Reading Time: 7 minutes

How student media can give young journalists an edge

Photo Courtesy: Connect Euranet (CC)

Peter Mansbridge has the kind of career that isn’t supposed to exist anymore.

In mid-January 2015, at the Canadian University Press’ annual conference, he stood in front of hundreds of student journalists speaking about highlights from his career. He told them how easy it used to be to get started in journalism. He talked about getting his first job in 1968. A CBC station manager overheard him doing announcements at an airport in Churchill, Man., and offered him a job.

He said that kind of start isn’t possible now.

Students who want to pursue work in the media are told that with layoffs in newsrooms, the industry is shrinking and there aren’t any jobs for them. The positions that do come up are usually short contracts, and competition for them is steep. The Globe and Mail summer program, for example, receives more than 500 applications each year for 18 full-time seasonal positions.

But young people work in media. They work as reporters, as data journalists, as broadcasters, as radio hosts, as producers, and as graphic designers. Some work for smaller community papers and some work for national and international publications. Some work for media organizations that only exist online.

While most worked hard to get where they are, it’s unlikely that any of them were discovered unexpectedly in rural Canada and offered a job. But elements of luck and talent hold true in journalism today, as they did for Peter Mansbridge in 1968.

This probably isn’t what students nearing the end of their degrees want to hear. In 2013, RBC and Ipsos Reid commissioned a study that found 73 per cent of recent graduates found their lack of job experience upon graduation was a barrier to getting a job. This is a problem for students with degrees in journalism and communications, as they are faced with entry-level job listings asking for years of experience not provided in university programs.

This is where student journalists have an edge.

Time spent working in student media is time spent preparing to work as a professional. Not everyone will successfully transition from campus press to working journalist, but there are advantages to be gained from the student press that can’t be picked up in the classroom.

“I didn’t want to ever be chained to a desk. I wanted to be able to go out and talk to people. And I realized that through the student press,” says Globe and Mail reporter Josh O’Kane, who got started in journalism because he missed the deadline to run for the student union. “I was poor and needed something to do and a friend of mine was an editor at the paper, and she was like, ‘Why don’t you write sarcastic CD reviews?’”

O’Kane liked writing reviews and reporting, and it got him doing something other than being in the lab for his chemistry degree. He became an editor for the Baron at the University of New Brunswick St. John, then at the Brunswickan at UNB’s main campus, before moving to Toronto to work as national bureau chief of the Canadian University Press (CUP).

After finishing in student media, he applied for 15 internships, but only heard back about one on the East Coast. He was already living in Toronto, so he decided to try freelancing, writing for the now-defunct OpenFile and doing some music writing for Exclaim! Magazine. “That didn’t pay the bills—they paid very little.”

O’Kane ended up going to Ryerson University in Toronto for journalism school. While studying, he sold the stories he wrote for class, pitching them before submitting them to professors to make sure they could be published somewhere.

He recommends that students consider journalism school. Not because they’re going to learn a lot they couldn’t by working, but “because journalism school has become a necessary but arbitrary stamp of approval in newsrooms.” When publications get hundreds of applications from qualified young journalists for only a couple of positions, it’s a way of narrowing them down. Hiring managers don’t have time to read every applicant’s clippings and evaluate how good they are.

A degree might move your application to the top of the pile, but Michael Koretzky, advisor at the University Press at Florida Atlantic University and editor of debt.com, says, “Journalism school has never prepared you for journalism.”

When working in student media, “your audience is you,” Koretzky says, pointing out that while there is diversity on campus, most students are around the same age and share similar experiences tied to campus life. Most post-grad jobs will involve covering news for a much wider demographic, and journalism school doesn’t prepare students to cover things like mortgages, city council meetings, or crime beats.

He says what students can do is freelance. “Internships are three-month commitments and students are fearful of commitment.” While freelancing is not the same as being a staff writer, it is a professional working relationship and real experience.

One of the students he advises did freelance design work for a croquet magazine. She was able to improve the design of the publication and her clipping had value as both a professional piece of work and tangible proof of her creativity and design skills.

Journalism school might not be useful and it might not even be necessary. CBC radio host, producer, writer and editor Emma Godmere never finished her degree at all.

She had been working as an editor at the Fulcrum and hosting a radio show at CHUO at the University of Ottawa, while working on a history and communications degree. She left school to take a job as national bureau chief of CUP in Toronto. “I found that I wasn’t getting as much from the classroom as I was getting on the job,” she says.

Godmere says she made the transition from student to professional media by being open to opportunities, willing to learn, and not being afraid to approach people.

