Journalism today – con jobs and hamster wheels

Are journalism courses the biggest con around? Academically and vocationally.

I admit I did one (not so you’d notice). But it was a single academic year not stretched out over three.

How on earth do they pad those degree courses out? And mine was a good one. (I know. How did I get on it? Let alone graduate?)

But I’ve seen some dire efforts. Especially when it comes to the vocational aspect. Students sign up hoping to get work at the end of it, not letters after their name. What they may not realise is how long it’s been since their teachers worked as journalists themselves – if ever. Nor how weak the links may be between their chosen academic institution and any organisation likely to give them paying work – or even work experience.

Sure, being good at the job doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good at teaching the skills. (I encountered at school a reputedly excellent mathematician who was one of my worst ever teachers. He presided over coincided with chaos in the classroom.) But I think that lecturers who have never really walked the walk should not be masquerading as experts. Sadly, some do.

Journalism or media courses are, generally speaking, the best gateway to getting a decent job in the industry these days. (Apart from nepotism of course. That’s still far and away the best of all.) So it’s cynical the way some courses betray the trust of their students. They lead them on. They set them up for disappointment and disillusionment.

One of my best journalism teachers was a definite doer and thankfully new to academia when we met. John Foscolo was his name. The constant mantra of this former newspaper man was “tighter, tighter”.

However, leaving aside the charlatans, the biggest con is the number of course places available in the UK compared to the likely vacancies on offer to new graduates from diploma, masters or three year degree courses.

Francois Nel (left), who lectures in “Journalism Leadship” at the University of Central Lancashire , paints a bleak picture. He says the number of mainstream journalism jobs in the UK has shrunk by a third over the past couple of years to about 40,000. But according to Francois the number of journalism university graduates has never been higher – 7,590 in 2008/09.

Francois Nel: “The reality is that only a fraction of the many thousands of graduates from UK journalism courses will find a place in the mainstream industry.”

Peter Preston in the Guardian newspaper tries to maintain a more positive attitude in the face of the same figures.

Planning a career in journalism? Check the facts first. Statistics suggest that prospects for would-be journalists are far from rosy… Conclusion: don’t be put off if you’re utterly determined, but look damned hard before you leap.

The imbalance may be addressed in the near future by university course fee increases and swingeing government spending cuts coming our way.

Perhaps it was someone knocked back by one of the above courses who sent this blog its most daunting piece of spam so far. No mention of viagra or cialis in it, but loads on religion, conspiracy and JFK. I just skimmed it because it was almost 20,000 words long. TWENTY THOUSAND WORDS LONG. I was impressed. (Though not sufficiently impressed to press  the approve button. No really. I’ve done us all a favour.)

Am I painting too depressing a picture? There are still decent courses and decent jobs  – despite the economic squeeze on the traditional press. But once you get your feet under a desk, that may be where you’ll stay. Abandon all hope of daytime fresh air again. The role of phone monkey awaits. Or, as the Colombia Journalism Review suggests, think hamster and wheel. Click on the link for the full piece by Dean Starkman. ( In the meantime here’s an excerpt.

The Hamster Wheel -Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere

By Dean Starkman

The costs are in literate prose, proven premises, news that did not originate from an institution, and other airy-fairy things that build credibility and value over the long term. This is about resource allocation…

…Without getting into whether newspapers are worse or better than before—let’s concede they’re fabulous; that’s why everyone loves them so much—we should pause for a second and think about the implications of the do-more-with-less meme that is sweeping the news business. I call it the Hamster Wheel.

The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics (Bloomberg!). It is “Sheriff plans no car purchases in 2011,” (Kokomo Tribune, 7/5/10). It is “Ben Marter’s Home-Cooked Weekend,” (Politico, 6/28/10): “Saturday morning, he took some of the leftover broccoli, onions, and mushrooms, added jalapenos, and made omeletes for a zingy breakfast.” Ben Marter is communications director for a congresswoman. It’s live-blogging the opening ceremonies, matching stories that don’t matter, and fifty-five seconds of video of a movie theater screen being built: “Wallingford cinema adding 3 screens (video),” (New Haven Register, 6/1/10).

But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?

Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic. “You’re constantly looking for the next story like that,” says Zachary Roth, a former reporter for Talking Points Memo (and before that a CJR staff member). “The posts you end up pitching and writing are less likely to be investigative.”

But hey, with inspiration, lateral thinking, a fair bit of eavesdropping and sufficient theft we will transcend all difficulties ahead.

