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New ideas for the news biz

Journalism is a business that thrives on the constant injection of 'new', but it's not exactly an opportunity-rich business for young people these days.

Journalism is one of those businesses that thrive on the constant injection of new blood, new ideas, new energy. But it’s not exactly an opportunity-rich business for young people these days, with unstable contract gigs and chronic downsizing as a way of life. In fact, the business of journalism schools is starting to seem almost perverse: to induct another crop of young hopefuls into the trade every year, have them rack up years worth of student debt and then let them face a brick wall of a job market upon graduation.

That hasn’t stopped post-secondary institutions all over North America from launching journalism programs, because, simply, people are enrolling in them. In the past year, Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie and Dalhousie University in Halifax have added new programs, and now the University of Toronto wants to add theirs to the mix. When I first heard about the U of T’s plan, I thought it was, frankly, a very bad idea.

But the program will not be a graduate program, as originally reported. According to Robert Steiner, director of the journalism lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, it’ll be more of a fellowship. The idea will be to scout nationally (and globally) for 30 or so professionals with experience in non-journalism fields finance, law, politics, arts, medicine, etc.who want to become full or part-time journalists specializing in those fields. The prospective students will be young but not dewy-eyed, say 25 to 35.

The way a reporter would historically gain knowledge is they would be on the beat, says Steiner. It took me a year to get my bearings as a business reporter for the Wall Street Journal, but nowadays, journalists are more than ever spread thin, and cant learn a beat. The idea makes sense from a business perspective too, he believes, having been really inspired to kick-start the idea after realizing that certain niche publications weathered the recent recession better than general interest ones, advertisers being more likely to stick with an obvious target market when faced with hard times.

Steiner is honestly attempting to engage with journalism’s future, rather than the past, and to deal with a world in which big-tent news outlets are losing audiences to niche-focused magazines and web publications.He’s not the first to propose an expert-driven model as journalism’s way forward either. The Mark, a Canadian news and issues website, is written largely by experts, academics and professionals rather than journalists. (A wonderful concept which can be both to its benefit and detriment, since it turns out that not everyone who holds a PhD is a great writer. Who knew?) But presumably the training would sort that out. A couple of much bigger criticisms remain, and the first is as old as journalism itself how can a person report on their own professional field, in which they have vested interests, biases, colleagues and friends?

Purists would say you cant, says Steiner. But of course anyone who works on a beat for a long time faces this problem as well. Basically, ethics will have to be a core part of this program for this reason Besides, its already happening. These roles and assumptions about who a journalist is are changing.

The second criticism is a more purely business one: that narrow niches will limit employability even further. Roger Gillespie, a senior editor at the Toronto Star, recently told J-Source that it would be hazardous to predict any one approach to news in the future, and warned that a plan like this could be limiting to students careers. Steiner says the opposite: If you’re a general assignment reporter in Calgary or Toronto or Halifax, you’re competing for jobs with reporters from all across the country. You’re trying to sell skills that everyone else has if you have a niche, and you know it better than anyone, that is a huge asset.

Like a lot of industries, journalism is now at a juncture at which everyone has a prediction about the future but really, only the vaguest contours of that future are knowable, despite all the punditry and opinion-mongering. I’m still skeptical that Canada even needs another journalism school, but if we must have one, lets at least try something different.