Masters in Journalism--Is it necessary?
February 16, 2007 8:16 AM   Subscribe

Canadian journalists: how important is getting an MJ? (and other career advice)

I've finally realized what I want to do when I grow up: Journalism. Particularly print journalism, though (when I finally get the free time) I'd love to get some experience in broadcasting/radio. I'm currently working at my university newspaper as webmaster and the online editor--where I mostly write about arts-and-tech-related topics--and I'll be running for the arts and culture editor position for next year.

I'm currently in my 3rd year, majoring in Communication, minoring in Psychology, and doing a Co-op program where I do fairly boring work for the government (suffice to say, the experience made me realize just how much I DON'T want a cushy office job).

I have always considered my master's but only in the context of Communication, never specifically Journalism. Does it matter what I get? Is it even necessary? If I do a 2-year program I'll be 27--which I know isn't "old" or anything, but I know so many people who are already working in their field at that age--so would an MJ be worth it, or should I go straight for internships/jobs after my undergrad? If you believe getting a masters would help me out, what advice can you give me? Do you have any knowledge on the best MJ programs? Should I branch out to the US/overseas? What I should consider as I build my portfolio? At this point, I don't know specifically what kind of journalism I want to do, but I know writing about fluffy subjects is not for me. I like hard-hitting, investigative journalism, but I'm also interested in more than just Canadian politics--I love music and tech pretty much equally (and there's plenty of hard-hitting stuff to be found in technology; just look at Wired's features).

In short, I'd love to hear career advice from Canadian journalists who have some industry experience and who aren't too jaded yet. Go.
posted by Menomena to Work & Money (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In my decade or so in print journalism, I never met nor heard of anyone who had an MJ (which I would have remembered -- it's my name.)

The best qualification is a metric buttload of clips demonstrating you can do the job.

'Tho, given the industry-wide trends, I'm not sure anything will get you a job.
posted by docgonzo at 8:27 AM on February 16, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, I understand it's highly competitive. I've been to a couple of student journalism conferences (by the Canadian University Press), but career advice is not discussed as much. Do you have any other tips for me?
posted by Menomena at 8:51 AM on February 16, 2007

Well, I like hard-hitting investigative journalism, too, but what is stopping you from doing it, say, this afternoon? Just go do it. Editors are interested in your stories, if you can contact them without wasting their time. Not hard; I've done it. Now, lengthier stuff that involves a lot resources, you are going to have to front those costs, until you have a rep. I used to think Mother Jones looked like a very promising market, except that I am not in the USA. You need specific story ideas, and to pursue them. I was not a journalist, per se, just a reporter, rather.
posted by Listener at 9:13 AM on February 16, 2007

Response by poster: There's nothing stopping me. I'm already getting some preliminary training and experience at my student paper (I'm also an editor, not just a writer).

I know how difficult it is to get a job as an investigative journalist, since many media outlets have dried up their resources for those kinds of stories. My question is not about what kind of journalism to get into or how to get into certain types of journalism. I also know some basics about building a portfolio. My question is whether a masters is worth it, and other tips that aren't typically told to students.
posted by Menomena at 9:32 AM on February 16, 2007

Best answer: Okay. This may take awhile.

I've been a full-time professional freelance writer in Canada since 1997. I did Ryerson's two-year post-grad BAA in journalism after a history degree from Queen's, interned at a now-defunct magazine (Shift), and then dove in. I've written for everything from the free mag they give away at the movie theatres to the Globe's Focus section, and it'll probably help you to know right off the top that the movie-theatre freebie pays freelancers better.

So then: J-school. The only one I see as worth its while is Ryerson. The fact of a master's, as docgonzo notes, is meaningless to a working journalist. Not once - literally not once - have I been asked about my academic qualifications in the process of landing an assignment. Ryerson's the most worthwhile program, to my mind, because it's in Toronto, where the vast majority of the major national media are headquartered, and it's still mostly staffed by working (or until-recently working) journalists. You'll learn a few useful things - if you're still unsure of your choice of media, for example, you'll get to dabble in radio and TV as well as print - but mainly Ryerson's the easiest way to buy your way into the national media establishment.

