Fearing for the fourth estate

Time was when I’d annually get a call from a friend who would ask me to talk to their son or daughter about a career in journalism. That generation has grown older so I don’t get the call very often these days. Just as well. For a while, I wasn’t sure what I’d say anymore except, “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s a dying profession.”

When I was handing out happier advice, I’d urge them to go work at a provincial daily in Brantford or Kingston or a local TV station in Kitchener or Peterborough. Get published, get on air, get better, and keep knocking on doors in Toronto to move up and make a career. All you hear is layoffs and buyouts. There are too few jobs. I saw a young man working in a gas station the other day wearing a sweatshirt from the University of Guelph-Humber Media Studies. I shuddered.

Most of the hopeful young journalists end up in other fields. At its peak, Groupon employed as many in its “newsroom” as the Chicago Sun-Times. Of course, they were writing 60-word promos for restaurants offering 50 per cent off dinner. Those who do work in print journalism seem to spend most of their day tweeting and blogging before finally getting around to writing something for the print edition. There can’t be any time left for developing sources, researching and checking facts, or thinking. As a result, if you want a good read you have to turn to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Financial Times of London because few Canadian journalists have the space or their editor’s inclination.

As for editing, don’t get me started. Editors no long read for content or style, they’re working at an outsourced location. Their job consists of writing a headline and fiddling with Quark or some other layout software to make sure everything fits on the page. They might as well be watching bottles of ketchup go by on the line at Heinz for all the value added they bring.

And yet there are a few young people who are doing well in the business. Robyn Doolittle started at the Sarnia Observer and is now part of the high profile investigative team with Kevin Donovan at the Toronto Star following Mayor Rob Ford’s foibles. Bryn Weese began at the North Bay Nugget and is now in Washington, D.C., for Sun Media. He’s their go-to guy for elections from U.S. presidential to Nova Scotia provincial where he’s currently covering the October 8 ballot, a story no other national outlet even seems to know exists.

Next time I do my tapdance for a would-be journalist, thank goodness I have some success stories to point to.

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