The proliferation of journalism programmes around the world came under scathing attack at the Worldviews conference for unscrupulously recruiting too many students for the limited jobs available, and for being ossified in their curricula.
The attack was made by Adrian Monck, former dean of City University of London’s journalism school and now managing director and head of communications and media for the World Economic Forum.
In the conference session “Something born or something bred? The necessity of the academy to train journalists”, Monck described journalism as “a lousy business” but journalism education as “a great business”.
“It is entirely unscrupulous of the academy to look at journalism education as a cash cow through which it can extort money from hopeful young people with the promise of delivery of some form of employment at the end of it,” he said.
The majority of students were set up to fail in programmes that defined success by being gateways to the top end of the “tiny profession”.
Monck estimated there were around 300 entry-level jobs in the mainstream media, but that close to 50,000 students were enrolled in journalism programmes in the UK.
He blamed the school system in his country, the UK, for driving too many young people to the courses: “It is turning out too many arts students trying to do something vaguely respectable.”
Courses were dominated by “smart young women who 25 years ago might have done history of art” whose families could afford the high costs. “Is that what we want the future of journalism to be?” he asked, adding that those with strong mathematical skills to read and report on data had better prospects in the profession.
He also criticised the university tenure system, saying the academy was “ossified”, unable to “rip up the curriculum and start again”.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the University of Toronto’s journalism programme and executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, agreed: “The professoriate is old compared with the state of the media culture now. People came into the journalism academia just before the digital disruption in the newsroom. As a result they are still teaching a curriculum valued in the 1990s but not now.
“The challenge for us as journalism educators is we don’t know what we should be teaching because the media organisations where our students may hopefully get jobs don’t know what they want either, and don’t know what they need.
“And there is the anxiety over the internet, as the saviour and villain of journalism.”
Dvorkin said that when asked by his students, he could not promise they would immediately find jobs in the mainstream media. “But there are ways in which the journalistic skills can be taught and applied in other places,” he said, citing in-house corporate news platforms as an example of a stepping stone to mainstream media.
He criticised the attitudes of students he taught, who were mostly from recent immigrant families to Canada and should “sue their high schools for intellectually abandoning them”. They were media savvy but not connected to the news, he said. They did not know how to read newspapers and were too distracted by social media.
“Why they are in journalism is still a mystery to me,” he said. “We have a generation of students who have been formed and reformed by the internet.”
Janice Neil, an associate professor of journalism at Canada’s Ryerson University, dismissed the criticisms of the sector, saying that at her university the curriculum was reviewed regularly. “We are introducing a course this year on data journalism. We may be tenured, but that does not mean we are static.”
Journalism schools were a “growth industry” in Canada. There were now around 50 schools and programmes in the country. “That is a huge number, for a population of 33 million,” she said. In Ontario, close to 1,600 students were studying such courses.
But Neil defended the growth, saying all new programmes had to meet government criteria, including for financial viability, student demand and social need. “Graduates who want to pursue careers in the media, using the skills they have developed, are finding work.”
In tracking graduates, she found that 30%-35% were still engaged in journalism after 20 years. For others, journalism was still a good degree for alternative career pathways, such as entering law school.
Robert Steiner, director of the fellowship in global journalism programme launched by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said there was growth in niche areas of journalism. His programme is the only one in Canada that specialises in recruiting scholars and professionals from other sectors – such as lawyers, doctors and scientists – who wanted to cover their specialities as journalists.
After a short “boot camp” in journalism skills, they were matched with media partners and provided mentorship in their assignments. Last year, the nine fellows on the programme had 180 exclusive by-lined articles published in the media.
Loren Aytona, a freelance journalist, said: “There has to be some responsibility taken by journalism schools, especially the new schools, that saw journalism as money, money, money. They offered education void of the academic-side learning.”
She said they created people who could write obituaries but did not know how to analyse: “It is unethical and partly driving the fact that there are so many underpaid journalists.”
Kaley Kennedy, who had dropped out of a journalism programme and now works in communications, said: “What is missing from this discussion is the question of values.
“Journalism schools have not done enough to advocate for the service journalism offers civil society. Journalism is something we should value and see in high regard.”
Casualisation of the workforce had reduced the quality of the profession and prospects for students, she said.
In chairing the session, Imona Chiose, education editor at Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper, cited evidence of the over-supply of students for the sector. Her newspaper had recently received around 500 applications for 15 internship posts.
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