Just as newsrooms and the media industry are undergoing transformational change these days, so too are journalism programs at universities and colleges across the country. In the second installment of this weekly three-part series, Carleton University associate professor Mary McGuire looks at what journalism schools are cutting from the curricula.

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Just as newsrooms and the media industry are undergoing transformational change these days, so too are journalism programs at universities and colleges across the country. This year, three journalism faculty set out to identify the changes happening on campuses as journalism educators rethink their courses and programs to prepare students for today’s newsrooms as well as the new type of careers that are evolving out of the upheaval in the media industry. In the second installment of this weekly three-part series, Carleton University associate professor Mary McGuire looks at what journalism schools are adding to the curricula to prepare students for an industry that is rapidly changing.

By Mary McGuire

As legacy news organizations consider whether to stop publishing newspapers in print or stop producing studio-based, packaged newscasts for television, so do journalism schools across the country.

Our survey respondents (the directors, chairs and department heads at journalism programs at universities and colleges) reported that as their faculty struggle to find room in their courses and programs to teach students new journalism practices and digital skills, there are times when they have to drop assignments, lessons and even courses and workshops that were once considered essential.

Read about the methodology.

Sometimes room opens up in courses and programs for changes when outdated skills such as developing photographs in a darkroom or even digital skills such as programming with Flash are no longer useful. As well, respondents told us, core research, reporting and writing skills can be taught in new ways with new tools and practices.


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Indeed while 80 per cent of respondents told us their fundamental reporting courses have changed in the past five years, just over half reported the changes had either little or no impact on the teaching of fundamental journalism skills.

This graph shows how respondents characterized the impact of the teaching of fundamental skills. 

Impact of changes on teaching fundamentals

But the demand to teach students new digital skills continues to grow while the demand to continue teaching them traditional skills about how to find stories, report, research, interview, stay out of legal trouble and, most importantly, write well, remains high. Since most journalism schools can’t add years or even required credits to their programs, the respondents reported sometimes they have to drop things that are not necessarily obsolete to make room for new approaches.

For example, some have scaled back on their advanced television news production courses, moving them from required to elective courses or even eliminating them altogether. Others predicted their TV production courses would disappear soon, just as they expect supper-hour local television newscasts to disappear in the next few years.

The chair of the School of Journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Ivor Shapiro, said the need to teach traditional television news production skills is no longer essential.  “Advanced TV newscast instruction used to be seen as central to the paths of many students; now, it is seen as more of a niche compared with video news reporting for digital platforms.”

Some schools reported they now spend a lot less time teaching students newspaper design and layout skills in newspaper production workshops, even though some internships still expect students to know how to use InDesign. Two schools reported they had killed their newspaper’s print product altogether and moved to a web-only publication.

Others expect to do the same in the near future. When asked if newscasts and/or newspapers produced by students for a wider audience would soon be replaced by a web-only product, almost half of the respondents said it’s already happening. Another 22 per cent indicated it would happen within the next five years, as this graph shows.

Universities and colleges moving to web-only news publications/newscasts

Based on the survey and the interviews that followed, here are other elements respondents identified as having been redrawn or eliminated to allow for new lessons and courses in digital skills.

  • Reduced emphasis on basic writing skills with fewer written assignments.
  • Reduced emphasis on media history.
  • Dropped freelance and opinion writing courses.
  • Dropped beat reporting courses.
  • Dropped separate print and broadcast workshop courses in favour of combined multiplatform production courses.
  • Switched courses once required to optional electives.
  • Increased workload for both faculty and students.

While some respondents said nothing of great value was being lost as programs were changed to incorporate new digital skills, others are not convinced.

Mitch Diamantopoulos, the head of the journalism department at the University of Regina, said as journalism programs try to keep up to date with changes in the industry, some traditional writing and academic instruction may be cut. “If there’s one thing I worry about is that we’re churning out ‘churnalists’ who maybe have less depth intellectually… have thought less about journalism’s role in society.”

Colette Brin, the acting associate dean at Laval University, in Montreal, said she worries about what is being lost. “I’m concerned we’re trying to teach too many things at once. I’m concerned we could be losing basic skills; we used to teach traditional broadcast and print but now I worry how much has disappeared. But these new skills are in demand.”

Mary McGuire is a former broadcast journalist turned new media and broadcast teacher at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has played a key role in curricular changes there. She also served as education editor of J-Source from its inception in 2007 until 2013.

 

Recap Part One: As journalism educators rework their programs, Susan Harada outlines what innovations and additions they are making.

Part Three: As journalism programs change, who is teaching the new skills and courses? Janice Neil offers some insights based on recent faculty appointments. 

Methodology

First we identified 47 journalism programs at colleges and universities in Canada and sent out a survey to try to capture basic information from all of them. Specifically, we drafted survey questions to probe what schools have added to their programs, what they’ve dropped and the set of skills they now want in new faculty hires.

The survey was sent, in each case, to the academic leaders of each of the journalism programs, whether they were directors, chairs or program heads.  Of the 16 universities we contacted, 12 responded for a 75 per cent response rate. Of the eight joint or hybrid programs we contacted, two responded for a 25 per cent response rate. And, of the 23 colleges we contacted, 13 responded for a 56 per cent response rate.

We followed up on our survey responses with semi-structured telephone interviews with the directors and chairs of the university programs and the university side of the eight hybrid programs we identified.  We spoke to 14 of them.

We hope to follow up with more detailed research and perhaps even an annual survey to continue to track trends in journalism education in Canada. For now, this three-part series outlines the highlights of our preliminary findings.

Return to the article.


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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.