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Looking at the future of journalism

Concordia Department of Journalism faculty and alumni weigh in on the shifting media realities
February 10, 2016
By Richard Burnett

In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of the Watergate scandal. Their ongoing coverage eventually led to the resignation of United States President Richard Nixon two years later.

Woodward and Bernstein’s newsgathering, along with their 1974 bestselling book All the President’s Men and its adaptation into a blockbuster Hollywood movie in 1976, was not just a milestone of American journalism — it also inspired a generation of young people to enrol in J-schools across the continent.

Brian Gabrial Brian Gabrial, Chair of Concordia's Department of Journalism

That included Concordia’s Department of Journalism, founded in 1975. Its mission statement says: “The department is committed to serving the profession by training future skilled, thinking journalists. We see journalism as a public service essential to a democratic society.”

Yet as the department celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015-16, the profession is in the midst of major disruptions — such as Postmedia’s cutting of 90 jobs and merging newsrooms of eight dailies across Canada in January — including increased concentration and corporatization and the shift from old to new media — from notepad to iPad.

How has Concordia’s Department of Journalism adapted to the changes? What lays in store for today’s journalism students? “The current upheaval has been going on for a good 10 years,” says Brian Gabrial, chair of the university’s Department of Journalism. “It’s an ongoing move to a digital world, where we are shifting from the more traditional platforms to solely digital, such as La Presse’s move away from publishing a daily paper to just having its app and website in 2016.”

Historically there have been other periods of great change in journalism: Gabrial cites the advent of television and its effect on radio in the 1950s. “Journalism is not going to die,” he says. “People want to know what’s going on, and the people bringing them the news are journalists. I do think today on some level there is a realization that we can’t keep cutting editorial staff without really doing some damage to what a democratic society is supposed to be in terms of keeping the public informed.”

Fewer Barriers

Craig Silverman Craig Silverman is founding editor of Buzzfeed Canada.

Craig Silverman, BA (journ.) 99, award-winning author and founding editor of BuzzFeed Canada, says a fundamental difference from previous transition periods to now has been the means of distribution in media. “In the past you needed a printing press, and TV or radio required investment in machines,” says Silverman. “Now people can publish from a cell phone. This transition that social media has accelerated gets us to the point where having big printing presses does not give you an advantage. Also, the costs of getting in — the barriers — are almost zero.”

Access to news has also altered. “People now get a lot of information from things being shared on social media, whereas in the past they might have sat around and watched the evening newscasts and tuned in to the radio occasionally throughout the day,” Silverman says. “Today there is this constant stream of information. The democratization of distribution and of consumption are fundamental changes that have caused the breakdown of what was a very good business model for newspapers and, to a certain extent, for TV and radio as well.”

There are also the labour costs of newsgathering in an era of “free” news on the internet. “The millennial generation are used to it all being free,” says Gabrial. “This is a major mistake I think many news organizations made: first they had paywalls, then they didn’t have paywalls. They couldn’t quite get their act together and now the horses have left the gate.”

Recent years have also seen mergers and takeovers by mainstream media, such as Rogers, Bell and Shaw in Canada, which have also added to cutbacks and job losses. “If these companies can’t figure out a way to transition to digital and to a better business model, the amount of accountability journalism at the local level will continue to steadily erode and may even disappear for a while until there’s a better replacement,” says Silverman. “Until they figure it out we will keep seeing a huge amount of cuts. The current model is broken and the result is a serious decline in accountability journalism in daily and community newspapers.”

Silverman disputes claims the millennial generation has abandoned traditional media. “Has traditional media been serving them or have they been abandoned by traditional media? It goes both ways,” he says. “There are plenty of millennials who are familiar with The Globe and Mail and The New York Times and see them as having some cur-rency and credibility. But when they engage with them, are they getting what they are looking for and presented in a way that they want?”

He sees this as part of media’s cyclical nature. “There are things you can point to in the history of media — young people being one of them — that never change. Regardless of your age, we all seek out media that give us information that is aligned with the way we see the world,” Silverman says. “When Rolling Stone magazine launched [in 1967], I’m sure that people in their 50s and 60s thought it was the biggest piece of junk they’d ever seen in their lives. But it became a very serious place for journalism.

Today some young people think Rolling Stone is an old and very tired brand.”Silverman points to the demise of the alternative weekly newspapers. “This same thing plays out generation after generation,” he says. “It is part of the cycle: your parents hate your music and your media, and then you become the parent.”

Wide range of skills

There are some encouraging signs. Established media outlets are looking for new ways to stay relevant, such as the La Presse tablet app La Presse+. The daily newspaper pulled the plug on its weekday print edition beginning January 1, 2016, and will eventually discontinue its Saturday print edition. The tablet is now its main platform.

La Presse was very savvy in conditioning their readers to the future, and they were watched by lots of other organizations,” says Gabrial.

In December, Rogers Media’s Sportsnet showed its faith in Concordia’s Department of Journalism by making a $650,000 donation — the biggest in the history of the program — to help advance sports journalism at the university.

Nonetheless, Concordia’s Department of Journalism has had to readjust for the changing landscape. “We just underwent a complete undergraduate revision, streamlining the program,” Gabrial says. “The old way was to direct people to different areas of interest: broadcast, print, whatever. Now we’re doing away with that to make sure all of our graduating students have all those technical skills along with the journalism skills,” he says.

