Friday, 24 July 2009

Journalism can be a class act, or a middle class act. It can't be both

So here’s a thing. Many, many people now have the means to publish their text, video, audio and still images. And yet journalism has become one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century.

So, while the journalistic tools are now available to the many, professional journalists are drawn from the ranks of the affluent, well-connected, well-educated few.

The debate over the causes of the increasingly elitist nature of journalism has been rumbling on all week. It was sparked by an all-party report, Unleashing Aspiration, which revealed that social mobility in Britain has gone into reverse.

The underlying reason for journalism becoming a middle class profession is that the industry handed training over to academia.

Over a generation, the traditional pattern of school-leavers entering journalism via indentured training (apprenticeships weighted towards on-the-job experience) was replaced with a default model of an entrant to journalism having a first or second degree in the subject.

Roy Greenslade has reflected on how, when he joined his first local paper, staff from cleaner to editor were working class. Today, he says: “We have reached a position in which the working class do not even consider ‘the media’ as a career possibility.”

What got lost in this transition is sight of the fact that journalism is not a profession, it is a craft. You don’t have to be a genius to be good at it. You don’t have to be someone who thrives in an academic environment to write a sound, compelling news story, cover an event, review a book or movie.

Someone with an Oxbridge first might become a brilliant journalist, but they might just as easily be a lousy one. Likewise, a kid from a sink estate with a mediocre academic record could be a very bad journalist – or they might become a great one.

The only meaningful distinction in journalism  is between those who can do it, and those who can’t. And academic performance is not a reliable indicator of that.

So what’s the solution? Unleashing Aspiration says universities must do more to end elitism by admitting thousands more students from poorer backgrounds.

Another proposal is to pay interns, so you don’t need to be rich enough to work for free to get on the first rung of the journalistic ladder.

Dominic Ponsford of Press Gazette has some practical advice. Instead of a City MA at £7,000, he says, go for an NCTJ fast track at £900 as a much more cost-effective way of training.

All good, but to my mind the real solution lies with journalists themselves: specifically those who hire other journalists. They must hire on the basis of demonstrable ability as much as, if not more than, academic prowess.

Let’s put this into the wider context: young people don’t read newspapers any more, nor do they watch or rate TV news. They do use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the rest. They do, in an unschooled way, create journalism which is popular with their peers.

If we can’t attract these people into formal journalism, formal journalism will become increasingly marginalised.

So here’s what has to happen: journalists who hire, training organisations and universities running journalism and media course need to attract those who show a relish and a talent for the multimedia publishing opportunities that are open to them. They should worry much less about a potential student’s academic background.

Teach these people well and we’ll protect and reinvigorate mainstream journalism. Fail, and journalism fails.

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