Transformation at Western’s journalism program

IMG_0175Western University’s graduate journalism program — one of the oldest in Canada — has formally acknowledged plans to re-fashion its one-year master’s program to offer a Master of Media in Journalism & Communication degree. A promotional description of the new curriculum is here.

The decision to shutter the existing program was made by administrators in the university’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) last December, but has been kept low key, as it sought approvals from various offices within the university for a transformed curriculum. Full-time journalism faculty members have been engaged in the process of building the new credential in the hope that it might save jobs and preserve some form of journalism training at the university. Paul Benedetti, a longtime lecturer in the existing program, resigned as its coordinator late last year.

Originally modelled after the journalism program at Columbia University in New York, Western’s offerings began modestly at the undergraduate level in 1946. It became a 12-month master’s program in 1974, annually admitting about 30-40 students each year since then.

Over the past 20 years, the journalism program has had a checkered relationship with the university. Senior administrators attempted to close the Graduate School of Journalism, then led by dean Peter Desbarats, who rallied faculty, staff, alumni and the members of the university’s board of governors to save the school. (That campaign is chronicled here.) Although the effort succeeded, the graduate school soon lost its standing as a separate entity and was merged with the much larger Graduate School of Library and Information Studies in 1996-97, under the auspices of what is now the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Desbarats, who had taken the reins as dean of the journalism school from ex-Toronto Telegram executive and founding dean Andrew MacFarlane in 1981, retired in 1997. Manjunath Pendakur, who now teaches communications at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, became FIMS’ first dean. Desbarats died in February. My London Free Press column on his passing his here.

The new graduate program intends to combine elements of journalism, media relations, communications and public relations. Mark A. Rayner, a FIMS lecturer, is taking the lead in coordinating development of the new curriculum.

Full disclosure: For many years, I have taught a summer course on journalism law and ethics as a sessional lecturer in the existing journalism program.

Western University journalism award winners

Journalism graduate Tyler Buist celebrates his hat trick of awards with journalism program specialist Wendie Crouch.
Gold medalist Tyler Buist celebrates his hat trick of awards with Western University instructor and media specialist Wendie Crouch.

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity, each summer, to teach a course in journalism law and ethics as part of Western University‘s master of arts in journalism program. It’s intensive, rigorous and lasts 12 months. Yesterday, the class of 2013 crossed the stage at convocation, heard a speech by Toronto Star journalist Chantal Hébert and then returned to the North Campus Building for a reception and awards ceremony. Here’s a list of the awards and their recipients.

Good luck to all the graduates in their future endeavours.

Corus Radio London Scholarship: Natalie Paddon
The London CAC/Rogers Cable TV Student Awards in Journalism: Tyler Buist, Katrina Clarke, Ryan Mallough
Haaksaan Responsible Journalism Scholarship: Katie Starr
J.B. McGeachy Gold Medal and Prize in Journalism: Tyler Buist
The Hugh Bremner Prize (Silver Medal): Katrina Clarke
The J.L. (Bud) Wild Prize (Silver Medal): Katie Starr
The Ursula Walford Memorial Award (Silver Medal): Ben Forrest
The C. Edmund Wilson Prize for Media Research: Blair McBride
The Western News Award: Ryan Mallough
John James Grier Memorial Scholarship in International Relations: Blair McBride
K.A. (Sandy) Baird Prize for Humorous Writing: Rubab Abid
William French Prize for Cultural Journalism: Katie Starr
Jerry Rogers Award in Writing: Blair McBride
The Walter Blackburn Award: Mekhala Gunaratne
David Murray Bowes Award: Ben Forrest
The J.M. Penny Crosbie Prize for Investigative Journalism: Kristina Virro
Norman Jewison Prize for Creative Writing: Brent Boles
Honorable Mention: The IDRC International Development Journalism Award: Katrina Clarke
Honorable Mention: The Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship: Idil Mussa

Supreme Court validates responsibility argument

The Supreme Court of Canada's judgment means additional freedom — and responsibility — for journalists. Credit: SCC

I was sitting in a restaurant Tuesday morning having breakfast with my spouse, our daughter and her friend when I happened to check the Twitter feed on my mobile phone. “Yes!” I exclaimed, feeling suddenly self-conscious about my outburst as other patrons were trying to caffeinate their way to alertness.

“That sounds as if you might actually be getting excited about something,” my wife said. (I’m not generally known for pouring a lot of emotion into everyday conversation.)

I’d read a tweet about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in a case where “responsible journalism” had been the key argument in a libel case — a ruling that provides for additional protection for journalists and news organizations when careful, balanced and methodical work on a story is in the public interest, even if it happens to tarnish the reputation of an individual.

