What is the best way to train as a journalist? The debate is raging over on Mindy McAdams’ blog.
It’s widely accepted there are two main ways of getting into journalism. Route 1: A degree course of three years or more. Route 2: A trade school (or polytech if you’re in NZ. Or in the UK, this would be a college, I guess) for a year or so.
The third and so far unmentioned route is the ‘go it alone’ vision. It’s no secret that the world’s best journalists have landed via this method, but I’ll be discarding this one. Argue if you must.
The question is, then, which route is best?
I’m in the lucky position to have experienced both. I studied a degree in journalism at the University of Lincoln until this year (I graduate next week, expect a photo or ten!), and I also taught on a trade school course, out in New Zealand, at Whitireia Community Polytech.
The key difference here, I don’t really need to add, is that I was on opposite sides of the learning experience in Lincoln and Wellington.
I was lucky enough (honestly, it was a great debate) to enjoy this argument in real life over dinner with Jim Tucker and Martin Hirst.
On one side of the table, Martin defended degree courses. Three years at AUT, he said, not only gave you hands-on skills, but also the journalistic mind.
Jim’s course, however, was an intense practical endeavour. Students are journalists from pretty much day one.
At the time, I sided with Jim. Although I’d spent three years of my life at uni, not to mention a load of my own and my family’s money, I came to a conclusion that a trade school is the way to go. The course had one goal: to produce journalists.
You could argue — unfairly perhaps — that the trade school approach has somewhat of a production line feel to it. What they produce is journalists based on the designs of journalists gone by. Where a trade school lacks, I believe, is in creating thinkers.
Why are we doing this? Where did it come from? What will it become? — all questions that are rooted in studying ethics and history in detail.
During that dinner, Martin made the point that I could only make such observations about the two courses and their use in the world because I’d be lucky enough to have enjoyed both.
And let’s not forget that my position in NZ came about from this very blog. Would I have been discussing journalism in this way had it not been for my university education? I’m not sure.
But still, I put contacts, skills and value-for-money over all of that. And so still the trade school was winning.
I thought back to my uni life. I founded and edited a newspaper. I had a radio show. In fact, I dipped my finger in every available journalistic pie going. There are opportunities that can only be created by universities because of one simple reason: budget.
But that budget has it’s own unique cost. Universities are determined to fill their lecture theatres. I know Lincoln certainly was.
I’ve no doubt that universities have terrific journalism tutors, but what value is a tutor of any quality when they have over 100 students to serve? It’s impossibl to do it well.
With the small, trade school-sized classes of 20 or so, a tutor can really gain good rapport with all of them. At Whitireia, Jim and I would be thinking about stories that were coming in. “Ah, xxxxxx would be good for that story,” we’d often say. We knew our students. We knew their personalities. We knew that Dave plays golf at the weekend. We knew that Jono loved rugby — and that his girlfriend was a hairdresser.
Isn’t that how newsrooms work? Isn’t that how JOURNALISTS work?
There are two sides to this coin.
On one hand you have the might of university. The prestige, the money, the time and resources to really learn your subject. Whitireia could never, for example, install a great big radio studio like Lincoln did while I was there. The money just wouldn’t be there for it.
But on the other hand you have trade courses that involve little time-wasting, less money (let’s not forget: journalists shouldn’t just be those who have enough money to study away from home at university) and — from my experience at least — better 1-on-1 teaching.
When a j-school is small, it can swiftly adapt to new ideas. Take Whitireia’s NewsWire website. Designed, implemented and live within four weeks. The amount of ‘you beat us to it!’ comments we received when we went live tells you all you need to know about the speed in which a university curriculum can evolve.
“We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.” I hear it everywhere. I heard it in NZ, I hear it in the UK. Well if I was a journalism student I wouldn’t give two hoots about what you’re going to do. I want to go somewhere where it’s happening already.
And although I feel bad in criticising my own education here, I don’t think universities provide the best source of learning for journalists. Not by a long way.