She was a fan of Craig Norris’ The Listener Co-Host Initiative on CBC. She emailed him to say she’d been a long-time listener, had a background in campus radio, and asked if she could come in and co-host with him. She wasn’t sure whether she’d ever hear back, but months later he responded and she got to go to the CBC in Toronto for the first time.

Godmere says that when she emailed Norris, “the idea of working at CBC was like this far-off dream of a thing.” But she kept running into him at events and when he relocated to Kitchener-Waterloo, she got an email from his producer saying they were looking for guest hosts to fill in on the show.

Her connection with Norris helped her get in at the CBC, and professional connections are certainly an element in success in media. But Godmere says she shies away from events that are intended for networking. She focuses instead on making real connections with people with whom she shares a passion for journalism, and keeping in contact with people she’s met in both student and professional journalism.

William Wolfe-Wylie, editorial web developer for CBC News, also got many of his post-grad positions through contacts he’s gotten to know while working. He does attend industry events and speaks at conferences, and says that while he’s worked to meet new people and maintain connections, he hates to watch someone make the rounds at a social event, handing out business cards, and asking for a job.

“Pursuing something very specific like a network is super, super awkward,” he says. Instead he recommends students do things they’re passionate about, saying they’ll fall into circles of people who have similar interests.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey, reporter for Maclean’s, says the key to finding work isn’t emailing everyone you know and asking for a job, although he says that sometimes “you have to be shameless.” Success comes from having the right person know you have a particular skill set, he says.

“If there’s no one for the job and the newsroom has to go outside to find someone else, every single person who works there has someone in mind. So you’ve got to be that person.”

Being the right person with a specific background can work for less traditional media jobs as well. Samuel Brooks, community manager for Capital Ideas for the Edmonton Journal, got an email from Ryan Jackson, a photographer at the Journal, when he was in his last semester of school saying, “This job has come up and you have to apply for it.”

They were creating an online community focused on user-generated content, rather than journalist-created stories. The site brings Edmonton entrepreneurs together by hosting  events and publishing a weekly feature related to local entrepreneurship in the Journal, as well as producing online content. Brooks had a unique combination of an engineering degree, experience with student media, connections in the community at two universities, and business experience from being on the board of directors of the Gateway and being president of CUP.

He says the student press is a great place to “learn everything you can, because it’s a place where you can make a lot of mistakes and it doesn’t matter too much.”

Being open to experience and possibilities is how Wolfe-Wylie ended up on the tech side of journalism. He knew he wanted to work professionally in media post-graduation, but he refused to commit to pursuing a specific job. He wanted to avoid limiting himself in a constantly changing industry.

He says his parents told him, “Make yourself indispensable. Find what’s not being done and just be really, really good at that.” He focused on data journalism because it also allowed him to avoid “the daily grind of reporting,” which was less appealing to him, and to learn “how to present information to readers in a really meaningful way.” It was also less competitive as fewer journalists were skilled in the tech side of media.

For those willing to gain experience outside of traditional reporting, willing to move outside larger cities, and willing to take on shorter contracts, working in media isn’t a dead end. Godmere says her colleagues say that while there aren’t a lot of jobs in journalism, there is a lot of work. But it puts anyone looking to break into the industry in a precarious place where they may be employed some of the time, but at the end of each contract there’s a large question mark.

Taylor-Vaisey says he’s unsure what he’ll do when his current position ends in the summer. The endless series of contracts makes it hard to know if one is advancing or stagnating. “This is how people cobble together careers now,” he says. He’s confident that he’ll find something, though he’s unsure what it will be.

There’s no sure way to be employed as a journalist post-grad. Students can gain as much experience as possible, maintain connections with the people they work with, and consider whether the investment in journalism school will pay off for them. But there’s no way of knowing if it will.

“People only give advice based on what’s worked well for them and you don’t generally hear about the thousand things that didn’t work well for them or the other 50 things that could have worked well for them,” says Wolfe-Wylie. “You only hear about the one success story.”

With the industry still in transition, adjusting to the various impacts of moving online, what may need to change most of all is the idea of what a success story looks like. It might not be the type of success Peter Mansbridge could imagine when he started out in 1968. With the rate of change in journalism and the wider world, it might not be anything anyone can imagine right now. But young people are working in journalism, and the student media helped them to get there.

This article was funded by Media Works, a project of CWA Canada, in collaboration with the Canadian University Press and the National Campus and Community Radio Association. For more original labour stories and a handbook on media worker rights and labour reporting, visit www.media-works.org.

Media Works