Brian Flynn, The Sun’s investigations editor, wrote this article after reading a Press Gazette story in September that reported an increase in the number of students enrolling on NCTJ courses straight from school, without a university education.
I took my NCTJ as a school leaver after A -levels and did my degrees in my spare time later in life. I’d wanted to be a newspaper reporter since I was ten, and saw little point in delaying further once I’d qualified for a pre-entry course at what was then the Cardiff Institute. If I had my time over I’d take exactly the same route.
Professionally speaking, the three years I might have spent at uni were far better invested on the job making (and learning from) the mistakes that all reporters make, regardless of their academic level. Journalism is a craft, and the NCTJ teaches you what you need to know whether you’re a graduate or not. Journalism qualifications of any level are really just like the driving test. You only learn how to do it for real once you’ve passed and get on the road.
In my opinion, an NCTJ-qualified hack with three years on the job already under their belt – not to mention experience of real life in the outside world – is generally far further on in terms of skills and career development than someone coming out of uni with a degree, whether that be in journalism or anything else. They also have a more rounded and less black-and-white perspective on the world, which stands them in good stead for the job.
Newspapers are like football clubs. They promote or poach talent based on ability, not qualifications or time served.
The fact is that many of the abilities that make the best journalists – tenacity, social skills, an understanding of life, an ability to learn from mistakes and apply that knowledge to your next story and, above all, a drive to work bloody hard at all hours regardless of whether someone is watching over you – are not things taught in a lecture theatre. It’s something I love about our industry.
In my experience, it’s about as close to a meritocracy as you can get outside of sport.
I’ve worked on everything from a local weekly, evening daily and news agency to Fleet Street, and I honestly don’t think anyone has asked me what qualifications I have since my first job.
Frankly I have no idea which of my colleagues have letters after their name and which don’t. I only know which ones I rate the highest.
Your ‘qualifications’ are the stories you’ve broken, the contacts you have and the articles you have written. Your professional certificates are your cuttings. All that interests my employers is the quality of work I’ve produced. I’ve got on in journalism (or otherwise, on occasion) because of that and that alone. And long may it continue.
Let me be clear. I’m not trying to discourage people from taking degrees if they want to, just arguing that they are not a necessity for a successful career in journalism. There are other equally valid paths. For me, both my BA and
MA were intellectually enriching experiences and I enjoyed every minute.
So do a degree to stimulate and challenge your mind, by all means. But don’t assume it’ll make you a better reporter.