It baffles me that in these times of increased scrutiny on the practices and processes of journalism, that people within the industry continue to have blinkered and often limited views about how journalists should be trained.
Just the other night I was watching Mastermind. On it was Football Focus presenter Dan Walker , who accounted some advice he was given by Des Lynam as a child, in regards to how to become a BBC football journalist.
“He told me to get a good undergraduate degree – not in media, and then do a post-graduate journalism qualification.” Queue nods of agreement from John Humphreys.
This followed a recent lunch with a friend and BBC correspondent who said that it was still ‘difficult’ for graduates with first degrees in journalism to get jobs in the organisation.
“We prefer them to have a proper academic degree first,” she said. “And then they should train on the job while doing a post-grad qualification.”
I have a number of issues with this ill-informed bias demonstrated in some quarters of this great profession of ours.
Firstly, it does not allow for the fact by demanding an unfunded post-grad qualification, following an already expensive undergrad degree, fewer and fewer kids from working class backgrounds are going to break in to the industry.
Now I’m not having a pop at traditional ‘academic degree at a Redbrick/20-week postgraduate course’ route in to journalism just because I lead an undergraduate programme. It’s the way I – and the majority of my colleagues over the years – trained.
But I was also lucky. I’d done so much unpaid works experience for my local newspaper by the time I graduated, the then editor gave me some paid shifts to cover the tuition fees of my post-grad course.
If he hadn’t – like many of the students we teach at Teesside – I would not have been able to afford another course after university to open the magic door to industry. I’m pleased that because we are NCTJ accredited our students can get their professional qualifications as part of their degree programme.
Secondly, these limited views show little understanding of the level and variety of technical and practical skills needed by young reporters attempting to break in to the industry today.
Our students learn how record and edit video and audio for both broadcast and online. They come up with concepts for original news websites; then monetize them; then build them.
They launch their own online publications and come up with interesting and dynamic social media strategies; design and sub-edit news pages; use Photoshop to create interesting and dynamic story illustration; come up with short and long-term policies for search engine optimisation; organise participatory campaigns with audience; they news-gather, in the real world to produce a website, newspaper, and news programmes for TV and radio for campus.
They are multi-skilled to reflect the needs of a converged industry.
On top of this they do their professional exams, including learning shorthand to 100 words a minute. They are in classes up to 18 hours a week. It’s great value for money for them – and puts the six hours of week lectures I did for my ‘proper academic degree’ to shame.
This means they are really employable. In this time of decreased opportunity we’ve got graduates working in journalism, online content creation and PR posts for employers as diverse as steel companies to local newspapers, from fashion catalogue websites to sub-editing agencies and even – perhaps best of all , for themselves, creating new revenue.
Finally, this snobbery around undergraduate programmes works on an assumption that academic and practical learning are separate entities.
It infers the training of journalists is primarily about teaching process and that somehow a first degree in an academic subject will automatically foster critical thinking in the workplace.
But how can you teach process and practice without teaching students the cultural significance? Understanding Baudrillard or Foucault is great. But being able to utilise it to explore issues and debates in the field you are going to work in is surely better.
It enables you not only to understand the societal obligations of the industry, but when your publication is fulfilling and when they are ignoring them – thus being able to challenge the status quo. As Chris Paterson and David Domingo argue in the second volume of Making Online News:
“Journalists to not exist in a vacuum, and a young journalist with little concept of journalistic obligation, of the social context of the field, and of the possibilities, limitations and evolution of the latest forms of journalistic practice, may well do society, and the news organisation, more harm than good.” (2011: viii)
In these times of increased media scrutiny one of the greatest opportunities afforded by longer training courses is space to foster informed ethical practitioners who have a deep understanding of the modern media landscape, how we’ve got here, and how we can make it better. Journalists who see that without them democracy would fail, and that they are essentially, servants of the public.
It takes an entire generation of well-trained and dynamic young people to change an industry. And for me, that’s what training over three years rather than cramming it in to 20 weeks gives us the opportunity to do.
While – limitations to kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds aside – I have no issue with the traditional red-brick/post grad qualification route into journalism, I am under no illusions that I entered the industry better qualified to work in it than the graduates leaving our undergraduate degree.
Indeed, what I say to our students is that if they engage fully with the opportunities on offer, they can leave the institution with the same level of training and experience I had post my senior journalism qualification which I sat after 18 months in industry.
This is topped by a broad knowledge base of how the industry operates and how it could be improved, which I didn’t really get until I entered the world of academia. Few journalists I know really have the time to investigate how the industry could improve.
There are lots of employers who see the opportunity of employing one of our grads. Sly Bailey, CEO of Trinity Mirror Newspapers, said: “Teesside has produced what many in the industry see as one of Britain’s leading, groundbreaking journalism degree courses.
“Producing your own paper, working on your own stories and having a website – as well as learning entrepreneurial journalism and how to monetize content, sets this course apart.”
But there remains areas who won’t even consider them, based on an antiquated sense of how journalists should be trained, which increasingly seems rooted in snobbery.
It’s time they woke up.