Broadening the field – how to get more working class kids into journalism

SEVEN years ago I left industry to lead a newly founded journalism course at Teesside University which was managing to keep fewer than half those recruited.

Today that course reached the top ten of The Guardian League tables for journalism.

This matters not only because it is a badge of honour (I’m not going to pretend I’m not thrilled), but because of the opportunity courses like this  offer to young people often excluded from media jobs due to their socio-economic background.

Some of them come from the kind of places that Benefits Street was recently filmed and others from as far afield as London.

The vast majority are state educated and often the biggest barrier we have to overcome is building their confidence. We work on interview and presentation skills a lot.

LEAGUE TABLES: Our core course is Multimedia Journalism with two new programmes this year

LEAGUE TABLES: Our core course is Multimedia Journalism with two new programmes this year

They leave us as digital media professionals who can work across all platforms. And then get jobs – increasingly globally.

Last year we got 60 per cent of graduates into media related jobs within six months, in an area with one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country.

We’ve had grads born and bred in ‘Boro’ working in Australia, America and France.

These young people should be celebrated. Instead there is still snobbery from huge sections of industry regarding courses like ours and whether these graduates are fit for purpose.

A couple of years ago I watched an episode of Celebrity Mastermind which featured Football Focus presenter Dan Walker , who recalled 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 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.”

Students working in Teesside University’s news studio

And with that slams the door on working class young people up and down the country. An unfunded post-grad qualification, following an already expensive undergrad degree, is a luxury many can’t afford.

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. A kindly editor at my local newspaper gave me some paid shifts to cover the tuition fees of my post-grad course after I graduated. 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. Our courses are NCTJ accredited so students get their professional qualifications as part of their degree programme.

These views also 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 media optimisation; organise participatory campaigns with audience; they news-gather to produce  a website, newspaper, and news programmes for TV and radio for campus.

On top of this they do their professional exams, including learning shorthand to 100 words a minute. They are in classes up to 20 hours per 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.

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 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 of their industry and things like how ownership, race, class and gender influence the news agenda?

Studying at university enables them to understand the societal obligations and identify when their publications are not fulfilling them. 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.”

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.

It takes an entire generation of well-trained and dynamic young people to transform the working practices of an industry. 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.

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 not only in a storytelling sense but also ethically.

Despite this there are still people in industry who wouldn’t even interview them, based on an antiquated sense of how journalists should be trained, which increasingly seems rooted in class snobbery.

It’s time they woke up.

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