That said, it wouldn't hurt to apply to every internship you can think of. If you can land one of the plum ones - the Globe or the Post, a major city daily, Maclean's or the CBC, maybe The Walrus - it might be the best way to figure out what you want to do, and it'll get you into the pros faster and cheaper than a two-year stint at Rye High. (One of my chief complaints about Rye's J-School is that they surely could condense it to one year without any loss of quality.)

The US is definitely worth thinking about. The big US schools - Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford - are obscenely expensive (like $30,000/yr just in tuition), but they might open the door to the US market, which is of course way bigger and better paying. If you went that way, I'd probably look most seriously at Columbia - as with Toronto, NYC is the city for big-time journalism in America, and it's really much more about accessing the right professional networks than anything they'll teach you. It ain't a law degree - there's really no special skills other than a thick hide, an inborn curiosity, and a gift for storytelling (optional at some media outlets, as I'm sure you've noticed).

Now, the ugly part: No matter how you find your way in - if you do - check your ego at the door and get ready to suck up a lot of bullshit, absurd assignments and in-fighting if you intend to do "hard-hitting" stuff. Abandon your Woodward/Bernstein fantasies, especially in Canada - there's like one and a half outlets with the budget to fund serious in-depth reporting, and the plum jobs are at present locked up by the usual Baby Boomer suspects. If you wonder why everyone doesn't do the kind of work that, say, Ian Brown or Stephanie Nolen does, I'll tell you it's because the Globe's only got room for exactly one of each. I'd tell you how much less Focus pays me than it pays Brown, but it'd only depress you, and you're young and keen, and I don't want to do that just yet.

All that said, I wouldn't trade my work for any other job on most days (and mrs gompa will tell you wearily that I'm not qualified to do anything else), though the Canadian mag business is in a low-paying, idea-starved rut just at the moment, and I curse it almost daily. I've been back to talk to Ryerson freelance-writing classes on several occasions, and I'll tell you what I always tell them: You will only become a professional writer if it's the only thing you want to do, if it's the core of you. I don't mean to sound ethereal. What I mean is that you'll bump into a thousand more stable ways to make a living, some in journalism and some on its periphery - editing, PR, chase production, corporate communications, etc. - and the only full-time writers I know who remain in it for the long haul are the ones who just aren't capable of doing anything else. It's a wonderful calling and an (at times) enviable lifestyle, though a terrible, terrible way to make a living.

And that said, you should know I speak mainly as a freelancer. Staff writing/reporting gigs are a little more stable, though thus highly sought after. And also subject to much more BS and politicking. Anyway, if freelance turns out to be your game, we should meet next time I'm in Toronto for a pint and I'll tell you what little I can to dissuade you and then try to impart whatever tricks of the trade I've acquired.

My email's in my profile and I'm through T.O. often, and that's where you'll start if you want to go the freelance route, because you'll need to schmooze the right people at the right parties to make a go of it.

Good luck & godspeed.
posted by gompa at 9:59 AM on February 16, 2007 [7 favorites]

I know many of the same people as docgonzo does, working journalists in Montreal and Toronto, and as he said, none of them have a master's in journalism (at least as far as I know).

I'll go a little further though and suggest that if you really want to do a Master's degree, the thing that would help you most in my experience is an MA in anything BUT journalism. And I mean to specifically help your journalism career - I don't mean to slam J-School. I have heard all kinds of writers from the Editor of a big city daily all the way down to the greenest alt-weekly reviewer complain that J-School is fine, except that grads often don't seem to KNOW anything but writing itself.

I did a little freelance writing for a couple of years, and the thing that gave me a huge advantage - and I was selling articles at a decent rate very quickly in my short stint as a writer - was that I had expertise in the subject matter.
posted by mikel at 10:40 AM on February 16, 2007

The only one I see as worth its while is Ryerson.