In the annals of Canadian journalism, the lack of this type of precedent has killed hundreds of stories, no matter their importance to the public interest and national discourse, for fear of libel and slander litigation.

Dean Jobb, associate professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax, has provided a cogent and accessible analysis of the ruling for Globe and Mail justice reporter Kirk Makin also wrote a fine piece on the meaning of the ruling.

The challenge for news media now, of course, will be to live up to the demands implicit in the judgment. The danger lies in citation of the Supreme Court decision by journalists without the requisite hard work and care in reporting. As is so often the case in other spheres, with increased freedom comes increased responsibility — and that will be the message journalism instructors will need to relay to their students.

I expect the ruling will, in a roundabout way, also increase the impetus toward the professionalization of investigative journalism, if not in a formal sense, then in its practice. And like the proverbial tide that lifts all boats, it reminds every thinking journalist of the imperative of nailing down every detail before publication.

Advice for aspiring journalists amid media tumult

Four themes I’ve been pushing out to my 70 or so first-year students this fall semester, amid the steady litany of job losses, consolidations and reports of “outsourcing” from traditional Canadian news media:

1. Story still matters. The great flux in the worlds of media and journalism are essentially about modes of delivery and creation of new business models. There’s very little serious talk about whether journalism, in some form, will survive or whether engaged citizens of North American democracies will continue to demand timely, accurate and contextualized information, whether through flat screens, podcasts, e-readers, mobile devices or more traditional media. Journalists are analytical storytellers, so practise and hone to a razor edge your skills at telling stories across the wide range of platforms. Don’t, however, ignore development of an equally important skill — something past generations of journalists have called a “nose for news.” Master the knack for anticipating and uncovering the story and, as within the proverbial mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. If you can’t do that, all the software and technological prowess in the world won’t make you successful.

2. Develop your own brand. As you practise your writing — in the classroom, on your blog, through social media postings, etc. — begin to ask yourself about what will distinguish you from the thousands of other journalists with whom you’ll soon be in competition. How will your work stand out? What special interests, proprietary knowledge or, yes, even bias might you leverage or develop to set yourself apart? An intimate knowledge of the procedures and databases or the Transportation Safety Board of Canada? An expertise in sport-related injuries and the clinics that treat them? A heightened understanding of food science and food distribution? Now’s the time to take a hobby, special interest or mere curiosity and turn it into a sort of mini-specialization. Don’t dismiss the importance of competence in journalism’s primary skills: investigation, interviewing, vocabulary, accuracy and deft writing, among others. But develop your personal brand on a parallel track with those basic competencies. Take your first steps, however halting, along that path.

3. Think entrepreneurially. Consider the possibility that you may never spend 20 or 25 years as an employee of a large media company. The trend toward leaner staffs and outsourced work is often characterized as evidence of the slow death of journalism and news organizations, especially by those who have spent their careers inside those walls. It needn’t be so. While traditional news media outlets will likely continue to hire staff writers, reporters, photographers, illustrators, designers and engineers for some time to come (albeit at a slower pace), don’t dismiss the notion that your journalistic career might be more akin to that of the owner/operator of a small business or a member of profession. Find ways of learning or practising entrepreneurial skills, such as pitching story ideas, promoting yourself and the type of work you’re interested in doing, keeping proper financial records as a self-employed individual and collaborating with others to break and tell great stories. Consider the possibility that, as they develop leaner business models, news organizations may some day contract out reporting in addition to copy editing; that journalism will be more collaborative and as much the purview of self-starting, independent professionals as of staff tied to desks inside corporate entities. And within that scenario, what’s to prevent clusters of excellent journalists from operating collegially as units, offering their services to buyers or “clients” the way law firms have operated for decades?

4. Rev up your flux capacitor. Don’t be cowed by the naysaying and pessimism of those within traditional news media who live — or in some cases are imprisoned — inside legacy products and the business models on which they’ve too long relied. Rather than focus on its delivery modes, place your confidence and faith in journalism itself: the human yearning for story; the pursuit of truth in an age of spin; the need for mediated discussion, spirited debate and forged consensus among bonfires of various vanities; the continuing importance of assembling that “first rough draft of history” for the benefit of those who come after, whether they be other journalists, historians or their critics. The questions around delivery modes and business models will eventually sort themselves out — and you have an opportunity to play a significant role in helping devise them. Within another generation — one slice of the duration of a typical career — the news media landscape is likely to look very different. So what. Seize the historic moment. Master the storytelling arts; muster your courage.