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 final installment of this weekly three-part series, Ryerson University associate professor Janice Neil looks at the skills j-schools think are necessary in teaching staff to prepare the next generation of students. 

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By Janice Neil

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, Ryerson University associate professor Janice Neil looks at the skills j-schools think are necessary in teaching staff to prepare the next generation of students.

It is perhaps unsurprising that there’s a correlation between the poor state of today’s job market for journalists and the more healthy market for people to teach the craft.


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More than half of the directors, chairs and department heads of journalism programs told us they have increased their full-time (tenure-track or contract) teaching staff in the past five years. And the same situation seems to exist for part-timers as well. Only 12 per cent of the respondents told us they had fewer instructors while 37 per cent said they had the same number.

Read about the methodology.

Universities and colleges normally strike confidential hiring committees when recruiting full-time faculty and often with part-timers, too, so it’s difficult to know why individual candidates are chosen. Nonetheless, our research provides a glimpse of what those committees are seeking. Most of the programs—universities, colleges, hybrids and universities-plus-colleges—that we surveyed said they had undergone major or moderate shifts in their hiring objectives in the previous five years. About 83 per cent of them have been re-writing the criteria for teaching jobs and having serious discussions about what they are looking for. (We did not survey for demographics, such as age and gender).

While “newspaper guys and gals” were in demand in the past, it is less so with recent hires. Print experience is considered highly desirable by just 26 per cent of our respondents.   

Instead, our respondents said hiring committees believed the most important qualification is digital reporting and production experience. In fact, 58 per cent of the respondents cited it as extremely important or even a deal-breaker if the candidate did not have that experience.

Experience with teaching or training was also considered very important; just over half of all respondents said a candidate’s experience in a classroom could make or break a deal or was extremely important.

“I think it would be very difficult to imagine hiring someone who did not have digital skills.  I just can’t imagine that,” Kelly Toughill, director of the University of King’s College School of Journalism, in Halifax, said in a follow-up interview to the survey. “I might hire someone to teach creative non-fiction but if they didn’t also have a base familiarity with social media, writing online, a bit of economics of their industry, then I would be reluctant to hire them.”

We realized the umbrella term “digital skills” was too ambiguous and further research was needed to tease out exactly what schools want. We attempted to get more information on which skills (from a list) would be prioritized on the next hire. Top of the list by a majority of schools: someone with multiplatform skills and experience. Interestingly, none of the schools put data journalism at the top, although it was ranked second, along with social media.

We were also surprised that so few schools said they would seek someone with experience in entrepreneurial journalism: only a handful of schools (15 per cent) ranked it as their third most desirable skill set.

Given the enthusiasm to hire journalists with experience in new media, there’s a strong residue of importance placed on the classic skill of investigative journalism; it is the second most important attribute for new hires, but only by 19 per cent. 

Some of our respondents saw teaching investigative journalism as crucial to building the school’s reputation. For instance, the program chair of the University of Windsor’s new digital journalism program talked about competing with the more-established college programs in southwestern Ontario. “I am personally determined to raise our profile and get into more investigative work, so we as a program have a reputation as a serious journalistic source that digs into stories, that knows how to go after data and to investigate,” said Blake Roberts.

But years of experience in the field or on the desk likely won’t land you even an interview unless you have an advanced degree. For half of our respondents, candidates need an MA, PhD or another advanced degree. Recent job ads for faculty have been unequivocal: “A Master’s degree, at a minimum, is required,” said the ad from Ryerson’s journalism school hiring committee in March. “A PhD in journalism or a related field is preferred: A Master’s degree is required,” said Mount Royal University, in Calgary, in 2012. That emphasis just wasn’t consistently there even five years ago, our respondents told us.

Working not just in a newsroom but in the classroom or as a newsroom trainer also seems to be a high priority. But how that teaching excellence is defined varies: Philip Lee, the director of the journalism department at St. Thomas University, in Fredericton, NB,  told us “there are lots of specialists out there but they can’t teach. I’m looking for people that can teach and (have) a dedication to teaching,” he said. “It makes the difference.”

And the chair of Ryerson University’s journalism school, Ivor Shapiro, agreed this has become more important in recent years: “We would have been much more inclined to hire people straight out of newsrooms with little teaching experience thinking they could become teachers. Now our postings explicitly state teaching. We’re looking for an ‘outstanding teacher.’ Those words would not have been used in the past.”

However, respondents from journalism programs at the college level were certain teaching experience was essential. A few of the j-school leaders we interviewed argued that while journalism experience and credentials can’t be taught, teaching can. Jerry Chomyn, the program head of media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber, made this point: “Guelph-Humber has a lot of faculty development, workshops, seminars, a lot in-house, generally, about teaching, to learn how to teach.” Others agreed: previous teaching is important, but professional experience is extremely important.

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.

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Janice Neil is an associate professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism and a former editor-in-chief of J-Source.

Recap Part One: As journalism educators rework their programs, Susan Harada outlines what innovations and additions they are making; and Part Two: If new elements are being added, what they replacing? Mary McGuire outlines what journalism programs are dropping or reworking. 


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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.