MEDIA : How the well-heeled hack it

Trainee journalism is dominated by middle-class graduates on low pay, and local papers are suffering, says Maggie Brown

"We call it the Lucinda problem," says Professor Brian Winston, head of the Centre for Journalism Studies in Cardiff. His colleagues at one of Britain's leading centres for postgraduate journalism training smile in sympathy.

He is referring to the danger of the course being over-patronised by well-heeled graduates, financed by parents who themselves are sometimes members of media dynasties. Since the withdrawal of its 14 Department for Education postgraduate grants and the evaporation of local authority funds, its students have to take out loans, work during their course, find a company to sponsor them, or fall back on their families.

The issue surfaced with a vengeance last week in a report from the Guild of Editors stating that entry into journalism is in danger of being dominated by middle-class graduates, often from the mushrooming media courses, who can subsidise themselves through their training.

The idea of public-school products grappling with violence at the local comprehensive or the achievements of an octogenarian pigeon fancier may seem like a useful process of cultural cross-fertilisation. But the newspapers themselves, facing the prospect of long-term circulation stagnation or decline, believe that their recruitment policies, combined with pitifully low pay, have contributed to a serious business problem.

They are out of touch with readers and communities, partly, they say, because many staff have no roots in the area but simply want to gain experience and move on, in time-honoured fashion, to better-paid jobs in the London-based press or broadcasting.

The debate flared up last autumn, when Barry Williams, then editor of the Nottingham Evening Post, told fellow editors of his strange new policy: recruiting locals and basing them on council estates. He saw no reason why regional papers should mould themselves around graduate entrants, all anxious to head off to the Guardian.

Two-thirds of the 600 trainees surveyed for the guild's report (carried out by the Centre for Journalism Studies, Cardiff) described themselves as middle-class. What comes over loud and clear is that, for many, the pay and conditions are so terrible you wonder why the middle classes are so masochistic.

They complained that their starting salaries are so low - four out of five join on less than £10,000 a year, with some salaries as low as £6,500 - that the only way to survive is to go into debt or lean heavily on their families. One, without wealthy parents, told the researcher that he faced two years on £8,200, while having to pay off the £5,000 cost of his course.

Professor Winston points out that the industry says it wants entrants equipped with a range of skills, yet the editors themselves listed the ability to rewrite hand-outs as the most important "competence" expected of them. "Does your social status matter if the paper can't afford the bus fare to send you out on an interview?" he asks.

The grind of the provincial press may be a world away from Woodward and Bernstein, but its lure remains strong. Sean Dooley, the survey's chairman and editor of the Stoke-on-Trent Evening Sentinel, owned by the Northcliffe group, says. "There is no shortage of recruits to journalism. Young people think it is glamorous, and offers job satisfaction."

There is no group salary rate within Northcliffe, but Mr Dooley says his paper pays well over £10,000.

Jake Ecclestone, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, says provincial papers are characterised by a lack of minimum wages or agreements. The NUJ has seen its provincial membership halve to 4,000 since the 1980s.

He thinks publishers should give a commitment to starting salaries of around £12,000. But he believes it would be a mistake to expect local editors to lead the charge. "Thirty or 40 years ago, provincial newspaper editors were demi-gods; now they are little more than office boys, cogs in a business dominated by a handful of big companies. They are as expendable as football managers. They wouldn't say boo to a goose, and certainly won't take on the proprietors over this."

Professor Winston says that editors could inject more diversity into their workforce by spotting local talent, then paying for the training directly. Ronnie Turnbull, editor of the Hexham Courant, says he has experienced equally good results from different recruitment methods. The paper, which pays around £10,000 to trainees, recruited a school-leaver on work experience and paid for her to train at a local college. It has also recruited a postgraduate in journalism. Both are valued members of staff: both were brought up locally.

"Weekly papers suffer because the good people go on. We can't offer them the pay," says Mr Turnbull. He thinks regional newspaper groups should try harder to move promising people on to better jobs within the company.

Alan Jones, editorial director of Southern Newspapers, says the company is changing its recruitment policies because of the "terrible imbalance" that has grown up, which has affected sales. The group is giving editors back the freedom to recruit promising school-leavers.

Professor Winston concludes: "Some wages are disgraceful. To pay less than £8,000 for a trained person is very curious. But it is not true of everybody, everywhere." He points to the recent Cardiff student, offered £18,000 as a starting salary - by a Law Society publication. The message is clear: if you are looking for an entre into journalism, think laterally, and cast your net wide.