The University of Victoria does not have a journalism program per se, but is noted for having the only Writing Co-Op program in the country. Every single person that I know who has done the Writing Co-Op with aims towards a career in journalism has succeeded.
posted by solid-one-love at 12:58 PM on February 16, 2007

Late getting back to the reply and v. glad to see that gompa has nailed all the points (and more) that I was planning.

1. J-school isn't useful for skills as much as for networks and contacts.

2. If you have an idea about doing anything else, do it.


4. Not profit!
posted by docgonzo at 1:41 PM on February 16, 2007

I started freelance writing when I was still in university. I took a few journalism courses while I was in university. I asked my journalism prof (former Ryerson prof, Peabody winner, slightly famous Cdn journalist and now head of UVic's writing program, I think) if I needed a bachelors degree in journalism. She told me you can only do so much to teach a journalism and that the rest comes from hard work and personality.

I published my first paid article in The Ottawa Citizen when I was 19 or 20. Over the next few years, I wrote for magazines and newspapers. Because I wanted to live on the West Coast and earn a very good income, I decided to do freelance writing for the high tech sector, instead of just for the media. Eventually, I got interested in marketing and moved more in that direction. However, I still do a lot of freelance writing.

One of my closest friends is a magazine editor. You would recognize the names of magazines on which she's worked. She has a BA in Communication and she did co-op. In fact, we both did co-op. It made a huge difference to our futures and allowed us to snap up great jobs after graduation. In fact, most of the successful writers I know came through co-op programs. I don't know anyone with an MJ.

I thought long and hard about doing an MJ. But I ended up doing an MBA. I figured an MBA would really make me stretch my mind, since I was coming from English and Communication and all that. An MJ would have mostly reinforced or boosted my existing skills.
posted by acoutu at 2:17 PM on February 16, 2007

Ryerson doesn't even have a master's program in journalism until this fall. Plenty of Ryerson grads pick up plum jobs at Toronto dailies, my friend included. Don't worry about it being a master's degree because no one cares right now.

Depending on the kind of work you're doing at university, you may not even need J-school. I've got other talented friends working/interning at the Globe without spending a single second in J-school. What did it for them was writing experience beforehand—between the three of them they had daily experience at the Edmonton Journal, the Victoria Times-Colonist and the Kingston Whig-Standard, plus one of them had a summer stint at Eye Weekly in Toronto.

Alternative weeklies seem to be a great place to pick up an intern spot—everyone I know who's worked at Eye says they'll take anyone who's keen for the intern spot. Getting an internship at a daily is harder but certainly not impossible; getting a desk job at a smaller daily or a community paper is another option that may work well for you, so long as you aren't afraid of being shipped out to Fort McMurray for a year or two. (I had a friend that did that too. She loved it.) If you're looking for magazine work, Toronto is the place to be.

What J-school will give you is a cohort of like-minded colleagues, some writing polish, and an easier in when it comes to internships. It is by no means a dealmaker, nor is it a dealbreaker to go without. Some people find it gives them the direction they need, while others find it largely a waste of time and see it as paying for connections.

One last thing: the editors I've spoken to, magazine and newspaper, all seem to want seasoned candidates. I've been told point blank that the more you can do outside the straight and narrow journalism path, the better. Even something like taking that trip to Europe or volunteering for the United Way would be evidence of worldly experience. Taking a couple of years to try for internships while doing some other interesting things is not at all a setback in the industry. Quite the contrary.
posted by chrominance at 2:19 PM on February 16, 2007

Gompa, that was such a fantastic post. I'm trying to build a full-time freelance writing job with no degrees. I've done a couple of unrelated stints in higher education and I'm now trying to acquire some actual skills by taking continuing education courses in Ryerson's journalism and magazine publishing programs. Returning for a degree is really not a possibility for me (I'm in my 30s, I have bills, and Ryerson's BJourn doesn't allow part-time.)

