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What a Journalist Isn't

I'm sick and tired of the abuse journalists are getting at the moment. They don't deserve it, at least real journalists don't - ...

16 May 2014

Sheep and Goats

I've been looking at the job ads lately.

Not, as I know my boss reads this, that I'm planning on going anywhere.

The next move I make, of my own volition or otherwise, is likely to be into retirement. But it's human nature to be curious, so when a job comes up teaching Journalism at the University of Bountiful Opportunity (formerly Grimeville Polytechnic) it's very tempting to open the job spec and wonder "what if ..? "

Except recently I've spotted a worrying trend. Candidates can't even apply to teach Journalism without a PhD. It's happening across the board, not just at sniffy Russell Group institutions.

And that's wrong.

Call me Mr Picky .. but if I require brain surgery I want my lobes messed with by someone who has considerable experience of rewiring synapses, not someone who's read a book about it. Or even someone who's read several books, including some from abroad, and then quotes the best bits at me. Experienced consultants mentor junior surgeons to pass the skills on. They do it that way for a reason.

The push to up the academic quotient in faculties comes, in part, from academics themselves. We all tend to get on with people like us, folk who share our world view. Journalists, especially those with the popular touch, don't always feel entirely at home in the senior common room.  There's also a principled desire, by some, to make journalism a 'learned profession' akin to the law. But fundamentally and inevitably the process is driven by money.

Bluntly, the more 'research' is generated by a university the more cash comes in. Those who've been doctored know how to swing that system and also understand the term 'publishing' to mean something very different to a thundering press hall at first edition time.

Newsroom experience is generally deemed a desirable attribute in a Journalism lecturer. But a floppy hat and a shelf's worth of seldom-read essays in the library is increasingly an essential, and that's barmy.

Academic publishing is a sprawling and lucrative cottage industry producing millions upon millions of words for the smallest audiences it's possible to imagine. It rewards verbosity, complexity and obfuscation. It is the antithesis of good journalism.

I was the first in my family to get a degree. In 1980 getting honours required an extra year of study, so I opted out with a plain BA because I was anxious to get a foot in the door of radio.

Whilst an undergraduate, after slaving for hours to convert the 70s socio-psycho babble of pioneer media gurus into something approaching plain English,  I was told sternly in red ink "There is no need to reduce every concept to the banality of a radio script". That sums up the gulf between us.

With the present state of flux in the news industry there's always a queue of professional journos hoping to move into teaching. They've probably been invited along to give a talk to students on what they do at some point, enjoyed the experience, and fancy the idea of developing that into a new career.

If only they knew.

What visiting speakers don't foresee are the hours of admin - reviews, marking criteria, module handbooks, mapping of learning outcomes - and the labyrinthine marking procedures, checks and balances required to cover backsides in a world when students paying nine grand a year to study can turn litigious. Now on top of all that comes a demand for a doctorate before their skills can even be considered.

By requiring PhDs the universities are deliberately excluding some of the finest potential applicants.

I know amazing tutors (mostly now retired) who got in under earlier regimes with no academic qualifications at all beyond secondary school because they were great journalists with a glowing professional CV who communicated their craft well.

Often, however, these inspirational teachers would shun graduation ceremonies because they were too embarrassed to process in academic dress. They would have to wear a plain black gown with no hood. Too much like being naked in church amid the peacock-hued faithful.

Now these brilliant, inspirational and above all experienced mentors would not be considered worthy of a job interview. The profession of journalism, the quest for diversity in newsrooms, and the experience of students is severely diminished as a result.


  1. Well said, Richard. I had to do degree as mature student as I felt I had to have a university background to teach undergrads. Was told by my lecturer that my writing was too journalistic in style and that I should use more semi colons. Thirty years in the newsroom was not wasted then...

  2. It's too "readable" has been offered as a very negative criticism. Sigh.

  3. I'm a practice journalist and have taught at Goldsmiths, University of London for 24 years. The heaven is made up of the students and teaching what I love, live and die for...radio, media, journalism, story telling, drama etc. The hell has been the discriminating academic culture. We are talking about widespread higher educational apartheid. Interesting isn't it that so many fear recrimination for speaking out. The problem has been around since universities saw the potential appeal of combining sociology, cultural studies and media & communication studies with how to do it courses that had employment outcomes. The culture rewards those who do the theoretical criticism academically and exploits those who nurture and teach the media skills and creativity of the journalists and programmes makers of tomorrow.

  4. As a journalism lecturer with over 20 years' journalistic experience, I despair of this short-sighted policy. Part-time lecturers who are still working journalists are being forced into doing doctorates at my university and others. Some have decided enough is enough and are getting out of the HE profession. Students and would-be students tell us all the time they want to learn from experienced journalists. Shortly there won't be any to learn from. Academics with no newsroom experience are about as useful in term of practical teaching as chocolate teapots. Those institutions that put a value on journalists doing practical teaching will be the beneficiaries. I've never written an academic paper for a dusty few, but I do know how to write and broadcast to millions, if that any longer has a value ...

  5. I would like to think it isn't quite as binary as you suggest ...

    1. So would I, Richard, but the number of comments and messages I've received from practitioner-tutors since I wrote this nearly so years ago suggests I've underestimated the divide. But many can't speak on the record for fear of damaging their careers.

  6. .... But I do agree with you about the daft PhD requirements these days.