The value of a journalism degree

Recently I came across an interesting new blog called Wannabe Hacks. (@wannabehacks) It’s a group blog from three people all taking a different route in to journalism. It’s an interesting idea and one worth watching.

So it was a nice coincidence to see my name, along with Paul Bradshaw in one of their tweets.

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An interesting question. Any answer I give is bound to be viewed as biased. After all teaching undergrads is what pays my mortgage. But I’m going to give it a go.

Any discussion about the ‘value’ or ‘perks’ of a degree in general will always stray in to the area of the inherent value of a university education.

I enjoyed David Mitchells take on this in the Observer. I liked this summing up in particular.

Except in the case of a few very vocational degrees, university isn’t about what you learn on the course, it’s about how that learning, how living and studying somewhere new, changes the way you think and who you are. Instead of forcing kids to make binding career choices at 17,higher education is supposed to give students who would benefit from further academic development a bit of space in which to find themselves. People who are allowed to do that, statisticians have noted, tend to earn more than those who aren’t.

There is so much I agree with there. But I found myself nodding at the line “students who would benefit from further academic development”.

University is not for everyone. Not because some people are not capable or intelligent enough. It should be just one of the environments that are available to encourage and develop people. Of course the shame of it is that for a good while a University has become one of the only environments to develop. No more apprenticeships or on the job training any more – especially in journalism. Worse still they seem to have been steadily belittled and undervalued in recent times.

That means good journalism degrees have found themselves in that ‘few’ that Mitchell talked about. They are vocational courses, training people to work in journalism because, increasingly journalism orgs won’t.

That is one of their greatest ‘perks’.

I won’t go as far as to say that journalism undergraduate courses are the ‘best of both worlds’. But a good course will give you all the skills you need and the time to experiment with them in an environment that is geared towards your experience. A chance to find yourself, yes. But also a chance to develop skills and find your voice.

But (and this is a big but) there is cost to a degree. It’s not just in the very real and important issue of money. It’s in the amount of time and effort you put in.

Given three years in which to establish yourself and prepare for work, you have to keep an eye on where you want to go. At some point university is going to finish, so what are you doing to give yourself some ‘exit velocity’

Perhaps you are starting a hyperlocal news site or blog about your experiences. Maybe you have joined’s young journalism group TNTJ. Perhaps you write for your local newspaper or do shifts at the local radio station. Maybe you even work on the student media at your uni. All of that takes time. Time you could be in the bar finding yourself. But that’s journalism.

So, given my biased position, I think the perk of a journalism degree is time. You have three years and if you are outward looking and engaged nothing you do will be wasted.

The other side
In saying all of that I don’t want to give the impression that I see Journalism degrees as the only way to become a journalist. The idea of taking a first degree in a subject like economics or law and then doing a postgraduate in journalism is one I think has a huge amount of merit. As does going through the front door and getting a job with a media organisation or even starting your own blog/publication/podcast and building an audience. Plenty of people would advocate the university of life route over a journalism degree
. But then the it always suprises me what skip-loads of extraneous horse-droppings get talked about the whole issue these days 🙂


The wannabe hacks (who seem to have spawned a fourth member since I last looked) have a very nice post about journalism degrees with some great input via twitter and the comments. Peter Moore also pointed me to a post asking if journalism degrees were a failed experiment. 

 Those posts and the comments highlight an interesting area that I think can be best summed up as ‘the difference between value and value for money’.  It’s an area I touched on but my main point was that time was a valuable aspect of a degree. That doesn’t mean I don’t think that value for money is a valid area to explore. I just think the two are not necessarily connected beyond my feeling that getting value for money does depend on how you use what you pay for – pay for a degree, use the time you payed for.

I do think it’s important to say that the issue the cost (as apposed to value or value for money) of education/training is a real worry. But it’s not just education that costs (and some think is a waste of money). If you go the none-academic route then you still pay. How much in unearned salary are you ‘subbing’ employers for when you do that “all important” unpaid internship? If you do a first degree and then a journalism PG you still pay. All of that is investment you are making.

I think it’s right and proper that students should ask universities why their investment in education is worthwhile. But let’s be fair. Shouldn’t we also be asking what employers are doing to make your investment (whatever and wherever you made it ) worthwhile?

