Journalism is a profession and universities have a role

My old colleague from ITN, Alastair Stewart, is a man of many talents – a fine newscaster, a sharp political analyst and a convivial companion.

But judging by his recent pronouncements on the current state of journalism education, I would not recommend him as a careers adviser.

At the IRN Awards, reported by Press Gazette (20 April), Alastair told would-be journalists not to bother with postgraduate courses at university journalism schools – saying "it's heartbreaking the number of people turning up from Bournemouth or Cardiff and they are worth nothing to us".

It certainly would be heartbreaking if it was true, but it isn't. In the past two years, 14 of our Cardiff students taking the postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism have joined ITV, and another eight have joined commercial radio stations. That's more than a third of the 60 students who took the broadcast course in 2005 and 2006.

Another 20 of them went to the BBC and of the others all but one (who decided to teach) got good media jobs with companies like Reuters, Bloomberg and Sky. That's a 98 per cent employment record.

ITV News is about to advertise for another tranche of young journalists as part of its very successful recruitment and training scheme – I am sure another group of Cardiff graduates will be joining this year and will do as well as their predecessors from Cardiff, who include Alastair's colleagues presenter Geraint Vincent and programme editor Sarah Hill, as well as Channel 4 News presenter Alex Thomson.

Like them, the recent recruits certainly look like potential high flyers – two of last year's ITV intake from Cardiff were the winners of Press Gazette awards for best student journalists in television and radio.

Bournemouth's media students are also much in demand. Stephen Jukes, the former Reuters global head of news who is Dean of the university's Media School, points out that "Bournemouth radio graduates from the past three years are currently working on You and Yours, Woman's Hour, BBC Radio Interactive, BBC Arabic Service, Unique Production Company, Somethin' Else, Capital Radio, World Radio Network, BBC World Service, Beacon Radio, BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra...

"Recent journalism graduates have won jobs with FT.com, The Guardian, Channel TV, BBC's Real Story, PA, Trinity Mirror, IPC, EMAP, Channel 4, The Sun, Meridian, BSkyB and a host of local radio stations and newspapers.

"I could go on. But suffice it to say that the days when students went to university to study arcane details of the evolution of the printing press in 1930s' Fleet Street have gone."

Nor is it true, as Alastair suggests, that a student with a degree outside journalism and a set of cuttings would have a better chance than "the person with a diploma and no practical journalism experience".

We have 90 postgraduate diploma students a year – 30 in each of three options – broadcast, magazine and newspaper. Far from being given "no practical journalism experience" they leave the course ready to make an immediate contribution in the newsroom.

The broadcast students produce news programmes, the newspaper students turn out an evening paper, the magazine students create and edit magazines.

he broadcast students learn to shoot, edit and transmit programmes in a non-linear newsroom using the systems which ITN is in the process of introducing into its London newsroom – so if Alastair has any trouble with the new technology he can always ask a Cardiff graduate how it works.

The students on the newspaper and magazine options have equally modern facilities. They all have four-week, work-experience attachments in leading newsrooms. All of them who want careers in the media get jobs.

Like Alastair, I didn't do a university journalism course. Like him, I got into journalism the old way, persuading an editor to take a chance on me.

But that was a long time ago. Today's new entrants have to hit the deck running. They have to have all the necessary professional skills as well as a comprehensive knowledge of media law, regulation and ethics.

They are operating in newsrooms where technology has dramatically speeded up editorial processes and cost cutting has equally dramatically increased the level of responsibility taken by quite junior people. They all have to be good, from Day One.

Any reader of Press Gazette will recognise that British journalism is going through a torrid time. The growth of blogging and user-generated content poses the question: if anyone can be a citizen journalist, what, if anything, does it mean to be a professional journalist?

As Alastair's remarks show, there are still people in the business who believe journalism is a trade, that the informal way in is the best and that universities do not have much to offer in training and in developing professional skills and values. They are wrong.

And as journalism struggles to be more representative of society as a whole, and to be a career that is genuinely open to all talent and with universally high professional standards, going back to the old days of relying on contacts, charm and chance to get a job just opens the gates to favouritism, discrimination and nepotism.

The universities have a central role in every other profession – why on earth should journalism be different?

Richard Tait is director of the Centre for Journalism Studies, Cardiff University. He was editor-in-chief of ITN from 1995 to 2002 and is a BBC Trustee

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