With the launch Trent University and Loyalist College’s new joint degree journalism program comes the inevitable question: In the current economic environment and difficult job market, does Canada need another j-school? In talking to people behind the new program as well as experts and those who have recently launched programs of their own, Angelina Irinici takes a look at the timing and the value of the Trent-Loyalist program.

By Angelina Irinici

A new joint journalism program between Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., is launching this fall, after The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) approved the program last month. Loyalist College is already home to a journalism program, but this partnership will give graduates a Bachelor’s degree from Trent, in addition to the advanced diploma from Loyalist.

There’s room for 60 students and, so far this year, 30 have enrolled —the target number for the first year, says Karen Maki, the director of post-secondary partnerships at Trent University. The program is still accepting applications for this fall.

Enrolled students can either pursue a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) or a Bachelor of Science (Honours) joint-major degree in Journalism, plus a discipline they choose from Trent University. They will also receive an Ontario College Advanced Diploma in Journalism, Online, Print and Broadcast from Loyalist College.

Robert Washburn, professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College and a coordinator for the joint program, hopes the diversity of the program will attract a broad range of prospective students with a variety of intellectual interests.

“I see the two of them [credentials] being a very dynamic path into the industry and I think that will be attractive to potential employers,” he says. “There is the potential of someone studying chemistry who will become a journalist and that person will be a great science journalist.”

Program Overview

The program is either four or five years, depending on which way students choose to go — a bachelor of arts can be completed in four years while a bachelor of science could take five. Maki says that the program is demanding and if students finish in four years it is “four compressed and very full years” including summer work.

The students will study at both Trent and Loyalist (they are about 100 km apart) and will likely live in Peterborough for the first two years and Belleville for the remainder of their studies. The first two years are spent at Trent, followed by two months of intensive journalism work in May and June at Loyalist. In year three it flips and the final year is an integrated capstone year during which students will complete a project that meets Trent’s requirements for a major project or thesis and Loyalist’s requirements for a piece of enterprise journalism.

The students will work in an integrated newsroom called QNet News and will supply content for QNet’s TV and radio stations, website and paper.

In their fourth year they choose to specialize in one of these and participate in an eight-week summer internship at the end of the program. Past internships have included placement at TSN Radio, CBC and Hockey News, among others.

Creating the program and seeking approval

Washburn says that the idea of the joint program isn’t new. In fact, he and a colleague at Loyalist first approached Trent with the idea about 12 years ago.

“This was before anybody was doing joint programs between colleges and universities, now it’s quite common,” he says.

(Other joint journalism programs in Ontario include: York University and Seneca College, University of Toronto Scarborough and Centennial College, University of Ottawa and Algonquin College, Guelph University and Humber College).

Maki says a good model for the program was established about two years ago, then developed in more detail before applications could be made for approval from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

Gyula Kovacs, spokesperson for the Ministry told J-Source via e-mail that there are specific criteria the program must meet that include things such as: financial viability, student demand and societal need.

Does the country need another j-school?

There’s been much conversation in the journalism industry that enrollment is down in journalism schools and that perhaps schools are producing too many grads for the job market.

Paul Benedetti, instructor and program coordinator for the Master of Arts in Journalism program at Western University, says that enrollment at most j-schools has been “a little soft” over the past few years.

“I would say that the 2008 economic meltdown was sort of the lowest point, certainly for our enrollment. We’ve seen improvement after that as the economy has improved a bit,” says Benedetti. “I would say that we still have seen a slight softening of the numbers.”

Benedetti points to two main factors that contribute to small decline: the general downturn of the economy and the upheaval in the industry that has sparked concern for prospective students and their parents.

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At Ryerson University’s school of journalism the numbers dropped in 2006 from 154 first-year students enrolled, the highest in the last 12 years, to 139. The number of first-year students to enroll has stayed lower than 154 since then, climbing a bit in 2011 to 148.

But, according to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, enrollment has been increasing — but only by a hair.

“There has been a gradual but small increase in the number of eligible undergraduate and master’s student enrolled in journalism programs at Ontario universities and related institutions [applied degrees like Trent-Loyalist]” says Kovacs.

From 2007 to 2011, the number of students enrolled has grown only slightly – from 1,543 students to 1,580 – though that number fluctuated in the years between.

Kelly Toughill, director and associate professor of the school of journalism at the University of King’s College, says the school’s enrollment hasn’t declined, but applications are down a bit, as they are in other programs. She rejects the idea that journalism schools are graduating too many students, given the soft job market.

“I’m discouraged by this notion that the only purpose of a journalism education is to train journalists for the market,” she says. “Well, what’s the market? Education in any discipline is much broader than that. An undergrad in journalism is a really great way to enter the profession, but also to do other things as well.”

Tough competition

Journalism graduates looking to work in newsrooms face some tough competition. With the job cuts in today’s industry many new j-school grads are competing with laid-off journalists with years of experience.

Peter James was one of the numerous Postmedia journalists laid-off in mid-May. After searching for about six weeks, he found work at the Prince George Citizen in B.C.

“There were feelings of stress. You don’t have a pay cheque coming in anymore and there’s bills to pay,” says James. “But, I was still optimistic that something would come up.”

He says amidst the “shock and sadness” he and his colleagues experienced when Postmedia announced the cuts, they still had to search for work. Some, like James found jobs in the journalism industry. Others, James says, turned to communications jobs and some are still looking for work.

“There are a lot of people graduating from journalism and not a lot of jobs out there. It gets very competitive,” says James. “But, journalism schools are preparing students for jobs outside of journalism.”

He agrees with Toughill that a journalism degree is valuable in all sorts of professions, and points to law as a profession where a journalism degree is very useful.

While finding work after graduation isn’t easy, Benedetti and Toughill say there are still jobs out there and students being hired. New graduates, Toughill says, are attractive to some employers.

“Those who’ve had a long career in journalism are used to large pay cheques and specializing in one platform as opposed to somebody who can come out, do a bit of everything for half the price.”

Trent-Loyalist: moving forward, regardless of the industry

Both Maki and Washburn say all of this was taken into consideration and they had to demonstrate to the Ministry that there is a market need for journalists.

“We did an analysis of existing programs and their application and enrollment numbers. We looked at trends and in our own experience with recruiters talking to high schools, lots of students asked about journalism,” says Maki. “We felt there was very solid evidence to support us to move forward.

While Washburn acknowledges the state of the journalism industry today, by comparing it to an “ancient forest that just had a forest fire,” he still has hope and says new ideas, tools and new ways of doing journalism are on the rise.

“You know what, though? When you think about forest fires and you look down at the ground what happens?” he asks. “New life. The forest is re-born.”