Why we still need trained journalists
As featured on Shane Richmond’s, communities editor for telegraph.co.uk, blog:
As a trainee journalist about to finish the postgraduate diploma at Cardiff School of Journalism, the last thing I want to hear are the smug tones of a professional journalist telling me my tears, sweat and hard work are a waste of time.
Last week Sarah Lacy, a technology journalist and Valley Girl columnist for BusinessWeek, wrote a piece for TechCrunch entitled “Who The Hell Is Enrolling in Journalism School Right Now?”.
The answer: hundreds upon hundreds of generation-Y students who want to be journalists and cannot afford to rely on the ‘get lucky’ approach which boosted the careers of old-school journalists. Of course the post was bound to raise eyebrows. The link has been batted across the Twittersphere like a blow-up replica of Lacy herself, getting more and more battered with each micro-blog.
Lacy has since been called a moron, an idiot, and told she is the one who should go to journalism school after such an awful argument. Someone called Jeff writes:
Now, writing in that arrogant tone that J school isn’t the place to learn the latest forms of application of the art of Journalism is a not only ignorant but an excellent example of bad journalism within itself.
The argument is based on the idea that in the digital age, journalists no longer need traditional skills taught in journalism schools. Lacy writes:
Journalism schools are like foot-binding. They force you into a style that a bunch of dinosaurs all agreed was acceptable a zillion years ago. So in an age of blogging, you have no voice.
If Lacy had been to journalism school she would have learned to research a little before making such wide accusations. Top journalism schools in the UK and US are training the next generation for a rapidly changing industry where multimedia skills and online collaboration are essential.
Cardiff, London’s City and New York are training a breed of tech-savvy, web 2.0 skilled journalists of the future. Just ask Jeff Jarvis who lectures at New York. What’s more, new media skills are built on a foundation of traditional news reporting fundamentals – shorthand, knowledge of media law and public administration – which give you a head start for tight employers relieved not to have to fund this training.
But Lacy thinks lack of training will help you go far:
I think it was precisely that total lack of journalism training that gave me an edge. I never worked the cops-and-courts beat. I don’t know how to write an inverted pyramid story or even really what that is. I do know how to write for different platforms, be scrappy and break news.
She uses the example of some poor old friend, who went gaily off to journalism school while she miraculously gained a job on her local paper.
Well good for you, Lacy. Aren’t we all pleased about your mind-blowing ascent to success. Excuse me if I sound a little bitter – why wouldn’t I be happy for your comparative stardom while I open another can of cold basics baked beans? But patronising inflection aside, Lacy’s argument is based on the flawed premise of ‘what worked for me should work for everyone else’ – a kind of survivorship bias. The point to raise in the to-train-or-not-to-train debate is that whether you decide to go to journalism school is based on a number of contributing factors – there is no right or wrong answer.
Firstly, you need money. It’ll cost you about £20,000 to spend a year at City University’s Journalism school, including course fees and living expenses. Not many freshly-graduated students have that kind of money to spare.
Then there’s the option of ‘winging it’ – or ‘the non-conventional route’. This basically means spending weeks upon weeks of being a work experience slave, unpaid and always keen, in the hope you will prove yourself too useful to let go, and be snapped up immediately. This will also require a bottomless piggybank and somewhere to stay in London. Many aspiring journos tread this unpredictable path because they know enough people in the business already to be pretty confident they will ‘get lucky’.
‘Get lucky’, is usually synonymous with sheer nepotism. I will never forget Jon Snow, asked at the Guardian Student Media Conference 2007 how young hopefuls will get into journalism, giving the pithy, one-word answer: “Nepotism”. Of course, some young bright things do actually get spotted for the talent they are – Times columnist Caitlin Moran, won the Observer Young Reporter of the Year award when she was 15, and yesterday’s G2 column by Tom Meltzer suggests that he might have just landed a job too. But this route into journalism is less secure and with job cuts all over the industry, there are less traineeships for newspapers to give away to the talents they see on work experience.
So, Miss Lacy, the answer to your question is graduates who want to get into journalism. Work experience and being in the right place at the right time is no longer a feasible way to bank on getting your foot in the door. Enrolling on a journalism course right now is one of the most sensible ways to avoid the recession while equipping yourself with the right skills to make you more employable when jobs do start opening up again.
There will always be the lucky ones who find an unconventional route in. But your average graduate, no matter how passionate or talented they are, cannot rely on luck like Sarah Lacy’s. Now back to Media Law revision.