Postgraduate: Mastering the art of journalism via higher education

In an extremely competitive industry in which most entrants have obtained a first-class degree, extra study can provide candidates with a great head start

Russ Thorne
Sunday 29 March 2015 16:35
A worker at Trinity Mirror printing warehouse checks the the first ever printed copies of the 'i' off the press ahead of their distribution in Watford, Hertfordshire, 25 October 2010.
A worker at Trinity Mirror printing warehouse checks the the first ever printed copies of the 'i' off the press ahead of their distribution in Watford, Hertfordshire, 25 October 2010.

Time was when all you needed to enter journalism was a notepad, a biro and a plausible manner. Nowadays, most entrants have a first-class degree, followed often by a Masters – and all have to be digitally adept.

The latest figures from the Journalists at Work survey carried out by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) illustrate that 82 per cent have a degree and 35 per cent have a postgraduate qualification.

“A postgraduate degree has become the de facto way into journalism,” says Professor Michael Bromley, interim head of the department of journalism at the flagship City University in London. “Most people think that it’s the best way in.”

An MA in journalism is essentially a practical one-year course that teaches the basics for whatever branch of journalism students want to enter. You learn the craft by doing it. It is what is known in higher education as a professional practice Masters. Many universities offer courses by sector, for example, in magazine, newspaper, digital, television/broadcast, financial, investigative or international journalism.

These MAs teach would-be journalists how to avoid elementary mistakes, according to Caroline Hawtin, course leader for the MA in broadcast journalism at the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan). If someone wants to progress as a journalist, they should get a qualification because employers need to know that they are legally sound.

“It is so much more competitive now,” she says. “Your employer needs to know this person they are hiring is safe as well as able to write or broadcast a story. It is better that they have made their mistakes at university rather than on the payroll.”

Tim Holmes, director of Cardiff’s magazine journalism MA, agrees, arguing that taking a Masters is a more efficient way of entering journalism than any other. “I think it is a good idea because the alternative seems to be to take a never-ending series of internships,” he says.

The established MAs boast a dazzling array of their graduates in national newspapers and broadcasting stations: James Harding (City University), former editor of The Times, is now director of news and current affairs at the BBC, while James Ducker (Uclan), is Northern football correspondent for The Times.

All Masters degrees cost money, which means that most students have to think hard before shelling out £9,000 for a one-year MA in journalism at City or Goldsmiths, or £5,000 at Uclan.

Just as fees vary so do courses and institutions. The MAs at City and Cardiff universities are widely acknowledged to be the Oxbridge of journalism. Although selective (City turns away more than half of its applicants), a qualification from one of these establishments is prestigious and can open doors.

City has the largest classes – its international journalism MA has 84 students this year, for example, although intakes on its other MAs are more modest. Other institutions pride themselves on a personal approach. Cardiff takes 30 students on each of its MAs in broadcast, magazine and newspaper journalism.

Classes at Goldsmiths are smaller still, often no more than 18 to 20. “Our courses are small and bespoke,” says Terry Kirby, director of the journalism school and former night editor and chief reporter on The Independent. “We have a very close relationship with the students.”

Goldsmiths runs a generic MA in journalism where students learn how to apply their skills to newspapers, web and magazines, with additional modules in video and audio. Work on this course is primarily text based. It also runs MAs in TV, radio and digital journalism. But its unique selling point is its live news website, on which all students work as reporters and which keeps going all year round. This covers the four London boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Croydon and Lewisham, beaming out local news.

Students on the TV journalism Masters contribute to and produce an on-the-day TV show, which is local and based on the area covered by the website.

“In my view there’s no substitute for local news when you are starting out,” says Linda Lewis, former BBC news journalist who has recently revamped the Goldsmiths MA in TV journalism. “And sometimes these stories become national as happened with the Bethnal Green schoolgirls who disappeared.”

“Most students learn a lot by going out to find local stories, shooting and editing them and producing them in a TV studio,” says Lewis.

On graduation, it is a lottery what jobs students get, according to Lewis, because it is dependent on the jobs, or rather shifts, available at the time. That’s why it is important for students to learn to work in various media and to be able, for example, to produce stories on video and in copy.

“So many newsrooms now want people who can work across platforms and work in different ways and on different desks,” says Lewis.

For those who want to specialise in the financial sector, City University runs a unique course in financial journalism, now in its fifth year. Taking 15 to 20 students annually from all over the world it produces graduates who get jobs in organisations such as Reuters, The Economist and Bloomberg.

The course has the advantage of sponsorship from the Marjorie Deane Foundation, named after a journalist on The Economist. This pays for the professorship of Steve Schifferes, the former BBC economics correspondent who runs the MA, and for student scholarships covering all or some of the fees and living costs.

Journalism is one of the most socially exclusive occupations in the UK, and City hopes that with this and other scholarships it can modify the preponderance of well-heeled, white entrants.

The Marjorie Deane Foundation also sponsors a global summer school each year that funds the budding financial reporters to visit China and New York. “We got some really great access last year,” says Schifferes. “We were able to spend time with Mark Thompson, the BBC’s former director-general, and currently CEO of the New York Times Company.”

The MAs claim that virtually all their students get jobs after graduation and that these jobs are often in the area of their choice. Cardiff’s Tim Holmes has been teaching on the magazine journalism MA for two decades and can only think of one or two graduates who have not gone into media-related work. “I keep expecting there to be a year when that doesn’t happen,” he says. “So far, it hasn’t. People are still finding jobs.”

Kate Holley, 29, is taking the MA in television journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Kate Holley, 29, is taking the MA in television journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London

“Until last year I was working as a freelance video editor making corporate videos and the occasional music video. I wanted to get into factual storytelling or documentaries, which is difficult when you are working on the fringes of the industry. I knew that I was missing the fundamental journalism skills. That’s why I signed up for this MA.

It’s really interesting, especially the media law and ethics, which is the most academic part of the course. I have also got a lot out of the talks given by guest speakers and tell us what they do. The MA has awakened my curiosity about the world, how things work and why they are the way they are.

At the moment I am doing a placement at ITV news with others on the course. I am pleased that I am doing this MA in my late twenties because I don’t think I could have handled the sharp elbows at a younger age.

I would like to work in a newsroom when I graduate. A newsroom is a great place to meet people and make stories. One of the most interesting news items I did as part of my course was about the gun amnesty.

I talked to a chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police and was impressed by his attitude towards gang violence. He saw the young people as victims as much as anything else and said that getting caught up in gangs often destroyed their lives.

Housing is a big interest. I have been trying to find out which London boroughs have met their targets for social housing by using the Freedom of Information Act, and I have a good contact at the Greater London Assembly.

I am fascinated by finding people prepared to go on air and say things to support your story. It can be tricky developing your sources.”

Most MAs in journalism are still welcoming applications for next academic year. The application deadline for the Marjorie Deane full scholarship at City University is 1 April

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