Twenty years ago, field notes editor Nicole Blanchett Neheli graduated from Ryerson's journalism program. News practice has changed remarkably between now and then. Here, she looks at the past, present and future of an industry trying to grapple with a rapidly changing media landscape and lots of uncharted territory.

Twenty years ago, field notes editor Nicole Blanchett Neheli graduated from Ryerson's journalism program. News practice has changed remarkably between now and then. Here, she looks at the past, present and future of an industry trying to grapple with a rapidly changing media landscape and lots of uncharted territory.

Shoot, cut, write, tweet, live blog, read extensively, know computer code, be a generalist who can specialize in any medium, know your audience, have a brand, understand business and advertising: these are some of the essential skills for j-school grads as outlined by panelists at an event marking the 60th anniversary of Ryerson’s journalism program.

The good news is there are jobs out there. But that skill set is a tall order compared to what was expected of me when I graduated from Ryerson 20 years ago. And that’s not all that’s changed.


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Today, newsrooms of all stripes are struggling to remain economically viable and editorially relevant in an age where people under the age of 40 consider appointment news viewing quaint, holding an actual newspaper in your hand akin to using a fountain pen, transferring information is instantaneous and that information often comes from what used to be a passive audience.

And all of those factors contribute to the most profound change of all: 20 years ago, everyone seemed to know what journalism was. Now, defining a journalist’s role is an academic pursuit and the focus of legal debate.

Marivel Taruc, now a television reporter with CBC, was part of my cohort. At her first job in Winnipeg she used typewriters, the phone book, cold calls and sources to get the job done. Now she Googles everything and the storytelling is a continuous process: “We used to newsgather through the day with the ultimate goal of getting our story on the six o'clock news.  Now, every detail we discover is often posted on Twitter or our program's website or Facebook.”

Another grad from the class of ’93, Jason van Rassel, a reporter for the Calgary Herald, describes the tools that make it easier for a journalist to share information part of a “maddening paradox” because the theoretical improvement in our ability to serve our audience has been blunted by the fact there are far fewer journalists doing the important work we need to do—all because of the same technology.”

That technology, of course, allows anyone with a smart phone to play the role of journalist, instantly accessing and sharing information—but instant access doesn’t necessarily equate to good storytelling.

“News organizations are competing harder to be the first to report news. And when it's accurate, it's a wonderful thing to be part of. But when it's not—it calls our profession into question,” Taruc said.

At the Ryerson panel Working and Living the News, video journalist Waubgeshig Rice explained how CBC wrongly reported there was a seventh victim the day after a bus crashed into a train in Ottawa—a mistake that played out on Twitter.

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And although the online community site Reddit was the first to wrongly identify a second suspect in the Boston bombings, traditional news organizations helped spread that inaccurate information like wildfire.

In fact, the problem is so prevalent, On the Media has created a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook to help the audience “sort good information from bad,” complete with a printable pdf.

That’s a big issue for an industry built on trust. Quality in terms of accuracy is not the only factor affecting survival in a booming digital market. Even media outlets trotted out as digital success stories, like the New York Times, aren’t confident they’ve found the right formula.

And at traditional broadcasters, more money often flows to traditional programming rather than innovative shows, like CBC’s Connect with Mark Kelley. It was pulled off the air despite good ratings, original interviews and an active relationship with its audience because management deemed production costs too expensive.  

Ensuring editorial independence is another big issue.

Twenty years ago, the basic pillar of preventing the corner office from determining news content was a point of pride—now, new business models are exploring ways to make journalism more profitable, and some claim the whole idea of editorial independence is outdated.

I’m not opposed to opening up new revenue streams to support good storytelling, even paid content if done transparently. But I’m leery of eliminating delineation between decisions based on the bottom line and those based on solid news judgment—partly because working as a television producer I witnessed editorial decisions affected by advertisers.

As we move forward, we can’t forget journalism’s primary function: revealing truth to ensure democratic discourse—or, in other words, quality storytelling—unhindered by outside interference.

In a discussion about journalism past and present, renowned journalist Michael Maclear echoed something shared by many panelists at Ryerson—the need for journalism to break the pattern of sharing quick hits with little context—suggesting there’s a need for more programming that offers a look “behind the news” and stories that remain relevant for more than just one news cycle. In his new book he says, “Success in news usually requires 90 per cent attention to detail, 10 per cent defiance of all rules.”

Transferring that philosophy to modern journalism, we need to break the rules of traditional news delivery and business practice in order to remain relevant, but we have to do that focusing on the details—accuracy, independent thinking, creative storytelling and a relationship with our audience/co-creators built on trust.

Twenty years out of j-school, some very important things haven’t changed.