Journalism Degrees. A failed experiment? Looking back a decade on.

Much maligned: media studies.

One week and one day before 11 September 2001, Michael Hann, who is now Film and Music Editor at the Guardian, wrote a feature: Media studies? Do yourself a favour – forget it.

The best part of a decade on, it’s interesting to have a look back at this. On job prospects, he said:

This autumn, students around the country will enrol for undergraduate journalism degrees, probably imagining that their three years of study will place them in the forefront of those students seeking jobs in the media when they graduate…

…many will face disappointment. Undergraduate journalism degrees are a new creation in this country. Even a decade ago, it was accepted that studying journalism as a student meant one of two things: either the pre-entry courses run by the bodies that oversee journalists’ training, or one of the postgraduate courses run by a number of institutions, headed by the Oxbridge of journalism: the one-year courses at City and Cardiff universities.

It’s hard not to claim cause and effect, when, in the last few weeks alone, there’s been a blog post by Lara O’Reilly on the scarcity of opportunities for recent grads and another on Journalism.co.uk which runs to similar lines by Joseph Stashko.

So maybe Hann was right? Or maybe not. Listen to this:

In their desire to gets bums on seats and fees in accounts, too many colleges and universities are running courses that do not provide students, even after three years, with the skills they need to get a job. Worse, because they need the money the students generate, they fail to identify students who are simply not good enough to work in journalism and warn them of their shortcomings. Why would anyone do a journalism degree if they thought they would not get a job at the end of it? They would not. But don’t tell them that: we might lose the cash.

Every editor who takes work experience students has had the same experience: a student in the final year of a journalism degree who will never get a job. I have seen students who, literally, could not string a sentence together. Not one of their tutors had ever sat down with them and explained the bitter facts of life: you can’t write, can’t sub, can’t interview, won’t ring round – you’re unemployable in journalism.

People like that have always wanted to be journalists and they have always been disappointed. The difference now is that they waste three years of their lives and thousands of pounds before they find out. And course tutors collude in it.

This point is more difficult to square – and a decade on Hann will probably have to concede that this was an unfair caricature. Those starting off in journalism today might not be any more or less talented than those a decade ago, but they are certainly much better prepared.

Student media. (c.2001)

Around the same time that Hann was writing his piece, I was about to start my degree at Durham. It was a small, odd place in comparison to the county that I had just left. All crooked houses, towering cathedrals, stone bridges and cobbled streets. After a bit I started writing for Palatinate, the student newspaper – which at the time was about all the early journalism training that we were expected to get.

@rebeccats might well back me up on this, but I confess that we weren’t especially good. None of us had had any proper training in how to give a news story shape; half of the features were indulgent and wore on like a church sermon and the whole thing – a broadsheet paper with accompanying arts supplement – was cobbled together on a doddery Mac by a group of aspiring writers who had all of the design nous of a gibbon.

If you look at student media a decade on, the landscape has changed entirely. Students like Joseph Stashko (who is a journalism student at UCLan) are running hyperlocal sites such as Blog Preston in their spare time. Josh Halliday – who did his BA at Sunderland – has blogged his way to a trainee job with the Guardian, and up at Birmingham City University, Paul Bradshaw has set up a course which is so far in front of the rest of the industry that a good chunk of the media travels up their JeeCamp Unconference each year to see what might be happening next.

While this all might be reflective of a rather jumbled up industry, it is far more democratic than how it used to be. A decade after Hann’s article and journalism grads are unquestionably better qualified and prepared to enter the industry than they were before. Good students are now fully NCTJ trained and in addition they know about design, they know about coding, they know about data and they have the tools – both hardware and software – to get the job done quickly and sometimes brilliantly.

During our degrees we didn’t have any of this training. We just learnt in public by occasionally making a hash of things, knowing that we’d have to go off and do a postgraduate course at some point in the future. With Halliday’s appointment – the kind of position that you’d have expected to go to a breezy-bequiffed English Lit or History grad back in the early 2000s – it’s clear that nowadays the industry is taking journalism undergraduate degrees seriously.

(Have a look at Paul Bradshaw’s list of recent successful grads at the bottom of this post to see more examples of top jobs going to graduating journalism students).

