'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

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