“This has always been a quandary for journalism programs because we’re not training tech heads. Our job is to train critical-thinking journalists to tell good stories about their world,” Gabrial explains. “We nevertheless make sure those people have the skills. So we’ve done that, and we also require them to have some other academic interest. They cannot graduate with just a journalism degree. They must have another major or a minor in some other area.”

Patti Sonntag Patti Sonntag, managing editor of the New York Times Syndicate, is Concordia's first Journalist-in-Residence.

This philosophy is echoed by The New York Times Syndicate managing editor Patti Sonntag, BA (Eng.) 00. As Concordia’s first journalist-in-residence, this spring she is leading an independent study focusing on building investigative and data journalism skills.

“I think journalism schools are important because journalism skills are becoming more specialized,” Sonntag says. “I was able to get by with a BA in English [and a 2003 journalism degree from Columbia University], although I’ve been doing constant on-the-job training since I got out of school. Now you need to learn more than how to research and write a good sentence.

The Wall Street Journal news app developer Julia Wolfe, BFA (computation arts) 13, agrees. “There are great people teaching at the Concordia journalism school but students also have an opportunity to learn something else in their undergrad, and that will be extremely useful in a newsroom,” she says.

New realities

Julia Wolfe Julia Wolfe, seen playing with an Oculus Rift, is the
Wall Street Journal news app development.
“A healthy news and journalism culture make our
society stronger.”

Onetime editor-in-chief of Concordia student newspaper The Link, Wolfe went on to become a digital designer with the Toronto Star and then interactive editor with The Globe and Mail before being hired by The Wall Street Journal in 2015. She remains mainly upbeat about job prospects for journalism students. “It depends on who I am talking to,” Wolfe says.

“If they want to learn how to code, their prospects are very good. It’s much harder otherwise: I look at what my friends are going through in the more traditional route and it takes much longer and more work. Right now at the Journal they have three more jobs as news app developers they are still trying to fill and I don’t have anybody to recommend. Anybody I know who does this job and is good at it is happy. If people want to do that kind of work, there is lots of work.”

“I think millennials and those just getting into the job market now are going to have to think about why they are still interested in journalism, and be sure to pursue that wherever it leads,” Sonntag says. “The jobs that they find and appeal to them most may not be at what we consider to be news organizations.”

Silverman — named one of the “most influential new-media figures of 2015” by Toronto Life magazine — doesn’t sugar-coat the facts either. “I think the majority of students in journalism schools will not end up in journalism,” Silverman says. “There are good skills you learn at journalism school — critical thinking, how to write well, how to do good research — and these are all very valuable. It’s tough because the employers with the biggest newsrooms are cutting. At BuzzFeed Canada we have a very small newsroom. But if you are dead set on becoming a journalist, you really need to work your butt off and distinguish yourself.”

Strong prospects

“There are more people and organizations doing journalism now in Canada than there were 15 years ago, but a lot of organizations are small and new and digital and they haven’t really built themselves up yet,” Silverman says. “While I am concerned by the debt load carried by the legacy media, I am optimistic about the big transition going on.”

Silverman does anticipate some major disruptions in the approaching period. “In the next five to 10 years we may see the death and decay of some really strong traditional institutions,” he says. “It’s still unclear who is going to win and who is going to lose. We’ve been undergoing this transition for about a decade, and I think we still have another decade of a lot of change to go.”

Is Sonntag worried about the downfall of journalism? “In the short term — let’s say the next 10 years — no. In the long term, say 30 to 40 years, I think journalism could be remarkably different. With artificial intelligence and other algorithms, I think we are going to get better and more curated results, and I think that is going to change the field of journalism in interesting ways. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing, other than we will have to adapt.”

Gabrial, who was a TV newscast and field producer for the ABC and NBC affiliates in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., before earning a PhD and coming to Concordia in 2004, sees some good signs. “Journalism students today have an idea of whom they want to be. They are already establishing their identity as journalists through their own websites before even graduating from the 25program,” he says. “They are more intrepid about their futures in journalism. This is also a generation that has always had the internet, consumed the internet, so they have witnessed all these cuts and layoffs in the industry and they’re still going into journalism.”

He is also upbeat about the job prospects for his journalism students: “In 2015 I had more people approach me about job openings and I can say that a year ago that would not have been true. Whether that means there is some shift going on, I can’t say with any certainty. It just seems better to me.”

He points to the ongoing advantages of journalism education. “When they go out in the world, they may not become journalists but they have another skill set that is extremely valuable. They are very adept,” he says.

That’s something that hasn’t changed over the years. “When we were planning our celebration for our 40th anniversary at Homecoming 2015, we went down the list of our graduates. I didn’t realize how accomplished they are.” The long list includes CTV Montreal News reporter Caroline Van Vlaardingen, BA 84, Mark Kelley, BA 85, co-host of CBC’s the fifth estate, Jamie Orchard, BA 91, senior anchor and news editor of Global News, and Jennifer McGuire, GrDip 88, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News.

“We are small compared to other programs but we punch above our weight,” Gabrial says. “This little journalism program here in Quebec has produced some really outstanding people over the years, and we will continue to do so.”

—Richard Burnett, BA (journ.) 88, is a Montreal freelance writer, editor and columnist.

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