Hear hear. Fortitude for the challenges ahead.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Journalism today – con jobs and hamster wheels

  1. Well it seems to have done you alright! But times don’t neccessarily change- Mr Dickens was very critical of further education and my college was staffed by industry failures and lack-lustre oddities. Contrast to Switzerland, where my lectures were regularly interrupted by visiting industrialists, blustering in unannounced, to join in the debate, stimulate and keep the excellent lecturers on their toes! Trumpet call ‘lead by example’.

    Speaking of which, today’s scoop could well be ‘Cameron and Osborne give up their Jaguars ‘. That would be a welcome twist!

  2. Journalists have it tougher today as most news is read on the Internet. It’s not just the story but savvy in writing for the Web.

    • blackwatertown

      Good point well made.
      But whether the story is for web, paper, radio or TV, it’s a huge shame when journalists feel unable to leave the desk. It’s the going out and about, the seeing for yourself, the hearing from the horse’s mouth that gives spice to the story, as well as life in general.

  3. Strikes me that planning a career in ANYthing at the moment is a recipe for disaster! Then again can’t see us surviving without journalists…love em or hate em…we’re a nosy lot and need to know what’s juicy things are going on in the world outside our windows 😉 As to sitting behind a desk answering the phone…not great but 100 times better than no work at all. Good blog…interesting and thought provoking 🙂

  4. It’s my firm belief that there are very few journalists anymore, only idealogues touting the leftist line.

    • The odd thing is that though many journalists may well be left-leaning, they don’t actually let this show in their writing. I base this on my extensive searching for right wing commentators and journalists to come on the radio over the years.

      Again and again it happened like this – I’d see an article taking a very hard right wing line on some issue – immigration perhaps – pungently extreme. So I’d track down the author for a chat, only to find that he (usually a he) didn’t believe what had appeared under his byline.

      Perhaps he hadn’t written it? Or had it been mucked about to radically alter the meaning? No to both. He’d simply written what he knew was expected of him by that particular newspaper.

      Once again disappointment for me – the right winger I’d sought turned out to be a leftie by inclination. And not willing to defend on air the stance he’d declared but didn’t support.

      All a bit lame.

      So – many of the idealogues of the left may in fact be touting the line of the right. Well, it pays the bills.

  5. europasicewolf makes a sound point – technology and global economics are changing industries so profoundly, anyone who takes a three-year vocational course is liable to find that most of what was learned in the first year will be redundant by the time they take their finals. And yet courses that lean more towards theory (the content of which is less liable to be rendered obsolete) are perceived to be somehow effete and irrelevant to the real world. I worked in publishing for years, but I don’t think I ever encountered anyone with a first degree in publishing. And I certainly didn’t offer a job to anyone with a first degree in publishing.

  6. When I was coming out of college and looking for a job as a copywriter in advertising, everyone told me I’d have to be a secretary first and there was no way I could get a job. But I locked myself in my room for 6 months with a few reference books and emerged with a great spec portfolio that landed me a job at Ogilvy & Mather, NY.

    As with any profession, I ask those seeking job, “How many jobs do you need?” The answer is one.

    So even though statistically, the odds may be against landing a position in journalism, I would give the same advice. Go out, be better and use rifle shot, not buckshot to land the job you want at the place you want.

    ~Mike

  7. My brother got a journalism degree and has been employed in the field for a couple of decades now. His opportunities have nearly all vanished and if he had to do it all over again, I am sure he would have studied something different and kept writing as a hobby.

  8. A couple of points. First, academia seeks to make graduate degrees and professions out of essentially skill sets. I was a librarian/archivist and I can speak from experience on this. Now library degrees are becoming information science degrees anyway.

    In journalism today, the transition to new platforms has caused USA Today to completely revamp its editorial desks and output.

    A journalist should be a good writer with good old common sense and an ability to see patterns and trends based on a knowledge of the human animal best learned from history courses.

    A good journalist will, today, be computer savvy to the point of following the trends in structuring the discipline. Electronic resources are essential.

    Command of the grammar and other elements of a language.

    Finally, a journalist today needs to have business model and financial savvy.

    So in summary: No graduate degree needed only the courses suggested above as an undergraduate. Follow my outline of studies and you will have built in flexibility to NOT be a journalist but follow something else until there is an opening. Liberal arts forever I say!

  9. Suchma Schine

    Nice post! Journalism my biggest earner. However, that’s not saying much.

  10. 100mg

    Bertrand Russell~ Man needs for his happiness not only the enjoyment of this or that but hope and enterprise and change.

  11. kaitlin

    Makes me want to drink alcoholic beverages.

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