'No, taking a journalism degree is not a complete waste of time – even in this crisis'

"Fourth estate idealism is easy to ridicule in an age of Big Brother and churnalism"

Degrees in journalism have never been more popular. UCAS, the university applications service, reports an increase of 51% in the number of applicants to study the subject between 2002 and 2007. My Centre for Journalism saw a 49% increase in undergraduate applications between 2008 and 2009. Thousands of young people want to be journalists. But only a liar without a conscience can pretend that many of them will succeed.

Many more jobs have gone in national papers and broadcast newsrooms. Similar trends are evident in every part of the world in which journalism and democracy have developed in tandem. I am asked frequently how, in such circumstances, I can justify recruiting students to a degree designed to prepare them for work as journalists. My answer is that society has never had more urgent need of reporters with advanced academic, professional and technical skills. Serious journalism is the lifeblood of democracy. It keeps powerful institutions under pressure to be honest and informs popular choice on crucial issues.

Fourth estate idealism is easy to ridicule in the age of Big Brother and churnalism. Colleagues who teach media studies are among my most ardent critics. They do not consider it their duty to teach students to be reporters. They think journalism is an academic discipline that should generate theoretical understanding and original conceptual paradigms.

This is a cop out, not because journalists cannot benefit from critical interrogation of the way journalism works – they can – but because students of journalism almost always want to be journalists. I have not yet read an application in which a candidate has expressed hunger for an exclusively theoretical approach.

Most want to know how as well as why. They admire journalism for reasons teachers of media studies often dismiss. I suspect that is because only a few media studies academics are journalists and even fewer have worked at senior levels of the profession.

Good journalism jobs were hard to get long before the industry plunged into crisis. Decline is making the profession still more ruthlessly meritocratic, which is why we are candid about the competition our graduates will face. We require every potential student to attend an interview and to pass a two-hour written entrance exam set in conjunction with our accrediting body, the National Council for the Training of Journalists. We admit a minority of applicants.

Our students learn a mixture of advanced multimedia skills in radio, television, print and online journalism. They are taught how to report ethically for all media and to cultivate a healthy lack of deference, often in one-to-one tutorials. They study politics, history and law. They work hard to deadline in a live newsroom environment, start each day with editorial conference and go on guaranteed work placements with the Kent Messenger Group.

Still, one former colleague accuses me of "giving very talented young people rigorous preparation for acute disappointment". I honestly disagree, because I believe professional journalism can and must thrive in the era of the internet, and an economic model to make that possible must emerge.

The present is bleak because, after centuries in which the news industry profited from each technological development from Johannes Gutenberg's press to digital broadcasting, the internet has caught it flat-footed. Accustomed to a stereo profit-stream in which they sold readers to advertisers and news to readers, news organisations have failed to monetise the internet.

This is additionally baffling because, if electric telegraphy and computerised typesetting boosted journalism, the net should propel it into hyperdrive. It is a fantastic tool that can take information from event to citizen faster than lightning and add intriguing layers of creativity and interaction.

This technology offers journalism the chance to be better than ever. Already it has proved that net-fantasists who predicted that citizen-journalism would destroy the need for diligent, fact-based reporting were plain wrong. The delusion that publication of raw opinion by citizens with no professional training is a new idea is one of the silliest claims made by journalism's opponents.

Crude propaganda masquerading as reporting is centuries old. That is what journalism amounted to until mass education and new printing and distribution technology arrived in the 19th century. Then the addition of voting rights for the newly enfranchised spawned an appetite for information only a professional news industry could satisfy.

Our complex world needs such accuracy and professionalism more than before. That is why most online news consumption migrates instinctively to trusted media brand names.

Educating young people who have the potential to be great reporters is a judicious preparation for the day when financial innovation creates demanding multimedia jobs for them, or their own entrepreneurial skills devise ways to make excellent journalism profitable. It is already popular, as millions of visits to the websites of great newspapers and broadcasters prove daily.

Humanity has not lost its talent for exploiting machines to generate wealth nor has it concluded that there is a desirable alternative to representative democracy. Technology and the demands of the information society will generate fresh demands for great reporting. Graduates of the best journalism degrees will be ready to respond.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent and head of the university's Centre for Journalism

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before