My route to Bournemouth, where I studied journalism, was a difficult one. I was originally at a rival London-based university studying the same degree, but I ended up dropping out due to illness. I worked for six months, then studied a foundation diploma in film, before eventually ending up with my first degree, five years after leaving sixth form.
One of the things that initially drew me to the course and that I still think is particularly important, is the multimedia aspect. Throughout the three years of the course, students are expected to learn and build on a variety of skills that are necessary for the different mediums of newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and online. This means that not only will you be writing pieces for print and online, but also writing, producing, presenting and editing film and radio packages to industry standard using industry equipment - from fully-equipped TV studios to software like Final Cut or Adobe Audition.
You’re expected to be technically adept - good at carrying equipment, setting up tripods and cameras - and of course packing them up again! – and have a good visual eye in order to be able to lay out your work in Adobe InDesign. You also need to be good at getting the most from people during interviews, and, importantly, you need to be able to adapt your writing and how you report the story, to whichever medium you use.
If you’re seriously looking at going into journalism, I would recommend going for a course that encompasses NCTJ exams. NCTJs are the certificates that speak volumes in the industry, and without them, your opportunities post-graduation are limited. It’s much easier to study it alongside your degree and in a university than it is to do later on alongside your working week.
If your course offers NCTJ training, then large chunks of the course will be geared towards fulfilling the requirements that an NCTJ course demands. You’ll need to complete placements at real newsrooms, and pass exams. The exact modules involved have since changed, but for me, this meant studying Public Affairs (central government and local government), Law (court and general reporting), news writing, and shorthand.
Law was a drag, but is absolutely vital for anyone wanting to work in national newspapers. Public Affairs is great until you get to the local government stuff – it’s unbelievably bureaucratic, and you’re expected to know everything! And shorthand… Well. Shorthand is every journalism student’s nightmare manifest. It’s like learning a new language, and in order to pass NCTJ-standard exams, you need to be able to reach a speed of 100wpm (words per minute). Just to give you an idea of how fast that is, the average typing speed is between 40 and 60 wpm, and people speak at a speed of 110-150 wpm. I struggled so much during my second year to try to get to 80 (a requirement for entry into the third year) and I remember spending the whole summer tense with nerves and worry, waiting to find out if I’d finally achieved 80 wpm. I did, and nothing really matched that ecstatic feeling of vanquishing an academic nemesis.
Alongside these essential topics and the practical sessions, you might learn about journalism ethics - which often wanders into philosophical territory - or news theory (what makes news news? Why are some stories leads and others are given less prominence?) and the media’s role in society both past and present.
In the second year, we also took a module in Global Current Affairs, which was a brief study of international relations, global politics, and pretty much how parts of the world came to be as it is now. We looked at Millenium Development Goals, the role of the UN and NATO, and how conflicts were resolved... or not. This helped frame the western world as part of a whole planet, which is so different from my very much westernised version of history studied at school. Everybody knows about Nazi Germany, but how many know about the start of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the role of the IMF and the World Bank, or the UN and NATO?
How these organisations work, and how international conflicts arise is something so essential for making sense of the world, but you just don’t learn about it in school. For me, as someone interested in working as a journalist internationally, one module of a quick overview of everything that’s ever happened wasn’t really long enough. But, studied alongside other journalistic concepts like news values and the role of journalism in society, learning about global affairs helps to gradually contextualise the vital importance of accurate and contemporaneous reporting - values repeatedly encouraged on the course - and really emphasises the important work that journalists do across the world every day.
In the last year, every student created a specialised multimedia package on a story of their own, with a focus on one aspect of media production. Whereas in the years previous, you could depend on working in a group and not worrying so much, the final major project really helped to highlight your personal strengths and weaknesses. Being forced to think of how to keep a story fresh by using different mediums and different angles is a great introduction to the real world, where creativity in approaches is a valued asset. Pitching skills were tested, as were your skills at finding a story, using a great angle, and of course your technical skills in online, broadcast, and print.
Of course, as with any honours degree, you’ll also be completing a dissertation on any subject of your choice. People did dissertations on things like representations of minority groups in news, dissertations on specialisms in journalism, or comparative studies of different publications. My dissertation was about how people use Twitter to gather news – it was a hard slog to get a first and involved many ‘all-nighters’, but it’s a piece of work I will always be proud of and have to show potential employers.
The hacks of yesteryear were usually History, Politics or English graduates who then went on to do a postgraduate diploma in Journalism. This is still a highly valued route in, yet some undergraduate degrees can offer really great training now - making the need for a postgraduate qualification redundant. Journalism is a tough gig, but studying it at degree level gives you a large base of knowledge to build on, and the breadth of the course can prepare you for a large variety of careers.