x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

School is in for Journalists

The worst of times for journalism is turning out to be some of the best of times for journalism schools, especially in the Middle East.

Ali M Jaber (Dean of Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication, American University of Dubai) at his office.
Ali M Jaber (Dean of Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication, American University of Dubai) at his office.

The worst of times for journalism is turning out to be some of the best of times for journalism schools, especially in the Middle East. As newsrooms shut down and shrink across the US, resulting in more than 13,000 lost newspaper jobs so far this year, according to the online layoff tracker Paper Cuts, applications to the country's top journalism programmes have soared. Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism saw a 44 per cent jump in applications for the class entering this autumn, compared with last year.

While part of the allure of J-School must be the chance to avoid the worst job market for journalists in two decades, another part is a new generation of journalism programmes that put digital media at the heart of their curricula - right where a rapidly converging media industry wants it. In the Gulf, in spite of a tough year for advertising spending, a new crop of journalism programmes has emerged recently to serve a media industry that has been far less affected by the global economic downturn than its cousins in the West.

The most recent of these was launched this autumn by American University of Dubai's (AUD) Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication (MBRSC), which is offering concentrations in journalism and digital production and storytelling for the first time this year. MBRSC was founded last year as a collaboration between AUD and the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, but Ali Jaber, the dean of the school, emphasises that the curriculum is not an off-the-shelf solution borrowed from USC.

The program comes with an offer of full financial aid from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, for those students who chose the Arabic track, in the hopes of luring the best and the brightest from throughout the region to a career in Arabic-language journalism. "The Arab mainstream media is very hungry for competent journalists," says Mr Jaber, a former correspondent for The New York Times who most recently helped restructure Dubai Media Incorporated's television offerings. "I come from a television background, and I can tell you that of the 700,000 employees running the 1,100 satellite stations beaming to the Arab world, not 10 per cent of them have a degree in communications. Thus the predicament of pan-Aran television: it is run by people who don't know what they are doing."

This ignorance is part of a vicious cycle that has traditionally kept media jobs off the list of aspirations for the region's most talented young people. "Communication, historically, was not a very serious major," he says. "It's a girly major, a major for those who are not capable of doing medicine or business or engineering, or whatever their parents want them to do. So you end up with a quality of students that's not up to standards."

Shiekh Mohammed's offer of financial aid is an attempt to break this cycle, he says, by ensuring that the programme is full of talented, serious students who come to class. "So we go and recruit our student, we don't only admit them," he says. The first class of journalism majors has 105 students, evenly distributed between the English and Arabic tracks. Nearby, in Knowledge Village, the EMDI Institute of Media and Communication, an offshoot of India's EMDI vocational schools, launched its own journalism and online communication diploma last year, with its second class starting this autumn.

In April, twofour54, Abu Dhabi's media zone, launched its vocational training centre, twofour54 tadreeb, in partnership with the BBC, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Thomson Foundation. Since then, it has trained more than 400 students, according to Tony Orsten, the chief executive of the zone. Wayne Borg, the zone's chief operating officer, says there are long-term plans to partner with educational institutions to expand the media training beyond professional development into some kind of degree program.

For those who want an American-style journalism diploma right away, there is the option of the Doha campus of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Launched last year in the Qatar Foundation's Education City with a freshman class of 17 students, the graduate school has 34 students this year and plans to eventually expand to 80. "In the States, we have this issue of where am I going to work because the media are changing," says Richard Roth, the senior associate dean for journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar. "There doesn't seem to be that issue here."