Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Joe Banks
My students may be shocked to know we’ve posed the question in the headline, since in the asking, there is a suggestion that it doesn’t. So I will confidently and quickly answer in the affirmative before explaining: of course it matters, and it will continue to matter.
And it’s a question that’s been asked before, especially by those who learned to become a reporter from the back end of a newsroom delivery cart, dropping letters and parcels on the desks of hardened reporters. In those days, journalism education was an apprenticeship, best learned in the newsroom from those who plied it, and far away from the halls of academia.
But the question lingers because of the array of digital tools at the disposal of the general public. Acts of journalism can be and are committed by anyone with an eye, an ear and a smartphone. Blogs are a conduit for anyone with the time and energy to write one. On top of that, there are countless numbers of online tutorials for anyone wanting to train themselves as a contemporary journalist, and many of them are free.
Yet for all of this, the strongest case for a journalism education can be made by tossing out this single word: trust. Media companies in the vast majority of cases are still asking for journalism graduates from college or university programs. Sun Media was the lone exception a few years back when it said it would view any applicant with a journalism credential with “suspicion.” Thankfully, the latest ads I’ve seen from them are once again calling for the credential.
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It and its competitors want an increasing array of skills relevant in the digital age, all the while retaining the ones that have kept their media outlets grounded and relevant to the community.
We know that because of the regular contact we have with the industry, and hearing from those who view their startups as green shoots from the deep roots of a changed but still strong news media landscape.
They call for journalism grads because the alternative—hiring a self-taught applicant—is a risk they aren’t willing to take. Never mind all of the legal knowledge, the strong command of language and the digital dexterity our grads must have to possess a credential. Employers want to know what we know about our students, because it isn’t just about raw skills. It’s about the whole package and how that fits into a culturally different operation.
So finding that special someone with the “just right” mix of talent, personality and flexibility is tougher than it was. Digital skills are just one dimension of what a good Canadian journalist has to know these days. Journalism educators are the best judge of that because of what we’ve seen coming, what is here now and what will always be important (good writing is one example).
We regularly have an editor or publisher ask us to recommend a graduate to them, to spare them the time of having to sift through resumes of otherwise unknown applicants. That’s one of the reasons so many job seekers get discouraged after days of emailing CVs or filling out online application forms; harried employers want to know who we recommend.
They look to us, journalism educators, to send them the best peg when the time comes that they have a square hole to fill. It is a time-honoured relationship of trust that they have for the schools, not because of any gold quill we impart, but because over the decades, they’ve benefitted from our referrals.
That said, I’ve always viewed a journalism education not as an end in itself, but a signal from a student of a beginning. That has never been as true as it is right now as the word “multimedia” defines itself over and over again. Storytelling in all of its forms is an attainable skill only if the personality fits the desire to make it happen.
So maybe what we're really talking about here is whether someone can learn to be a journalist without attending a journalism school. Maybe it really doesn't matter whether that’s true or not. What matters is the opinion of those folks who are paid to hire people who are hired to do journalism for them. And what they say—overwhelmingly and without qualification—is they want a journalism graduate.
Joe Banks is the coordinator of and professor in the Algonquin College Journalism program, in Ottawa, and has been a working journalist, editor and publisher for 36 years. He writes the Media Musings column for J-Source.
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