One Blair, one Bush, one photo

One incident from my time on Palatinate sticks in my mind particularly. It was in about 2003, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when President George W. Bush arrived to visit Tony Blair at his Sedgefield home. Bush ate a pub lunch while surrounded by a scrum of security and then disappeared off the sky in his helicopter.

The most we managed on the event was a grainy photograph at 150 paces and a short news piece. I wonder how that story would have been reported now with trained bloggers and teams of student journalists: Twitter, AudioBoo, Posterous and all the rest of it. It’s would be a good measure of how student reporting has moved on.

But where are the jobs? There has been a 24% increase in applicants for journalism courses over the last year and the industry is being squeezed. You can’t help get the feeling that trying to get all the journalism graduates into relevant jobs is like trying to jam an elephant into a thimble.  So on that count, I think Hann’s first point stands – and that journalism educators and universities should make this fact as plain as possible to student applicants. After all, no torture is equal to that of encouragement of hope.

I still think, though, that the good grads (have a look at Lara O’Reilly if you want an example of one) will still do well and find their way. They’re already better prepared than a load of us lot were back in the summer of 2004 and what the best ones need now more than anything is a little luck.

Paul Bradshaw has recently begun a series on successful journalism students who have gone on to great jobs in the media. To see all nine of those profiled so far, have a look at the New Online Journalists.

(Image: Prebends Bridge in Durham, by BigBadsWorld on Flickr)

17 thoughts

  1. As one of your previous undergrad students Andy, I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I relished the space and time to find myself. I found great benefit in having time to experiment, to develop skills and find my voice.

    I still have the nagging doubt however, that all the worthwhile content from my BA Journo degree could have been taught within a year, and at a much lower cost than my student loan statement shows currently.

    This is why, if I was to rewind five years, I would have taken the route of a politics degree, followed by a postgrad journalism course. At UCLan, much is made of former students who are now in the industry. A good chunk of these are from the postgrad courses.

    Universities should be more candid in their representation of how likely securing a job in the industry is. Of those who graduated alongside me two years ago, I’d guesstimate only 30% of them are working in a media-related environment full time.

    Undoubtedly, students should have to motivate themselves to secure experience in the industry they want to enter. I do feel that course tutors could do more to facilitate and encourage such experience, as it is so vital to gaining employment following graduation.

    I have no regrets after studying at UCLan, and am thankful for all the opportunities I was offered. I will still always have the opinion that while time may be a perk of a journalism degree, a shortcoming of them is too much time at to high a cost.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  2. Some very good points Dean.

    I don’t disagree that the cost in terms of money of a degree is too high considering the salaries you could expect in industry. The current backlash against universities and the idea that they somehow have to prove their worth to an industry supposedly struggling to recruit is pretty hollow when most of those industries (and I’m not just talking about journalism) have really offset the cost of training to universities. A tax on them rather than graduates would seem fairer in that respect.

    In terms of the perks, I still think that time is the perk but, as you rightly say, that comes at a price

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  3. I think it all depends what you make of that time. A journalism degree should be a springboard to get you into doing placements, writing stories, doing student media etc. After all, you can apply for a student NUJ card and be officially recognised as a training journalist for one/three years – allowing you access to information. Put yourself about and you’ll make your own luck. Journalism is ultimately about people, and if you’re out there mixing it up with people you’ll find stories, make contacts and that will help you get a job.

    If you sat around for three years, think the practical element of the course gives you some god-given right to a job and then bitch and moan when people aren’t impressed by your Microsoft Word cuttings then don’t be surprised.

    Motto for university should be work hard, play hard, and then work harder. If you can’t make it in for an 8 AM newsday and function like a trooper after a night on the lash, how are you going to cope in the real world?

    I actually think journalism tutors should be harsher, I think they often take a lot of bollocks off people who aren’t really that bothered and that impacts on those who really want to get on and do something.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  4. I was in the same year as Dean and I know Ed relatively well through Pluto and other projects.

    I can appreciate both sides of the argument. I found myself slightly envious of the intensity that the post-grads endured, maybe that’s just my trait. They had all the core modules in the one year and I am sure they benefited from the increased pressure – of course, they will have already had the experience of getting their degree and graduating.