Do you think you'd have some advice for me? If so, I'd love to meet up sometime. I feel like the odds are against me with all these kids with degrees around me.
posted by loiseau at 2:27 PM on February 16, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, fantastic answers across the board; some confirmed ideas I already had, many glimpses I had never even considered. Thanks guys, I will contact some of you via e-mail with some more specific questions sometime this weekend/next week.

If you have an idea about doing anything else, do it.

This is advice I heard a million times over when I was considering a career in theatre. I was always scared I wasn't going to make it, and my parents/teachers/social network had always told me that being financially secure was the way to go; it was essentially carved into my brain that a good life consisted of a steady, reliable job--no matter how boring ("you can always switch jobs").

Up until a little while ago, I was still in that mindset. But I'm finally realizing just how important it is to feel good about the work that you do, and to make sure you get something out of it at the end of the day night (no matter how late it is).

This semester, I'm working 60-70 hours a week with my co-op job and being the Fulcrum's online editor. While I've worked similar hours in the past, this is the first time where I don't hate my life. Being a (albeit, student) journalist makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. So no, I don't really think I want to do anything else.

Thank you.
posted by Menomena at 3:19 PM on February 16, 2007

loiseau: Would be happy to meet. I'll be through T.O. some time in May. Email's in the profile; drop me a line and we can see about arranging something from there once I know more about my plans.
posted by gompa at 8:13 PM on February 16, 2007

Attended UVic and got a Creative Writing degree (fiction, hahahaha!). Did freelancing, discovered that nobody wants to pay actual money for a piece about fish farming. I also discovered that print journalism is dying in Canada. Like another commenter, moved on to covering the tech sector, and now conduct industrial research and am considered a subject-matter expert. Worked as a speechwriter for government, too. I discovered I wanted to eat more than I wanted to stay true to my craft. In a strange twist of fate, I started translating for Japanese television, and I'm paid top, top rates. The reason: my writing skills. Not that I'm Charlie Kaufman or whatever, it's just that not a lot of translators can actually write.

Anyway, anyone who has gone through UVic's Southam post-grad diploma course (not open to those with any sort of CW degree, alas) has gone on to great things. The Writing Co-Op is a job creation machine.

UBC's MJ program seems to be for mid-career professionals looking for senior management positions at their orgs.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:40 PM on February 16, 2007

Thanks guys, I will contact some of you via e-mail with some more specific questions sometime this weekend/next week.

If any of those questions do not involve private personal information, I'd love (and so would uncounted thousands of lurkers!) to see them asked and answered here, as a resource for the community at large. Just a thought.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:03 AM on February 20, 2007

Response by poster: Agreed, stavros. Here is my e-mail exchange with gompa:

> > I do have some more questions for you though:
> >
> > 1. Does it really pay that poorly?

Relatively speaking, yes. I'm talking mainly about the freelance game here, and I'm talking in comparison to other things thought of as highly skilled professions. Depends on how much you work, in what genres and for whom - as a rule of thumb, fluffier pays better - but overall your income fluctuates like crazy and you will be intimate with the phrase "cashflow crisis" like it's your middle name. You will inevitably find yourself owed thousands of dollars but lacking in enough money to buy the non-generic pasta down at the supermarket. You'll have to cajole, pester, beg and harass the people who owe you money, and you'll find yourself feeling thankful for their good grace at paying you what they owe you. Late.

That said, it's a living. You get to a point, if you're good, where there's enough rolling on several fronts that you hit a crisis only once every year or two instead of quarterly. I can't speak for the industry in general, but at the risk of sounding preeningly self-important, I'm generally considered to be in the upper ranks of the freelance biz - I've won several Natl Mag Awards, had a book (briefly) on the Globe's bestseller list, am well-regarded by editors at A-list Canadian mags - and I do get by. Most of the time. Sometimes easily, sometimes just barely.

