and an efficiency problem when it comes to journalism schools. By all means, take courses that promise applied skills. More importantly, don’t assume that your degree will lead to anything. Take the platform and time your program presents to write daily, network, gain mentors, find a niche, and strategize your next step.

In the end, that’s really what you’ve paid for. 

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