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Students don’t read newspapers Shock!

Sherlock Holmes in "The Red-Headed League.
Jim’s fellow students always took the piss out of him when he read the daily mail (Image via Wikipedia)

Given that this is a post about newspapers I suppose that could have been “students slammed for not reading” or “students blast quality of newspapers”.

Still, news reaches me that Students aren’t reading newspapers. According to Australian research:

90 per cent of students do not like reading the newspaper, preferring to source news from commercial television or online media.

The report is familiar reading which unfortunate falls foul of a little gratuitous referencing of twitter. But, as is increasingly common, the comments just as interesting and pretty much round-up the relative positions in the debate. They go something like: (my response in italics)

  • Students are lazy or thick – maybe some are. But why does that make them any different from every other walk of life.
  • Newspapers are crap, why would they read them – there is some truth in this.
  • Newspapers are slow; behind the news – but that’s what makes the content different and the best ones know that and have changed their output
  • Newspapers are the only thing that give you what you need not what you want – this view is pompous and self righteous.
  • Students read lots but understand little – ditto.
  • Reading  a newspaper is a democratic responsibility – If you believe that then spend your time fighting the way most media outlets ignore this vital role.
  • Students see the future and have left the sinking ship before newspapers die – maybe they have or maybe they just don’t care. Either way, it’s  the media’s job to persuade them that they are wrong and make them care. It’s not my job to make them buy your product.

All points that will be hotly debated regardless of my view.  But there are two other aspects of this debate that frustrate me.

The first is a personal tick of mine. When I read…

“The future of printed newspapers is looking grim as there is an evident shift towards digital journalism.”

…I bristle.

For me digital journalism is not separate from newspaper journalism.  For me digital journalism is using digital skills to develop stories and content for any platform.  Not a medium in itself. But that’s just me.

The other is the idea that students should read newspapers to get the news. Forgetting the debate about the amount of news in newspapers, that misses the big, elephant in the room sized, point. Journalism students should read newspapers because they are students of journalism.

As one commentator (a journalism student as it happens) said

Journalism students should engage in all media forms including radio, tv, print and online. That way, you’re at an advantage – learning different ways and being able to differentiate various styles of writing.

A comment that echoes an earlier commentator

I think it is poor form for students who ‘study’ the media to disregard entire media formats and opt for banal, entertainment driven commercial television news as an alternative

The last part is a value judgement (which kind of ironic given their point) but you get the idea.

As a student of journalism, don’t read newspapers just for the news. Since when has news been a newspaper story anyway.   You read a newspaper because it is part of the landscape you will be working in. You are not just a consumer of news anymore.

If you are studying journalism, seek it out in all it’s forms, good or bad, and learn from it.

Let’s, for one second, imagine newspapers will die. Wouldn’t it be great to have an understanding of how they died so you don’t make the same mistakes?

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Ignoring icebergs: The NCTJ and sinking ships.

It might be an iceberg but it's a minor in a court case so we ignore it.
It might be an iceberg but it's a minor in a court case so we ignore it.(picture from Ludovic Hirlimann on Flickr )

I’ve spent the day in the pleasent company of Journalists at the Middlesborough Gazette (some where from Newscastle) and I’m wondering what happened whilst I was training.

Did Hold the Front Page turn in the wayback machine.

Checking my email some of my work colleagues had been kicking around the HTFP story about an increase in applications to journalism degrees, despite the problems in the industry.

The story was one of my interesting links yesterday and I commented

I’m surprised by this or maybe students have got their head around what the industry can’t (and one or two of the comments on this piece make reinforce that idea) that newspapers/TV/Radio and journalism are not the same thing

The idea being that journalism was an intresting and valid thing to study. And, given the right course, would give you skills to do journalism rather than work for a newspaper or TV station.

So imagine my surprise when I read the following quote on another HTFP story today

Eastern Daily Press editor Paul Durrant told students that he “wasn’t bothered” about them having a degree.

Speaking at the second annual student council meeting, he added: “I’m bothered about NCTJ qualifications – I’m bothered about vocational training. I’m looking for maturity, passion and confidence.

