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.

@digidickinson @paulbradshaw Can anyone tell us the perceived perks of an undergrad journo course over doing non-journo degree? skills etc
@wannabehacks
Wannabe Hacks

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 journalism.co.uk’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 :)

Update:

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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19 thoughts on “The value of a journalism degree”

  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.

  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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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. :)

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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?

  11. I came across this website purely through a random Google search about what options, and by options I really mean which career paths a journalism degree can lead to, and I’d just like to thank you all for the comments as I’ve found them very interesting.

    I’m currently a second year Sports Journalism student, and I still don’t know which path I really want to go down when my degree finishes in just over a year. And although that worries me, I know plenty of other people up and down the country will feel the same, and not just those on journalism courses either.

    Anyway, getting to the main point I wanted to make, how feasible is it to get into the PR or marketing industry with a journalism degree? PR and marketing have both interested me for sometime, and through my own research I’ve found that it isn’t too uncommon, but getting answers from ‘real’ people I feel would give me a better understanding as opposed to generic websites repeating the same things – which is generally what you get from Google searches!

    1. I think your research is not far off Dave. The options for getting in to pr and marketing are pretty good for journalists – a lot of shared skills. There is traditionally a divide between the two: PR is like the dark side of journalism. But its the worst kept secret in the world that journos do pr related work.

      I suppose the difference is that instead of ‘reporting on’ you are ‘reporting on behalf of’. I’ll leave it up to others to debate the ethics etc. of that one.

      I see a lot of my students working in team press offices etc ( a good way to get a foot in the door) or covering niche sports with the cooperation of the teams. In this digital world, the world is your oyster.

      Here is a great example of that. James Gordon was a journalism student at UCLan (where I teach) who runs his own company offering web and media solutions for sports clubs and orgs. – http://www.jdgmedia.co.uk/

      Whatever the choice, good luck.

  12. Thanks for the quick response Andy. Yeah I know exactly what you’re saying about it being the dark side of journalism – I had a lecturer in my first year who used to call PR the “evil” of the media, or words to that effect. Obviously it was in jest because he’s a bit of a character but I still understand what he meant … I suppose in some ways it could be compared to changing the football team you support.

    Thanks for that link too, looks excellent and definitely makes me feel better in the sense that, apart from going straight to work for a newspaper (or anything that is strictly ‘journalism’, if that makes sense) that there are other options out there.

    Not that I wouldn’t jump at the chance of working for a newspaper after I graduate, it’s just comforting to know that the possibility of working in other media-related areas with a degree in journalism is entirely possible.

  13. I’ve just stumbled across this post in the same way as Dave. All the comments above have been extremely helpful, if not a little disparate, but I suppose that is the nature of opinion when it comes to journalism degrees.

    I am a 23 year old mature student currently on a Access to HE at Leeds City College, with the hope to study a journalism degree starting Sept’ 12 (possibly at UCLan). I’ve been writing on a freelance basis with articles in print in The Metro and Yorkshire Post over the last year, albeit unpaid. Andy, I just wanted to know your opinion on the option of studying a degree like economics/politics and mastering in journalism as opposed to three years spent learning solely the art of journalism?

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