If the news business is dying, how can you justify educating students for a profession that won’t hire them? Education Editor Charles Hays explains how Thompson Rivers University’s unique partnership with local media in Kamloops, B.C. is readying students for the industry. 

By Charles Hays, Education Editor

Thompson Rivers University’s journalism program has a new unique partnership with local media in Kamloops, B.C.

The Community News Collective, now in its second year, helps journalism students and interested community members learn the nuts and bolts of reporting in the region by sending them on rotations at The Omega, the independent campus newspaper; CFBX-FM, an independent community radio station and the Kamloops CBC bureau.

The collective is an attempt to answer an existential question I’ve been asked by editors: “If the news business is dying, how can you justify educating students for a profession that won’t hire them?” My response is that it’s changing, not dying.

In my role as the practicum coordinator for the department, I keep an eye on the academic part of the students' experiences. I also assist with training and shake the bushes for grants.

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The Kamloops region is on the front lines: the local daily paper shut down last year, a local TV news station is scrambling to keep staff, CBC has been feeling the effects of federal cuts to operating funds and local multimedia initiatives are struggling to make enough money to keep the lights on. It can be a bleak picture to consider.

There are some hopeful signs, however. The collective started last year with assistance from the Community Radio Fund of Canada (CRFC). Local editors and producers are eager to work with the university to offer experiential learning opportunities to students. Practicums and service learning are also in high demand by students who want to bulk up their skills and portfolios.

Collective reporters cover stories affecting groups within the larger community, giving voice to perspectives that may not be represented in other local media. They also spend time in each of the three newsrooms in the partnership. At The Omega, they learn how to turn newspaper stories into multimedia stories on the paper’s website. At the local CBC bureau, they learn how to produce short pieces while seeing the larger context of the national broadcaster. Students spend the bulk of their time at CFBX, learning basic sound-gathering and interview skills, pitching and following stories and producing material for a weekly broadcast.

Even as recently as five years ago, it was common to see job announcements for entry positions for writers, photographers, videographers or broadcast reporters. Now a starting position is much more likely to ask for a broad skill set: write and photograph, take some video for the website, break news to the web first and keep the organization’s social media presence front and centre with the audience. The accelerating convergence of media technologies puts more tools in the hands of more people and is opening up more opportunities for those who can adapt. The main problem is not a lack of opportunity; it may be more of an embarrassment of riches.

One way to approach that surplus of choice might be to focus on community news. Community news can be many things, depending on the definition of community (and the definition of news!). It can be of interest to the larger population of the region or hyperlocal to a neighbourhood or the group of families affected by a decision to close a much-loved school. The stories are out there to be found. We can bring those stories to the people who want to hear and read them. From a teaching perspective, the skills that students use to feed the community news conversation (the “news skills” and the “people skills”) are tools they can take into the profession no matter where they start out. Rather than being overwhelmed by possible routes, we’ve chosen to pick a path and take it, knowing that we can change and adapt as necessary— even overhaul completely if that’s needed.

There are rocks in the road. The CRFC didn’t renew our grant for a second year. Time for coordinating the collective is in short supply. Writing grant applications takes time, too. Despite the rocks, there are some smooth spots: interest in joining the collective from a local news website, very strong interest from students in search of experiential learning and some potential new directions to serve other community groups in the region. We’re trying to concentrate on the positive parts and power through the rest. Fortunately we have strong support from all our partners and a sufficient base of equipment and facilities to keep running.

Flexibility is the most important lesson. Changes in how the news business works make it seem like the goalposts keep moving, and some professionals say some aspects of journalism will change radically in the window of time between starting and finishing a degree. A technology we can’t imagine today may be tomorrow’s killer app, completely rewriting the playbook.

Despite that some things remain. The ability to see a story develop, research skills, interviewing, storytelling for diverse media and networking in the community and profession are all critical and we can’t let them slide. At the same time, the Community News Collective is an attempt to let students “taste a lot of plates” and learn flexibility while at the same time grasping the common threads that run through the profession.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.