I'm 33. I co-own a house with my wife (who recently moved to full-time freelance photography after a govt job and then maternity), and we have a daughter, and we travel like crazy (partly financed, usually, by a story or two), and every now and then there are ridiculously awesome perks. (The publisher puts you up at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong on book tour, or you can be a semi-paternity-leave dad because it's nothing for you to come upstairs from your basement office for half an hour to hang with the kid while your wife takes a well-earned shower, or you get to meet people whose work you respect who feel the same about yours.)

We live well, in other words, but frugally and with none of the stability of most professionals (your doctors, lawyers, engineers, sysadmins, middle managers, etc.). We have lots of hand-me-down furniture. We have to pay for supplemental dentalcoverage. Etc.

> how much would
> > writing an article pay you as a freelancer? I know
> it depends on the
> > paper and the length and all that, but can you
> provide some
> > perspective or specifics?

$0.10 - $1.50/word. Industry standard is $1.00/word in magazines, newspapers pay less than that for freelance work. This standard was established in the 1970s, and things have become so strained in Canadian magazines that the publications that pay the 30-year-old standard act like they're giving you a signing bonus or something. No one gets more than a buck until they're very well-established, and even then it remains a rarity. You sometimes work for way less because it's a story you desperately want to tell just so (say, for Maisonneuve or This or Outpost, where you get a couple hundred bucks even for an in-depth feature) or because of the prestige and visibility of the venue (the Globe's Focus section, say, which you know will be read by captains of industry and the aides to cabinet ministers).

On top of this, if you go the authorial route, there may eventually be book advances, pay for speaking gigs (which is hugely lucrative by comparison to the actual writing), royalties, grants, etc. All of these vary wildly depending on what kind of book, its timing, pure dumb luck, etc. etc.

While on the topic of
> pay, how poorly do
> > staff positions pay? I know you freelance but
> maybe you have friends
> > who are staffed who haven't minded telling you
> their salary figures.
> > Examples are awesome.
> >

I don't know for certain, actually. Masthead - Canada's "magazine about magazines" - does an annual salary survey. Available online only by subscription, alas. My sense (and/or vague recollection of the Masthead survey from like '03) is that your average mid-level large-circ mag editor or staff newspaper reporter make the about the same, and that it's probably in the $40-70K range, but I really don't know.

> > 2. How can I get better?

Read lots. Write lots. Rinse. Repeat.

I feel like there's so
> many types of writing
> > I want to experiment with, and not enough time to
> do them all. Right
> > now most of my experience is writing about the
> Internet and music with
> > a somewhat phenomenological tone. But I want to
> get more experience
> > doing plain ol' news reporting, but if I win the
> arts editor position
> > next year, I'm not going to have any time. The
> lack of time thing
> > really pisses me off, because I want to do
> sooooooooooo much and I'm
> > sooooooooo impatient!

Please don't take this as in any way condescending: You're 23. You're pretty sure you know what you want to do with your life. You're gold.

I spent my two years at J-school living with a couple of friends in a decrepit joint in a somewhat divey Toronto neighbourhood. There were many parties. Lots of indulging in all the things people indulge in. We called it our "California Period." A few years later, I tagged along with my wife to India for a year. Barely worked, at least for pay. Most valuable year of my professional development, without doubt. I was nearly 30 before I even began to act like a "responsible" "adult," and I still don't look like one to lots of people, I'm sure.

If you can manage it, go away. Spend many months immersed in a world that isn't yours. Observe. Watch all your silly notions about what's right and reasonable and normal fall away. You'll be a better reporter for it, I can guarantee you.

Also, as best you can, try to think of your life as a flow, not a series of errands to be completed. (In much the same way, the line between "work" and "leisure" may disappear entirely for weeks on end.) Uncertainty is the handmaiden of the writing life or something like that, and learning that you don't need to know exactly what next year will look like to feel comfortable with the direction you're heading is one good way to get used to all that uncertainty.

