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)