    I think that the three year course took a while to get going. From the end of my first semester to the end of my second year, I don’t remember an awful lot of what I did academically. The third year was very good, in particular the main newspaper module (I did the print/module route), and I feel that this should have come earlier. I felt like I was really learning from the course and it was benefiting me outside the course too, but then it felt like it came to an abrupt end.

    I think too that if you’re going to have a three-year journalism course then it’s got to help you get a good understanding of what you need. I am a total novice at broadcasting, as I took the print route. I think now if you want a job, you need to be able to shoot video, record audio as well as the print stuff, and while to an extent anyway can do that, I can’t do that with the authority of others. I’d have liked to have done one year of broadcast and one year of print.

    I did plenty of stuff outside university, and I am in total agreement with Ed that people shouldn’t just expect to sit around and for things to happen. But that said, if most of the groundwork is to be done outside of the course, then perhaps people would be better off studying something else and taking journalism as a post-grad option. It at least gives them something to fall back on. As things are, I don’t think I boast the skill set to be an all-round journalist (mainly due to my broadcast “failings”) but it sometimes feels like because my degree is in journalism, I’m stuck with it.

    Another issue is the fact that the industry hasn’t a clue what direction it’s going, which makes it even more difficult for universities to put on the right course and in the right format, particularly when so much can change over a three-year period.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  5. I wish that all students were so eager to get on! As tutors we can only do so much and a lot of students don’t appreciate that they need to take every opportunity outside class to get more professional experience – student media, work experience, creating websites and pitching ideas etc, etc. In the past I thought a lot of this was down to laziness and lack of ‘get-up-and-go, but now I think some students are actually quite shy or don’t feel they have the confidence to talk on the phone to an editor.

    The good students (of which we also have many) do grab at everything. They do turn up to the guest lectures and ensure that they have a business card with their website URL on to pass on at the end.

    It’s very interesting to hear students say we should drive them more – I tend agree. Often the first thing that hits those getting their first job in a newsroom is how quickly they have to turn out the copy. It’s pretty relentless and there’s little time to ponder the benefits of a drop intro. My experience in the ‘news factory’ tallies with that outlined by Nick Davies. However, replicating that exact pressure day-in-day-out can be difficult in a university environment.

    I agree with Andy that so much ‘horse-droppings’ is written and does become tedious. Yes, university is not for everyone. But having more people at university and workforce educated at a higher level allows us to compete in a global economy. Many countries get this. Sadly, in the UK we don’t seem to appreciate the role of HE.

    Also I am pretty convinced that students must now operate on a global level and be prepared to be far more flexible in considering where in the UK (and world) they want to be working.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  6. @james – I think there are some fair points there. The balancing act with a degree is always trying to get stuff in that will be immediatly useful (ie when you get that first job) but also stuff that may be of use further down the line. The conflict then is between always wanting to be ‘doing’ stuff and not reflecting on it or the context (oftne seen as the academic bit). Even if we don’t get it right all the time I hope we do our best to balance that out as much as we can within the space we are given to change things. I know that can seem slow but I think we are faster than industry with some of this stuff :)

    @steve – I think there will always be a tension between those who grab the opportunities by the horns and those who simply consume. In a way it goes back to my response to @james , that’s a difficult circle to square with all the other pressures uni life puts on staff and students alike. The ‘horse droppings’ statement was not mine it was a dig at Ian Priors ‘baited’ intro to the post I linked too. :)

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  7. This is all very interesting.

    Dean & James, I felt a lot like that when I graduated – ie that the three-year course was a bit stretched and perhaps the core modules could’ve been taught in one.

    But, in retrospect, I’m not convinced that would practically work.

    For one, I really don’t think I (or most people) would be mature enough to handle such an intensive ‘degree’ while still 18, 19 or 20. University is a lot about the experience.

    It works as a post-grad course precisely because they’ve already done the three years of learning.

    But, for me, there is a separate argument about secondary modules that could be taught alongside the core ones. I always think you could teach something like modern (post WW2) history as a module – instead of something like International Journalism. How many occasions in a career would you need to know the bits you were taught in IJ? As a clue, I graduated in 2003 and have never needed them.

