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06 November 2011

Journalism Training: New Model Needed

We've all heard the story of the traveller, lost in a strange land, who stops a peasant to ask for directions to the nearest town anyone's heard of.

"Ah, if you want to get to there, I wouldn't start from here" comes the idiot-savant's reply

The exact locations, and the accents used, depend on the national stereotypes shared by the teller and the audience, but the sentiment, I believe, applies right now to journalism training in the UK.

Given a blank sheet of paper, no-one would start from where we are.

This is where I have to pause to qualify what I'm about to propose. I have to declare an interest; I work in a university college, and I've spent nineteen pretty successful years in that environment. Nearly four hundred trainees have passed through my care, and I'm proud that a huge proportion of those have established careers in a highly competitive news industry.

For much of that time I've been pretty much left alone to operate as I see best; striking a partnership with BCB Radio, for example, to give my trainees a real-world platform from which to practice their fledgling skills safely on a real audience. Or combining media training sessions for West Yorkshire Police, or the Army, with opportunities for my trainees to learn something of the culture and values which apply in these institutions.

Making it real, whenever possible.

From a standing start in 1993 my course has built a reputation which, anecdotally at least, ensures we're near the top of the list when editors are asked to recommend good places for learning the craft of broadcast news.

The model has worked well for nearly two decades with an eager supply of fresh talent putting themselves forward for selection each year, and a grateful industry taking something like nine out of ten graduates into entry-level positions.

But now I fear the model is broken.

It's broken because prospective trainees can no longer afford the fees for a postgraduate journalism course, fees which range from around four grand upwards, on top of debts accumulated as an undergraduate. Few of my PG trainees are privileged. They've often made sacrifices, of one sort or another, to follow their dream.

But each year fewer and fewer of them are getting to the starting line.

I will never forget the bright, bubbly African-Caribbean woman from Chapeltown who came in one day for a chat about the course. She had the right instincts, a good voice and a passion to find and tell stories that would resonate with audiences.

Then she asked about the fees.

I told her. She asked about scholarships, and I told her about the limited options available. With great dignity she stood up, said  'five grand? Richard, you might as well ask me for fifty' and she left the room, never to be seen again.

The crippling debt burden, combined with with diminishing prospects of employment, is choking off opportunities for candidates.

The situation has worsened in the past few weeks with the BBC announcing 'Delivering Quality First' cuts to local radio budgets which (as I've previously blogged) could mean the virtual end of freelance shifts and the traditional apprenticeship in broadcast news which local stations have offered for more than forty years.

So we need to take a long, hard look at journalism training and maybe, just maybe, start to think the unthinkable.

In particular, the themes I hope to explore are:

Is it time to break the bonds between vocational journalism training and the universities? 

Does the job of finding stories for a community, and telling them in a compelling way, really require, as an effective minimum, a good honours degree, probably a Master's qualification or a postgraduate diploma, and (here's the rub) all the academic and administrative baggage which gets caught up with the subject when teaching it in a system designed for, say, Theology or  Ancient Sanskrit?

Is it also time for employers to stop passing the buck?

News organisations, state-funded and commercial alike, are delegating the costs and responsibilities of training their newsgatherers to the universities which means, in practice, onto the shoulders of  individual candidates.

Do news organisations really want diversity? Or just an appearance of diversity?

'Diversity' is a word I hear a lot.

It's a cause I believe in; you can't report a city like Bradford for twenty years without rubbing up against diversity in all its wonderful and hateful forms.

Broadcasters tell us they want diversity in their newsrooms but are much less keen to employ genuinely diverse candidates than they pretend.

So I'm hoping to prompt discussion on the future of journalism training.

I hope we can have the debate in frank and honest terms without falling out. I'm relying on the concept of academic freedom, a concept which allows armchair-bound researchers to criticise dedicated and hard working news teams with impunity, to allow me to also question the assumptions and practices of the sector that employs me.

I hope others in newsrooms, anonymously if necessary, will share thoughts in a similarly open way.

Because none of us, I'm sure, would ever say that where we are now, in November 2011, is where we want to be.

We need to move on, to a new model that works.


  1. “Does the job of finding stories for a community, and telling them in a compelling way, really require, as an effective minimum, a good honours degree, probably a Master's qualification or a postgraduate diploma...?”

