Should Journalism Schools Give Students Specialized Beats?

    by Alexandra Bosanac
    January 4, 2011
    The journalism lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs is proposing a master's of journalism program that focuses on producing specialized reporters

    Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC’s highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

    Staff reductions, the argument goes, have created the expectation that interns will teach older reporters how to use new technologies and social media."

    Does journalism education need a new approach? The University of Toronto thinks so. In fact, Robert Steiner, director of the journalism lab at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and a former Wall Street Journal reporter, thinks the school’s proposed master’s of journalism program currently under consideration is the future of journalism.


    Late in 2010, Steiner asked 30 working journalists for feedback regarding a proposal for a new specialized masters program [Word doc]. The letter said that Steiner and his colleagues in the investigative group — Janice Stein of the Munk Centre of Global Affairs and John Fraser, an award-winning Canadian journalist and current Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto — want to recruit students from around the world who have expertise in a given field. The goal is to teach them to be correspondents for that specific field. Essentially, the letter said, the program will cater to “professionals who want to become journalists or who want to add journalism to their professional work.”

    The proposal includes details about an 18-month practicum where seasoned journalists with international experience will mentor students. Students will be expected to freelance by the second semester and will graduate with a year’s worth of “genuine clippings,” according to the plan.

    In an email, Steiner said that any public discussion on specifics involving the masters program is “grossly premature.” He said it would be at least spring before the university seriously considers implementing the program.


    Specialized vs. General

    i-583a72bc58d02f2a9aa2f4c088c00a59-Robert Steiner.jpg

    Robert Steiner

    Ryerson University has long held a monopoly on journalism education in downtown Toronto. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Carleton University in Ottawa, Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Western Ontario in London also have strong, long-standing journalism programs, to name just a few in the country. To distinguish themselves from their competitors, Steiner and his colleagues have taken on a strong position against the current model of journalism education.

    In defense of a new program, Steiner’s letter said that journalism students are currently being trained to work as general assignment reporters when there is more demand for specialists. As well, it said that newsrooms are no longer strong teaching environments, citing the fact that staff reductions have left fewer people able to mentor young journalists. Staff reductions, the argument goes, have created the expectation that interns will teach older reporters how to use new technologies and social media — not necessarily a bad thing for rookie reporters who want to establish their credibility.

    Don McCurdy, who recently designed a graduate journalism program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario, said specialized training is valuable in certain circumstances, but fledgling reports need to be able to write stories about a wide variety of topics if full-time work is what they’re seeking. The masters program at U of T may be useful to people who want to do journalism on the side, according to him.

    “[Steiner’s] not talking about run-of-the-mill freelance, they’re talking Scientific American or Time magazine, something that pays well, something that’s well researched,” said McCurd, who is also executive director of the Ontario Press Council. “Technically, you could survive doing one piece a week but you’ve got to build that base, you can’t just start good.”

    The Toronto Star’s Roger Gillespie, one of the senior editors in charge of hiring at the largest newsroom in Canada, said that all the expertise in a single area doesn’t help unless you are also in the right place at the right time. As an example, he cited a recent National Post front-page story about the bridge collapse in Cambodia that was written by a young freelancer who happened to be in the area. The reality is, he said, that “there’s a long time between those assignments.” Opportunities to write those kinds of stories don’t happen everyday and most publications don’t routinely assign those kinds of stories to young, unseasoned freelancers.

    Gillespie said it’s “hazardous” to predict a single approach. The market is changing, he said, but that doesn’t mean the focus is on specialization. The journalists he hires are nimble, technologically adept and write easily about any topic that needs coverage.

    End of Staff Positions?

    Steiner’s proposal for U of T talks about the end of staff positions and general assignment reporters, but a new report by Toronto-based marketing research and consulting firm Canadian Primedia surveyed more than 400 newspapers in North America and predicted that 2011 will bring increased revenues from advertising and likely more editorial job opportunities — a drastic change in tune from 2008.


    The economic slow-down hasn’t curbed journalism school enrollment, and U of T isn’t the only school trying to meet the demand: The University of King’s College recently announced a new 10-month masters in journalism program as of June 2011, in addition to the school’s bachelor program. For the first six months, students will branch off and specialize in either data-driven investigative journalism or what the school website calls “new ventures in journalism.” Both streams will take classes on digital journalism.

    Carving out a career in journalism has always been an entrepreneurial endeavor, so if a J-school grad wants a job in journalism, they will find one, Gillespie said.

    Gillespie said he entered a dismal market when he graduated but still managed to land a job and said he knows many recent graduates who have found jobs in the media.

    “I don’t know that we can forecast the market,” he said. “We’ve been hiring people at the Star, and that’s not something I would have forecast.”

    Alexandra Bosanac is the Student’s Lounge editor at J-Source. She is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson University who has worked for The Ryerson Free Press, The Eyeopener and the Toronto Star blog New Kids on the Blog.

    Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC’s highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.


    This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

    Tagged: beat reporting journalism education journalism jobs munk school of global affairs specialist reporting university of toronto

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