    But something like modern history – or politics, etc, reporters and journalists would use information like that on a near-daily basis, I think.

    How many reporters would’ve known the arguments for and against things like proportional representation or coalitions, etc, as the election was going on? Yet so many stories either directly or indirectly had links to politics at the time.

    I did an elective module on economics and it was the best thing I did in all three years because, if you can understand the basics, everything suddenly makes sense. You get capitalism and government and so on.

    I think UCLAN is excellent at turning out journalists who have those core skills you need. IE: They can use video cameras. They can write, etc.

    But some other things do lack. For instance, university deadlines are nothing compared to real deadlines and I’m not sure this is reflected.

    Plus, many students don’t really seem to grasp the structure of a newsroom. Sure, they know how to get stories, how to write, etc, but they don’t really grasp how it all fits together in a bigger picture.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  8. @Kerry – I think you make a great point about the extra modules. The elective system allows for a free choice and there are plenty of opportunities to pick things that will enrich your journalism. The other side of the coin is that many students resist anything they don’t feel is directly relevant to the course – or what they think they need to get where they want to go. That’s a personal choice thing at the end of the day and feeds back in to my point about the ‘whole’ university experience, not just the tight confines of the course. As much as we can tell people, they make the choice.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  9. I think the main issue is that people who do a journalism course can only write about local news at the end (which is what Kerry touched on really) and this ultimately is what I feel makes a journalism under-grad not worth the money.

    I graduated with Dean and James and although it is easy to say you need to get out and, basically, get in to people’s faces you go to University to study and it’s easy to get in the rut and naivety of all I need is my degree. This leads to the argument “it’s a practical course” – well if it’s a practical course then what is the point in going to University to study it.

    For this reason it would be better to just have post-grad courses where students learn about journalism intensively for a year.

    For example, if you did three years studying business but wanted to be a writer you would have all the knowledge of writing about that topic but then with a one year course of how to do this properly.

    This brings me to another point as to me thinking that journalism courses breed journalists to work in the news factory and churn out whatever useless piece of news they can find. If someone did do business for three years before hand it is a lot easier for them to write with authority and creativity about the subject.

    Anyone can be a writer and this is basically what we were told throughout our three years at Uni and this undermines why were there.

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  10. Jonathan I sort of agree that you can do a three-year degree in one subject, then do the post-grad and be a good journalist in that one field.

    But what it doesn’t necessarily give you is the ability to be a good journalist full stop.

    So, you might be a great business writer who can handle any type of financial story. But what happens if a bomb goes off on a tube train? Would you be a good enough journalist to cover that? Maybe. Maybe not.

    I see both sides because I’ve been a student at the university, I’ve been back to do odds and ends as a lecturer since – and my ‘day job’ is working in the industry at a national level.

    You use the word ‘naivety’ – and that’s something I’ve thought too both about students I’ve seen up close and those I’ve seen professionally shortly after they graduate. I think part of this is that the course can be a bit insular at times (somewhat in the way you describe) in that it teaches you to work locally but not necesarily beyond that.

    Make no mistake, that basic skill is essential. You need to be able to write and newsgather.

    But, as I tried to allude to before, I do think sometimes the wider picture is lost. So, for instance, people can go and write stories about the recession and credit crunch – but not really understand what a recession is. I know this is true because I’ve had this exact conversation with students who wanted to write local stories about people affected by the credit crunch without really understanding what one is or why it had happened.

    And this comes back to Andy’s POV. Is it the uni’s job to teach this kind of thing or the student’s responsibility to educate themselves?

    Maybe that’s a different issue – but I do get the sense, both from my own experience AS a student and the few responses there are on here – that a reasonable amount of people do seem to think there’s not quite enough to fill out a three-year course.

    Perhaps this kind of social education, even is for only a module a year, would help enhance that?

    This comment was originally posted on AndyDickinson.net

  11. Hi Peter,

    Found this because Lara tweeted it. Thanks so much for the mention and the compliments! I’ve got 2 years to go in my undergrad so we’ll see how things pan out. Really don’t know how I’ll make the leap to full time paid work, but we’ll see.

    An interesting and stimulating post, thanks :)

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