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Kelvin MacKenzie: 'I'd shut all the journalism colleges down'

There should only be one way into newspapers, reckons ex-Sun editor – and that's the old-school route

Friday 08 April 2011 00:00 BST

Print journalism is not a profession. It's a job, a knack, a talent. You don't need a diploma, you don't need to belong to a professional body like solicitors or accountants do. There's nothing you can learn in three years studying media at university that you can't learn in just one month on a local paper. You cover a car crash, what's there to know? A golden wedding? A court case? University may be enjoyable: you make friends, drink a lot and occasionally turn up to lectures but you don't need any of those things to be a journalist. With the possible exception of the alcohol.

Although there is no merit in going to university if you want to be a print journalist that hasn't stopped a massive explosion in media degree students. In 1999, 7,400 students were on media courses. Ten years later there were 25,400 and yet at the same time the number of jobs in the UK news industry has shrunk by 30 to 40 per cent since 2001.

So why do so many youngsters want to train as journalists when there are no jobs? I know why. Working in the media is not like working. It's a bloody fantastic job but it has become too fashionable. Supply is exceeding demand and wages are going down. There is no money in journalism and the queue to get a job stretches ten times round the block. If you want the unhappiest ten minutes of your life look at the newspaper and magazine ABC circulation figures. The print business is working out ways of getting rid of you, not hiring you!

The best way to become a journalist is to go down the route I was forced to follow as not only did I not sit A-levels I only got one 0-level despite taking 15 of them over two different examination boards. Only a special kind of talent can achieve that result.

So my advice to any 18-year-old is try and achieve three decent A-levels, go to a local paper, then to a regional, and then head out on to nationals or magazines by 21-22. If I had two CVs in front of me, one from a student who left school to join their local paper and another from a student who is 23 and just out of university, I'd hire the first one ahead of the other. In those five years he or she would have discovered and proved that they were good at journalism whereas you would be taking a massive risk on somebody who could prove they could do "it" in the classroom.

One of the few pleasures in the local newspaper industry (which by and large are a nightmare today compared to the joy of my time where fun and work merged into one) is training people up. That job should belong, as it used to, to the news editor and not run by some HR oik from who has named it the Graduate Recruitment Centre or some such nonsense.

Learning on the job may be a highwire act but it will be a lesson you will never forget compared with listening to "professor" Roy Greenslade explaining why Wapping was a disgrace. No amount of academic debate is going to give you news sense, even if you have a PhD. It's a knack and you've either got it or you haven't.

Writing is personal and subjective. From age 21 to 60, I barely wrote anything of length. The longest word I ever put down was "Gotcha". I was a short word specialist. And what do you need to know about the law? If you want to avoid libel a) be accurate and b) have the goods. If you haven't got the evidence you'll get sued.

There are more than 80 schools in the UK teaching journalism. These courses are make-work projects for retired journalists who teach for six months a year and are on a salary of £34,000- £60,000. Students are piling up debts as they pay to keep their tutors in the lifestyles they're used to. I'd shut down all the journalism colleges today. If you want to be a print journalist you should go straight from school and join the local press. You will have a better career and you won't owe a fortune. Good luck.

This is an amended version of an interview with Kelvin MacKenzie by Harriet Thurley for City University's XCity Magazine

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