The rapidly growing industry of Internet publishing offers a different route to the top for media graduates, reports Rachelle Thackray
The sharpest graduates are the ones who search for a niche in which to prove themselves invaluable. In the world of the media - one of the most popular but depressingly competitive career fields for graduate hopefuls - the old way was to take an arts degree or media studies course, sign up for work experience at your local paper or radio station during every summer vacation, and then write dozens of pleading letters to editors, at the same time crossing your fingers that you'd win a place on a BBC trainee scheme. Of course, anyone who really wanted to become a journalist was prepared to do the dogsbody bit - reporting on council meetings till midnight, listening for hours to pensioners' woes and covering school fetes at weekends - just for the sake of experience.

Now though, there's a new route through the editorial quagmire. For the IT-literate and Web-groomed whiz-kid who can put together a sophisticated Internet product for a paper or magazine, opportunities are plentiful. City University in London, already popular for its journalism postgraduate course, is one of the first to offer a one-year Masters degree in new media, with a first-year intake of 23 students, including recent graduates and those with years of media experience. Department head Rod Allen, who arrived two years ago from the interactive publishing division of HarperCollins, says the course was devised in response to market demand.

"We are basing what we do on job advertising. The real missing link, it seems, is people who can take management roles in new media. It's about data structures, information management, and some coding - you have got to know a bit about hypertext mark-up language (HTML) - but it's also about publishing, writing and editing, design and layout, plus media law and other areas, such as intellectual property."

At HarperCollins, he says, there was no shortage of programmers, but it was harder to recruit anyone with a comprehensive understanding of both editorial and management issues. "I talked to a lot of people in the industry before I came here, and it seemed that was a crucial area. New media is a collective enterprise: unlike film-making or TV, where there would be a director, new media is generally done in a group. Someone who understands the roles and responsibilities is very valuable to an employer, because a lot of employers are inventing it as they are going along. On our course, we make them map out the publishing process and get them to understand who has to be involved."

Graduates of the course design a real-life website, and Mr Allen expects that many of them will go on to work in television and newspaper new-media units. He believes that those who know the technology, and can plan editorial strategy accordingly, will be invaluable as the Web and its potential advertising network grows. "The Internet can reach audiences that are otherwise quite difficult to get to. For example, 16 to 24-year-old men don't generally read newspapers, but they are very avid consumers, so companies such as Reebok obviously want to get to them," he says.

But how much of the hype over new media is to be believed? Alan Cleaver, the first editor to put a local publication, the South Bucks Star, on the Web - and subsequently a launch editor for the Cambridge Evening News and the Times websites - believes that IT literacy is increasingly a prerequisite for graduate applicants. Now the editor of the Hampshire Chronicle, he still receives hundreds of CVs from graduates seeking a media career. "Those who have knowledge of new media are moving to the top of the pile. It's becoming essential, just as shorthand was in the past, as papers make it part of their strategy. But I'm still alarmed by the number of students who have little computer knowledge."

Don Hunter, 25, knew he wanted to be a journalist and, after taking a year out to travel, spent two years as a trainee reporter on the Hendon Times. He recently moved to become a new media editor for Newsquest, undergoing more training to learn how to update the group's website. "The difference between my old job and this one is basically that it's a lot more about sub-editing. You are writing headlines and being concerned with how the text looks. It's hard to say how the industry will develop, but anyone who gets into it now is likely to be in demand." Mr Cleaver agrees. "Anyone with the skills of building Web pages won't be out of a job for the next 10 or 20 years."

Newspaper staff are having to learn, he says, to cope with the idea of a global audience. The traditional "spike" - for stories that had already been printed - is being replaced by huge archives, while the shelves of encyclopaedias in the editor's office are giving way to compact computers that display whole tranches of information at the touch of a few keys.

In this kind of environment, graduates with training in new media strategy will be worth their weight in gold, believes Mr Cleaver. "A lot of papers are getting their fingers burnt. They wrongly think they've got to put a lot of money into it. But sometimes they realise their mistake, then come back and do it properly."

l To contact City University's journalism department call 0171-477 8000.