“In terms of currency in the industry, I need to know someone’s got 100wpm shorthand, that they know what a Section 39 is.”

This was said at a meeting organised by the NCTJ where students could ‘meet the council’

I am genuinely amazed at the singular blindness a statement like this suggests to the broader problems in the industry.

Durrant may be bothered by these things. That’s his right as an editor. You could also argue they are important – I’m genuinely agnostic about this kind of thing now. But what else can he offer to anyone who takes him at his word?

As a senior journalist in the newspaper industry what security can he offer in return to a future journalist who is ‘bothered’ about staying in the industry?

Sometimes I wonder if the NCTJ has been running a secret training course – Pre-Entry newspaper editor, becoming captain of the titanic in 20 weeks.

Update: Over at Dave Lee is asking for opinion on this whole debate as part of their Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalist section.

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Seesmic and the newspaper debate

UPDATE: Paul has a great blog post summing up the issues.

Paul Bradshaw has been doing a little ‘pre-blogging’ over at Seesmic with a question about what we should be teaching journalism students.

Some of the responses go as far as to suggest that three year degrees (in the UK students normally do a degree between 18-21) in journalism are a waste of time; Just too long a time to wait in this fast moving world. I can see the issue – When you are drowning it seems like a problem to have to wait for the lifeguard to learn how to swim.

But the responses show that the debate is, thankfully, a little more nuanced than that pithy summing up. Many of the issues have been debated before but never resolved. There’s a lot of issues to work out.

Also worth looking at is a little side conversation around the issue between Paul and Kevin Anderson

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Photojournalism Ethics is an ivory tower.

I’m often reminded as my status as a lecturer. It’s usually in that ‘it may work for you in your ivory tower, but this is the real world sonny’ way, but I don’t mind.

One of the reasons I like being in education is it allows me to have a foot in both camps and, importantly, the time to reflect on that. But I am careful though. Wherever possible I try to not let the minutia of everyday academia filter through. That should stay in the ivory tower.

Sometines I wish industry would return the favour.

PJ Mark Hancock has been pondering ethics in photojournalism and makes some very interesting points. At the heart of the ethical debate for photographers is the issue of photo-manipulation. Its clear that, in photojournalism, these are big ethical no-no’s.

I get the impression that Mark is frustrated that this is even an issue for snappers given the apparent acceptance of ethical practices by journalists.

If a reporter requests we do something unethical, for example, we could ask if they “make up” quotes in their stories. While they should recoil from the notion, the actions are exactly alike. A lie is a lie.

Part of me wonders where reported speech comes in to that analogy – but I digress. Mark puts the blame for ethical problems at the feet those who break the rules. But he see’s a potentially bigger problem in convergence.

Putting photographers at the sharp end of a convergent policy is common – in fact many photographers will demand that they should be there – puts them at a point where photojournalism and TV journalism meet.  That raises some ethical issues.

For Mark there is a very clear lack of journalism ethic in TV news. Why? Well one reason is that practitioners don’t come from newspapers:

While early broadcast news pioneers came from the newspaper business, most recent broadcast celebrities have not.

With an ear to my experience in TV that feels a bit unfair in a broad brush way but I have to concede that the reality (in the US at least) would seem to support Marks view.

But interestingly for me some of the blame for this comes the way of education.

This divergence is often compounded at universities. While some universities do understand the connection, others continue to place RTV majors in the theater arts departments rather than journalism.

If you surround them with actors then they are more likely to make stuff up.

In my university the TV production course is in a different department from journalism. They are taught in the same building as Dancers and actors. We actually teach our journalists to shoot and edit so it’s a bit of an odd model. But in a sense, that isnt the point.

The real issue is that because of a lack of consistency in the industry, ethics becomes an academic debate. What is acceptable or not is an internal issue.  It’s the industries own personal ivory tower. In the same way a professor will reserve the right to pontificate on the ethics of academic research or what consitutes a good student,  the j-industry see fit to reserve the right to use the moral, theoretical issues as defining features of the industry.

I don’t disagree with a word Mark has said. His proffesionalism and genuine hope for a better ethical standard in the industry is the kind of thing that the indusrty needs to drive the standards. But those standards need to be in place for the rest of us to respond to rather than react to.

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