There seems to be an almost constant debate about the training of the next generation of journalists. That there is a debate is a good thing, but its relentlessly negative tone is not so good.
A lot of the concern that drives the fears about the future of journalism training comes from employers who bemoan the perceived lack of quality of graduates from media studies and journalism courses. They are quick to criticise but very slow to analyse why this should be, partially, I would suggest, because they are frightened of the most obvious conclusion.
The training of journalists moved into the higher education sector as part of the massive expansion of the universities and the replacement of many vocationally-based training routes with degrees. This didn’t just encompass journalism but other professions such as nursing that had traditionally delivered their education and training in the workplace. Employers embraced this change because they thought it removed the responsibility and cost from them and passed it to the government. Very neat but also very short-sighted.
Like so much of our modern university sector there is a huge spread of quality in journalism and media studies courses. Many are too broad and end up offering very little in-depth training in any of the key media skill sets. Others seem to me to have far too narrow a view of the media and where the best employment opportunities are going to be. I am amazed at how many courses overlook the relatively stable and very large business-to-business sector in favour of local newspapers (declining) and consumer publishing (very volatile). But that isn’t where the real problem lies.
The real source of the problem is the very employers who complain that they cannot find new recruits who have the right skills. Quite simply, they have stopped investing in the future. This is the conclusion that they run away from because it lays the blame at their door and requires them to spend money to fix it.
At Incisive Media, we recognised this problem several years ago and created a modest graduate recruitment and training programme. This has run for the last six years and we have taken on between six and 12 graduates every year, even in the depths of the recent recession. We recruit graduates from a wide range of academic backgrounds including media studies and journalism degrees but also English, Maths, languages and other humanities. They are all given real jobs as junior reporters from day one and signed up for a year-long training programme that covers a wide range of traditional and modern reporting skills. Everyone does all the modules, which are delivered by a mixture of their editors, senior editorial staff and external tutors (many the very same people as teach in the universities). The only opt out for those who have studied journalism at university is if they have an 80wpm shorthand certificate - yes, we teach them shorthand, an essential reporting skill in my opinion. They will also learn about making videos in our own TV studios as well as the full range of print and online reporting skills essential in the modern media world.
Many of those who started with us as graduates five or six years ago are now rising to senior editorial positions and the overall retention rate is very good. This is our talent pool for supporting the growth of the business through the recovery. We are not the only publisher to do this but, sadly, we are one of far too few.
What this proves is that the abandonment by employers of responsibility for training journalists almost a generation ago was a huge mistake. Teaching people how to write an ideal news story or feature in the classroom is all very well and good but it only becomes real when you have a real deadline looming and a demanding editor insisting that you explore yet another angle, check another fact, obtain one more quote from someone who didn’t want to talk to you in the first place but do it in 100 words fewer than before. That’s when you really start to learn what journalism is about.
So, it is not the fault of the universities that publishers cannot find the right quality of new journalists as the education sector is only doing what we asked it to do. We asked it to do the wrong thing and having done that then started to treat training as a luxury, easily cut when revenues come under pressure. We employers are responsible. We also hold the solution in our hands and need to up our investment in the future.