Journalism startups emerging in Canada is an exciting and welcome trend, writes Julie Ireton. But aside from that innovative thinking, j-schools need to become the incubator for a new, digital, innovative media industry in Canada and teach students the tools and skills to move their entrepreneurial ideas to the next level.

By Julie Ireton

No one has to tell new and recent journalism school grads it’s a tight job market. Many are going from internships to freelance to contract jobs in an attempt to fulfill a burning desire to stay in journalism. But more often than not, it’s actually waiting tables or bartending that pays the bills.

These 20-somethings want more—but believe it or not, they don’t necessarily want a mainstream media gig.

Several of my former students are underemployed, but they’re inspired by the new digital projects and publications they’re seeing online. A light bulb has gone off—they want to start their own startup. For instance, one student has an idea for a niche, digital publication that involves data, analytics and producing the kind of news few others are producing right now. Two other recent grads have a unique plan to collect and broadcast original stories from seniors around the globe.

The problem is, while these smart, talented journalists have great ideas and solid news judgment, they weren’t taught much about the business side of journalism—more specifically how to get a business started. In fact, entrepreneurial and innovation media courses still aren’t taught in many j-schools in Canada. Rather, the students are most often siphoned towards the shrinking number of jobs in the traditional media.

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One Carleton University student recently told me: “Journalism is changing, but the School of Journalism isn’t changing at all.”

I spent part of last year researching the concept of startup journalism as the Michener-Deacon Fellow in Journalism Education. I found many students and recent grads are seeking the tools and skills to move their entrepreneurial ideas to the next level. And that’s where schools of journalism come in.

Just as engineering schools are the birthplace of much intellectual property and innovation, j-schools need to become the incubator for a new, digital, innovative media industry in Canada. It’s a new and necessary role and not at all uncommon in the U.S. Just look at the Tow-Knight Centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York and a new graduate program in media innovation at Northeastern University in Boston.

Journalism programs need to encourage a new kind of journalism: new ways of telling online stories to a variety of audiences; the creation of better, more interactive tools, platforms, applications and services and a better understanding of the ever-changing business of journalism. Students need to be prepared for jobs in technologies that don’t even exist right now.

Of course, young journalists must still learn the fundamentals: developing their writing skills, curiosity, instincts and critical thinking. But they also need the confidence to take calculated risks when it comes to developing different kinds of news products and services.

Survey any class of university students these days and you will discover that few own a TV and even fewer have a newspaper subscription. They all get their news online—often on smartphones. Habits are changing, so news delivery and the business case for traditional news enterprises is being forced to change too. That means students need to learn about business models and development, how big ideas are pitched and branded. A bit of computer coding wouldn’t hurt either.

Mainstream media outlets also have a role to play. These organizations must encourage intrapreneurialism within their ranks. They should welcome and recognize students and graduates (or employees!) with new and different skills and ideas that often go well beyond those who are doing the managing. Bosses will likely say they can’t afford to take chances. But can they afford not to?

There are new ways to tell and deliver stories, to create jobs and even make money within the changing media landscape. Students are inspired by what they see. Journalism educators should be inspired too. Will it be a lot of work? You are darn right. Will all the emerging enterprises and experiments be successful? No way. But if they don’t try, they’ll never know what can be accomplished.

Taking risks, building innovation: it’s called being an entrepreneur.

Welcome to startup journalism.  

Julie Ireton is a reporter with CBC Ottawa and a two-time Michener-Deacon Fellow. She teaches part-time at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication where she has designed and proposed a media innovation and entrepreneurial journalism course for senior level students.  You can tweet her @JulieIreton.



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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.