The University of Ottawa suspended admissions to its journalism program following a critical report. Now, it has developed a new program focused on bilingualism and digital skills. But that doesn’t help current students in the discredited program, says frustrated student Michael Robinson.

By Michael Robinson

In April 2015, I will graduate with a Honours Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Ottawa. 

I will be one of the very last to graduate with such a degree. 

This is because the University of Ottawa is rebooting its journalism program for the digital age, putting to rest its original four-year journalism program that was suspended last summer

Many of the changes will arrive in the form of new course content, such as writing for digital platforms, database software education, journalism history and the sociology of journalism. The most unique aspect of the program, however, is its bilingual approach, anchored through partnerships with two of Ottawa’s colleges: Algonquin and La Cité.

In order to rectify many of the administrative problems that hampered the original initiative, the university’s department of communication will hire an experienced journalist dedicated to overseeing the transition of students as they continue their studies among the three institutions. The program is slated to begin in September 2015.


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Now, I don’t doubt this exercise may hold some promise for future students eager to become the next Woodward or Bernstein, but the fact remains it does little to help current j-schoolers trapped in the carcass of the now-suspended program.

Certainly, university president Allan Rock doesn’t appear too alarmed that some of his students have sunk tens of thousands into a degree that is no longer deemed suitable for public consumption. 

“If somebody else does journalism best, maybe they should be left to do journalism,” he said last November to uOttawa’s campus weekly press, the Fulcrum, while referring to Carleton’s j-school, which also runs in the same city.

But with a new digital and bilingual approach, uOttawa’s competition with Carleton is out of the picture. And in response, Rock expressed again to the Fulcrum he was pleased the university can now “provide students with unique skills that other journalism programs are not offering.” I must admit that I have a hard time sharing Rock’s optimism. Having dedicated four years of my life and tens of thousands in tuition fees to a program that has now publicly been discredited by the university itself, I find his cavalier attitude a little hard to swallow.

And all this before I’ve even had the chance to graduate. 

No one has ever been held accountable for the program’s initial suspension, but problems still affect those enrolled in it. From the patchwork of misaligned course sequences to sloppy administrative guidance, students continue to face outrageous academic bureaucratic hurdles. It is an injustice they do not deserve. 

I know my concerns are probably falling on deaf ears. The administration is moving forward with its “revamped” program and can’t seem to be more excited about this new framework of journalism education.

“We’ve put in the necessary effort to remake our journalism program, not only to make it attractive for students, but so that it can also meet the labour market requirements of both anglophone and francophone media,” said co-ordinators Evan Potter and Marc-François Bernier to the Ottawa Citizen when the program was announced. 

We’ll see about that. 

But if there is any silver lining at all to be found in this cloud, it is that the University of Ottawa may have discovered a large part of the formula for long-term success. And its timing can’t be more perfect.

A 2013 Poynter Institute study in the United States said only 26 per cent of media professionals surveyed believed the students they hired had all the training needed to succeed. By taking the lead on emphasizing the digital skills repertoire, from computer-assisted reporting to coding and quantitative data mining, uOttawa will teach the skills that can upend traditional media and reinvent the news. From composing tweets to web scraping, digital fluency and news gathering are undeniably intertwined.

While other higher education institutions are barely keeping up with the digital revolution, the University of Ottawa has taken a risk with hopes to come out on top of the media education landscape. 

It better hope it does, or it risks another public failure as a result. 

Michael Robinson is a journalism student based in Ottawa. He is an intern at CTV National News’ parliamentary bureau and outgoing editor of Algonquin College’s campus press, the Algonquin Times. Follow him on Twitter @maj_robinson.

 


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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.