A program that teaches journalism and communications side by side may seem controversial. But Western University says it can see where the media industry is headed and is changing its curriculum to address the increasingly blurred line between journalism and public relations.

By Tamara Baluja, Associate Editor

Western University is replacing its master of arts in journalism with a new program that has a dual focus of journalism and communication skills.

Historically, most schools have separated journalism and communications degree programs, even if they’re offered by the same department. But traditional media jobs are disappearing, and trends such as native advertising and branded content are blurring the line between journalism and public relations. Mark Rayner, who worked on the curriculum redevelopment at Western and is the program coordinator of the new Master of Media in Journalism and Communication, said the London, Ont., university can see the writing on the wall about where the media industry is headed and revamped the curriculum with that in mind.

The new program will be called master of media in journalism and communication.

J-Source: Tell us about this curriculum change.

Mark Rayner: It’s not a surprise that we do these curriculum reviews from time to time. We decided to take a step back and look at the trends happening in the industry and decided we needed a major renovation. Western is facing a downward enrollment pressures, and the reality is that we see only a third of our master’s students go into journalism; another third into communications, PR or marketing; and the last third goes into some other field. So it seems logical to address this.

J-Source: And how exactly have you done that in this new program?

MR: We’ll continue to focus on training journalists to become great storytellers, but we’ll also talk about the relations between journalists and PR. We’ll be adding two communications courses—introduction to communications, where you will learn to think strategically about social media and getting the message out, and storytelling, where we’ll do course studies. For example, we’d look at the SARS epidemic and how it was played out in the communications world and draw lessons from that. And I hope we can add an elective in media relations in the future as well.  It’s still a one-year program: with two terms on-site and another 10-week summer internship where students can choose to do either a journalism or communications internship.

J-Source: What has the reaction been?

MR: Anecdotally it’s been positive. We recognize there will be some critics, especially old schoolers. Journalism and communications are two sides of the same coin. One is storytelling the facts, while the other is storytelling to persuade, and it’s important to recognize the interplay between them. It’s as Ira Basen argues: all journalists should study public relations and how it works. The reason we’re doing this is because we care about journalism and its legacy.

J-Source: When does it launch?

MR: At the moment, Western’s senate university program review graduate committee is reviewing the program and the next step is to get the OK from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities for final approval. If all goes well, we hope to have the program officially recognized by the end of January, so that we can begin accepting students and launch in fall 2015 with a class of 30 to 35 students.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

By Tamara Baluja, Associate Editor

Western University is replacing its master of arts in journalism with a new program that has a dual focus of journalism and communication skills.

Historically, most schools have separated journalism and communications degree programs, even if they’re offered by the same department. But traditional media jobs are disappearing, and trends such as native advertising and branded content are blurring the line between journalism and public relations. Mark Rayner, who worked on the curriculum redevelopment at Western and is the program coordinator of the new Master of Media in Journalism and Communication, said the London, Ont., university can see the writing on the wall about where the media industry is headed and revamped the curriculum with that in mind.

The new program will be called master of media in journalism and communication.

J-Source: Tell us about this curriculum change.

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