    Four years? Listen to Radio Leeds over the next three days of the ongoing Jimmy Savile fest and tell me which package/news story/ interview/cue/voxpop couldn’t have been done by an enthusiastic 18 year old with two hours’ training on a Uher (or the simpler modern equivalent) and a week to assimilate BBC local radio’s bizarre understanding of what constitutes journalism and how it works.

    Sure, the model has worked well for two decades for all of you with a vested interest in a climate of cushy funding, but I’m not sure us broadcast news consumers would necessarily say the same.

    So, you can find a new model or not. I'm not sure we care. Every year fewer and fewer of us are going to be listening/watching.

  2. Bit harsh, but I can see where you're coming from on the Jimmy Savile coverage. @KateBradbrook is reporting on Twitter tonight that 'the last cigar' will be going on show at the Queens'.

    But there's nothing cushy about the hours my lot do, either on the course or especially once they get started in broadcast newsrooms.

    'Not sure if we [the listeners] care'

    I think you'd start to care pretty soon without someone to sift through the masses of random information out there and put together some coherent narrative of events for our community, whether that be in print, radio, TV or the web.

    Most folk are too busy to seek out, and maybe lack the tools to evaluate, such information for themselves and we should value and respect local journalists who carry out that function for meagre personal reward.

  3. You're right. It was a bit harsh. I'm sure that everyone - TASC graduates included - work very hard in their broadcast newsrooms across the region. When I said cushy, I meant the training model that has held good for the last 20 years. Sorry if it came across as otherwise.

    But coherent narrative????? Point me in the direction of a local/regional broadcaster with a narrative that isn't a dumbed-down version of 'The One Show' for the over-55s.

    When I say I'm not sure we care, it's not a value judgement, just a fact. We don't buy local newspapers any more and if a few of us are complaining about the cuts to our local BBC it's because we're worried about losing live football coverage, folk music and winter school closure announcements - not because we're losing some 'coherent journalistic narrative for our community'.

    Not sure who's responsible for things having reached such a state of apathy on the part of the listening public that the biggest 'Save BBC local radio' Facebook page I can find hasn't yet got 1,500 likes.

    Is it BBC 'strategists' with little grip on reality? Supine station managers afraid not to go along with London's latest perverse diktat? Broadcast journalists keeping their heads down, churning out the same old same old from the same old sources?

    No idea where journalism training fits in to all of this. But it must do somewhere, given that TASC graduates have presumably been struggling away in the BBC local/regional ecosystem for the past 20 years.

    As for having respect for local journalists, I do. In actual fact I'm deeply depressed at the prospect of a time when there may be no more Yorkshire Post or Yorkshire Evening Post.

  4. "Is it BBC 'strategists' with little grip on reality? Supine station managers afraid not to go along with London's latest perverse diktat? Broadcast journalists keeping their heads down, churning out the same old same old from the same old sources?"

    You may think that, I could not possibly comment ... tho' (seriously) I do have sympathy for those journos who do adopt a bunker mentality when goalposts are re-located so often.

    The way forward (I believe) is to give local radio managers much more autonomy.

    It's hard to think of a more risk-averse organisation than the Beeb.

    If they could overcome that culture and actually give their Managing Editors the ability to really innovate that would have to come with proper rewards for those who succeed and a P45 for those who fail.

    Much more like the commercial sector, in fact, where careers are made or broken by RAJAR.

    You've given me an idea for a blog topic sometime soon - thanks for your input.

  5. I couldn't agree with you more. Just finished reading Phil Sidey's book about the first two years of Radio Leeds and keep thinking what a rip-roaring success it would be if today's BBC mandarins had the wit/courage to give a no-strings-attached budget to local radio editors to cover their patch their way.

  6. A quick note to apologise for the gin-fuelled blabbing in my initial comment which I fear has caused understandable offence. It was a stupid thing to say, especially since I'm a big fan and regular listener to Radio Leeds and think their journalists do a good job. I just wish BBC local radio had more ambition. But that's no excuse for my talking bollocks. Sorry

  7. Every organisation (BBC local radio included) needs a critical friend, and I think you've made your affection for and admiration of good local radio very clear.

    Every broadcaster will fall short of the ideal at some time or another; I know I put out a few shoddy bulletins in my time running a newsroom.

    I can't speak for Radio Leeds but I'm sure all of us involved in radio generally know that when we so readily provide a platform for the criticism of others we should be graceful when receiving critical comment ourselves.