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01 February 2013

Left Behind By Diversity

I am, and have always been, a huge advocate for diversity in journalism training.

Over the past twenty years I'm proud to have worked with trainees from a wide range of backgrounds 'not currently fully represented in newsrooms', and to have seen many such trainees go on to successful careers in the BBC, Sky, ITV and commercial radio.

However, with recent, separate, developments in higher education and in the broadcast industry I'm worried that a void is opening which may have serious unintended consequences for future newsroom recruitment.

Throughout the nineties and into the noughties there was a relatively simple system of industry support for those wanting to enter broadcast journalism.

The BBC ran the News Sponsorship Scheme which paid the fees for a number of postgraduate trainees each year to go through a course at a BJTC-accredited institution. I was delighted when my course at Leeds Trinity was able to pick up one or (as here, in 2005) two trainee sponsorships in a typical year.

ITV took on one news trainee each year for each 'heritage' region (plus one for Channel Four) and also offered a number of bursaries to pay course fees for applicants who didn't qualify for the full trainee programme. We had notable successes on both pathways.

Sky offered an 'open access' placement programme. Fill in a form on a website. If the application was strong enough (and the majority of those from accredited courses ought to be) a couple of weeks' placement would be offered. The best trainees, including several of ours, got their foot in the door and proved their worth.

All these routes in are now closed, or substantially diminished.

First the BBC withdrew the NSS in favour of the JTS - the Journalism Trainee Scheme (this is the BBC, of course each scheme has a TLA).

The money that used to underwrite postgraduate fees has been diverted to offer paid training-cum-work experience programmes run by the BBC itself. The scheme is particularly aimed at those from a 'diverse' background; black or minority ethnic, socially disadvantaged, or living with a disability.

Although a first degree is not a prerequisite for the JTS it is, in effect, competing with long-established courses for bright graduates from such diverse backgrounds.

A candidate I lose to the JTS might be someone we've been encouraging into journalism since they were in sixth form. Working for diversity in applications is the main reason I take time out to attend careers days, visit community radio stations or run on-campus taster activities which might just ignite the first spark of enthusiasm for journalism in someone who had never considered a broadcast career.

Then ITV News Group, faced with the unavoidable consequences of the recession, scrapped its postgraduate bursaries and scaled back the trainee scheme to (if I recall correctly) just 8 places. This scheme too aims to encourage candidates from a 'diverse' background.

Now, just this year, Sky has altered its placement scheme, with bids closing today for the first tranche of new style work experience placements offering means-tested bursaries to subsidise travel and accommodation costs.

I support absolutely the concept of expenses-paid work experience, especially for an employer based in the South East with only limited scope for placements in bureaux outside London. But with the new scheme comes a new rider; Sky too are now looking for BME and socially disadvantaged applicants. Others, quite explicitly, are told they need not apply.

I understand the thinking. 

All these employers have tried encouraging diversity over the years and yet their newsrooms are still disproportionately filled with the sons and daughters of white, affluent families, many educated in private schools and at the 'elite' universities, often with a home in the South East. So they channel what limited money is available at schemes to address the most obvious recruitment shortfalls.

I'm caught in the crossfire. 

Before the bankers broke the economy I averaged 18-20 broadcast trainees a year. Last year and this I'm in single figures. The biggest issue (and the one our politicians must deal with as a priority) is the limited availability of Career Development Loans which are for most candidates the only way of funding themselves through an established, successful postgrad programme.

Many applicants are put off by the thought of racking up yet more student debt; a problem that will only get worse as the 'broken promise' triple-fees generation work their way through the system in a couple of years' time, completing their first degree with accumulated debts to their name of £27K plus living costs. (Current postgrads who entered HE under Labour's £3K+ fee system start with an average of £14K debt)

They're deterred by fears that there are no jobs, despite the fact that every single Leeds Trinity Journalism postgrad who graduated in December 2012 has found work since leaving, either staff or freelance.

The facts of life are these. The affluent kids, those on daddy loans or those who drive better cars than mine will keep finding ways in to broadcast newsrooms, by one route or another. They won't be deterred. They have the confidence, the contacts and the economic fire-power to overcome most obstacles.

Those who fit the obvious 'diversity' criteria, and who jump through the required and increasingly arduous selection hoops, will become even more desirable to employers. They'll get multiple offers, and take their pick of available schemes and courses. That's great so far as it goes, but it leaves a big gap in the recruitment spectrum. 

Those candidates who maybe haven't had to overcome particular adversity, or who don't belong to a clearly identifiable minority group, but who are certainly not 'privileged' by any rational definition of the word are the ones who are now put off applying.

Many of the very people, in that famous phrase, 'who look and sound like the people who watch and listen to the BBC' (or Sky, or ITV) are the ones who are turning their backs on broadcast journalism as a career. 

Training institutions will adapt to the new harsh landscape, and will follow the money.

Leeds Trinity is bringing on a Broadcast Journalism undergraduate BA pathway in September 2013 which will, as long as I draw breath, carry on the best traditions of all we've done in postgrad over two decades. The PG programmes will of course continue (we've just bought a shed load of iPhones for them) but it looks like the smaller group sizes are here to stay.

Here's the problem.

Even the most talented 21 year old lacks many of the the life skills, much of the experience and often the maturity of a 23 or 24 year old who's been through the undergrad student experience and moved on to choose a professional career. At 21, just two or three years make a huge difference to their effectiveness as a journalist. 

No training course or degree can provide a substitute for simply growing up.

Newsrooms will lose out as a result. It would be a mistake, despite the current tough times, to slam the door on candidates who don't meet increasingly narrow definitions of diversity.

Genuine diversity embraces much more than race, physical ability, gender identity and arbitrary metrics of disadvantage.

The problem needs creative solutions. A simple commercial scheme offering low-interest loans to trainee journalists, for example, linked to proper structured work placements organised through the training institutions so that the employer-lender gets a 'first look' at loan recipients after graduation. Or maybe a chance to compete for a handful of short contracts at the end of the course, shifts that would need filling anyway. Either option would be valuable incentive for trainees, and a relatively low-risk investment for employers to consider.

I'd be interested to hear comments from all those committed to real diversity in training tomorrow's broadcast journalists, which is an aim I know we all share.

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