I passed the national school leaving exam in Britain in 1941
a month before my16th birthday. There was no money to send me
for further education, and so my father asked me what I wanted
to do for a living. I said I thought I'd like to be a newspaper
reporter. I can't now remember why I chose reporting, but probably
I had seen a movie in which a reporter was the hero, or read
a book about the excitement of life in London's Fleet Street
where all the national dailies were published. Anyway, my father
said he would talk to the publisher of the local daily
The Express and Echo, in Exeter, Devon and see if he could
arrange an apprenticeship.
In those times in Britain, apprenticeships were one way into
journalism, which was regarded as a trade or craft rather than
as a profession. Some youngsters went to work as copy or messenger
boys and managed to catch they eye of an editor and be given
a chance as a reporter. The major papers sometimes hired directly
from universities. But many of us started as apprentices. The
father of the apprentice signed an agreement assigning his son
( I never heard of girls becoming apprentices) to an employer
for, usually, five years, and the employer agreed to teach the
lad his skill. Sometimes the parent paid the employer to train
his son, but usually the employer paid the apprentice what amounted
to pocket money for his labor in my case, the equivalent of about
a dollar week for the first year, and rising by small amounts
If you look at early agreements, often called Indentures,
you will find all sorts of terms and conditions intended to ensure
the apprentice led a moral life when he left home. For example,
apprentices were often forbidden to drink, go to the theater,
fornicate, or even get married. That sort of agreement in which
the employer assumed responsibility for upbringing of the apprentice
had fallen out of use by the time I was indentured, but we were
in the middle of WW2 anyway and everything was changing. Most
of the senior reporters had joined the armed forces and nobody
was left to teach the youngsters like me the trade. We learnt
by reading the papers to see how news was reported, and by experience
when we were pitched in with little preparation to cover major
local news. We were supposed to go to night school to learn shorthand
and typing, but that didn't work well because we were also assigned
to cover events several nights a week.
Occasionally, the aged chief reporter would call one of us
in and dictate the leading editorial from The Times which we
had to take down in shorthand and read back to him. I was poor
at shorthand at the best of times, and survived by memorizing
every day the Times editorial, or at least enough of the key
phrases to prompt my memory when my shorthand failed.
So we were not getting the training we were supposed to receive,
and things got even more chaotic when, a few months after I started
work, Exeter was severely bombed by the Germans and the paper's
presses were put out of commission. Editing and printing were
shifted to a sister paper 20 miles away, and all our stories
had to be dictated over the phone.
By now you are probably
wondering what all this has to do with you in a different country
and almost in a different century.
The answer is that
context is important in all stories -- the "why" of
those famous Five Ws. I'm offering the context in which you can
evaluate what I'm going to say about how journalists are educated
and/or trained in Canada today. I'm an old geezer (73) who started
in the business in a different country in an era long gone.
Bear with me, however, for a bit more context. After serving
in the Royal Navy 1943-46, I returned to the paper to take up
my apprenticeship for another two- and-a-half years. If you were
editing this copy would you have noticed that I didn't complete
my five year apprenticeship, and checked the dates? In fact,
I got itchy feet before the five years were up and moved to a
livelier paper in a bigger city. I must have been ambitious because
I stayed there less than two years (long enough to meet another
reporter to whom I have been married for 50 years) and moved
on to Fleet Street - the Street of Adventure as it was called
in a romantic book by Phillip Gibbs. I did well in Fleet Street,
becoming a political and diplomatic correspondent, but my feet
must still have been itchy because in 1956 I emigrated to Canada
to join The Globe and Mail, dragging along a wife and, by now,
two small children (one of whom is now a business reporter).
Starting again, as it were, as a general, city-side reporter,
I became in succession bureau chief at City Hall, a member of
the Editorial Board writing editorials, Assistant to the Editor
and Chief Editorial Writer, and, in 1964, Ottawa bureau chief.
In 1969, I moved to the Toronto Star as national affairs columnist.
I was conscious of the fact that I had to cover news events
such as constitutional conferences but had never studied Canadian
history. Neither had many of my Canadian colleagues, and I think
that I become more knowledgeable than most when I attempted to
educate myself by reading numerous books. The fact remained I
had no post-secondary education in a country in which a degree
was becoming the norm for journalists. When I discovered that
there was a School of Journalism at Carleton University with
a program for graduate students, it seemed to me that a trade-off
might work: the students wanted to learn about journalism and
I figured I knew some of that ( I had won three National Newspaper
Awards), and I wanted to know what they had learnt about political
science, economics, literature or whatever they had studied.
So I became a sessional lecturer teaching one course. I soon
discovered that I was not going to learn much from the students.
But on the other hand I was not a great success as a teacher;
students said I was intimidating. I'm happy to say that did not
prevent many becoming successful journalists.
However, I enjoyed the company of academics and life on the
campus, and gradually I changed from being a journalist who taught
part-time into a teacher who wrote a column part-time. Eventually,
I became Director of the J-school, and it was then I suppose
that I had to think seriously about the place of J-schools in
the industry. Not a few prominent journalists for example,
Allan Fotheringham, the columnist who is himself a celebrity,
and John Fraser, former editor of Saturday Night and now Master
of Massey College at the University of Toronto have dismissed
the very idea of J-schools. Journalism, they say, is a talent;
either you have it you don't, and it can't be taught. Given the
way I entered journalism, I could easily agree with them, and
up to a point I do. (That phrase "up to a point" reminds
me that one of the most amusing and satirical books about journalism
is Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. One of the characters is Lord Copper,
a newspaper owner given to making outrageous misstatements. Rather
than correct him, his flunky says, "Up to a point, Lord
Copper.") Now back to the discussion.
If all you mean by
journalism is straight news reporting, the best way to learn
is probably by going to work in a newsroom, or possibly by going
to a community college which emphasizes training.
In my view, it is not the business of a university to teach
a trade or even a craft. I know all J-schools do that to a certain
extent. They have simulated newsrooms, radio and TV studios,
and experienced journalists teach the basics of the business.
In effect, the students are like apprentices paying to be taught
skills they could better be taught by employers. Such courses
are inevitable because students demand them and it's convenient
for employers to be able to recruit half-trained reporters. It's
also true that hands-on courses give students the opportunity
to find out if they really like reporting. You would be surprised
at the number of J-students who never go into journalism.
But in my view the less J-schools have to run training courses
the better. Their role should be to educate students for a career
in journalism. That means building a program of studies in the
arts and social sciences (history, political science, economics,
a language,etc) around a core of media studies (the history of
journalism, the role of journalism in democratic society, media
law, some communications theory etc).There should be also, in
my view, a focus on basic writing skills. Standards of spelling
and syntax in the press are deplorable.
Can you see what's wrong with this lead to a typical news
story: "James Smith pleaded guilty to murdering his wife
in court today ?." What's wrong of course is that Smith
did not murder his wife in court today. The sentence should read,
"James Smith pleaded guilty in court today to murdering
his wife." You can find mistakes like that in the papers
every day. Shocking! says the geezer.
To sum up, if you plan to enter journalism you should go to
university. If you choose to take a degree in a subject other
than journalism, it would be wise to work on the student paper.
You'll find out if you really like the nitty gritty of reporting,
and you'll indicate to a future employer that you have some experience
and are serious about the business. Or you can go on from an
undergraduate degree to take a graduate program in journalism.
If you decide to take a BJ or a BA in journalism, look for a
program that is strong on educating students for a career in
media, rather than just journalism. If you can learn how to gather
information, place it in context with other information, tease
out the significance and communicate that to others, there will
be lots of jobs other than journalism open to you.