I have a contact at a local
> community paper, so
> > I can probably volunteer for them over the summer
> and hope he gives me
> > newsy assignments, but do you have any ideas on
> how else I can improve
> > my reporting skills?
> >

Again: practice. Years and years of it. The "skills," such as they are, are mostly inborn anyway. Be observant and curious. Beat reporters develop solid contacts, learn shortcuts to churn out stories when very little's worth writing about, but you're not a lesser reporter for not learning these habits unless and until you need to. (I did a year at Time Mag [Cdn edition]. Learned how to do like six interviews in two days, turf 9/10s and use a two-line quote from each. I still don't know whether that was a valuable skill or not.)

If long-form in-depth writing's your thing, look for a book called "The New New Journalism," which is a collection of Paris Review-type in-depth interviews with major non-fiction writers (Eric Schlosser, Gay Talese, Michael Lewis, etc. etc.) on the tools of their trade. It's the only book of its kind I've ever seen, where these guys actually explain *how* they find and develop their stories.

And as I said: Travel. And when you can't travel, read about places and times you don't know. This will serve you as well as any "skills" development. Better.

> > 3. What kind of stuff I should avoid doing with my
> portfolio? What
> > kind of stuff should I be doing with my portfolio?
> Technically
> > speaking, I think they like pdf files. How about
> links to website
> > pieces? Or does it just depend on the
> organization?
> >

I'll say maybe. I dunno. You put together a carefully crafted query, and then you send it with your three best-ever pieces of writing, and then no one reads it and you get the editor on the phone and if you've got a bit of a track record all that matters is if you (and the idea) sounds interesting in a minute or less. Or you get to ranting at someone at an industry party, and you follow up a day later by email, and presto you've got a feature assignment. (I got much more work out of party conversation when I lived in Toronto than I ever did from queries. I'm not exaggerating at all.)

And until you've got a track record? Luck and persistence. Be aggressive and humble. Thick-skinned. It isn't personal. I don't mean to sound glib. It's just . . . I dunno. There are no rules, and the ones there are - the formal query process they'll teach you at Ryerson, for example - are no more fruitful than any other.

That said, pdfs are surely good, and I should have more of them, and if you know how to turn a bankers-boxload of clips into pdfs, I'd like to know, because I should really get on that.

> > 4. Lastly, is there any hope for me? I want to
> settle down and have
> > kids when I'm like... 30. I'm turning 23 in April
> and I realized
> > yesterday that OK Computer turns 10 years old this
> year, and holy shit
> > has it really been ten years since I've been
> listening to good music?
> > Why do I feel so old? Why do I feel like the clock
> is ticking? I know
> > it's just me freaking out, but I still have
> haunting voices in my head
> > telling me about job security and all that. I have
> connections to
> > pursue many non-journalism related paths, but I
> believe they will only
> > result in me being bored out of mind. I've done
> many boring jobs (I
> > did tech support in high school for 4 years to pay
> for my tuition, web
> > monkey positions, and am now doing online
> marketing for the govt).

If I've learned a single hard and fast rule in my professional life, it is this: I've never felt fulfilled by anything I ever did just for the money (and/or security). That's why I don't work at Time Magazine anymore.

Freelance writing on its most maddening penny-pinched editor-hacked-my-best-stuff-to-pieces sort of day beats anything else I can think to do for a living. If you're driven to do it, you'll make it work. Your life
will be richer than if you knew where your money was coming from for the next ten years or fifty. Learn, as best you can, to embrace that uncertainty. You'll need to, or you won't likely last.

> > it possible to do a dayjob and freelance? Btw, the
> only reason I can
> > really afford to pursue journalism at this point
> in time is because my
> > bf is already in the workforce and does sales, and
> thusly, will
> > probably always make much more money than me.
> >

It might be possible to moonlight, but I doubt it'll last. The other gig will be easier, more stable, and you'll do less and less of what you love.

Just jump in. Go for it. Like I said, you're 23. You've got nothing but time to experiment, figure out what your limits are, what kind of life you want to build for yourself.
posted by Menomena at 8:31 AM on February 23, 2007 [4 favorites]

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