I took a phonecall recently from a journalist writing an article on the increase in journalism degrees. The question – are there too many? – is one of those that recur every so often, so I thought I would lay out some of the thinking behind it and why I think the question itself is flawed.
What and who are journalism degrees for?
The first problem with the question is the implicit assumption about what journalism degrees are for; that journalism courses exist ‘to train people to enter the news industry’. If the news industry is shedding jobs, the question suggests, why should we have so many journalism degrees?
But journalism degrees do not exist just to train people to enter the news industry. This is the difference between ‘education’ and ‘training’. Off the top of my head, here are just some of the things I think they do. Feel free to add more:
- Build core academic skills such as research, conceptual knowledge and critical skills
- Build practical skills such as communication, research, and production
- Develop creative skills
- Develop project management skills
- Develop teamworking skills and the ability to work on initiative
- Build a critical understanding of news processes and relationships of power
- Provide space to explore how journalism and publishing is, and might be, different (particularly important when it is in crisis)
- Allow people to find out whether they want to work in the news industry
- Allow students to achieve a degree in an area they find challenging and fulfilling
- And yes, to train people to enter the news industry
- And the PR industry
- And any industry that involves professional communication
There are a huge range of journalism courses – from those that are purely theoretical with no practical work, to those that are almost entirely practical, and those that have a mix of both. Ultimately, there are a lot of journalism courses because there are a lot of people who want to study journalism, and their motivations are as varied as the courses themselves – for many it is simply ‘something I am good at’. If it was simply to ‘get a job’ then they could do a training course for much less.
Journalism is not the same as ‘the news industry’
A second assumption underlying the question is that journalism and news publishing are the same. They are not. I’ll save the ‘What is journalism?’ discussion for another time, but if we can agree that it is more complex than ‘working for The Sun’ and closer to ‘finding information and crafting it into meaningful narratives’ then that’s the point I want to make. And jobs requiring the skill of journalism are not limited to ‘the news industry’.
While mainstream broadcasters and publishers are shedding jobs, you see, other areas are recruiting. AOL has increased its journalists from 500 to 3000; Microsoft has entered the arena with MSN Local; there are in-house and business-to-business magazines; the hugely-expanding area of SEO is hiring content creators; and any company that doesn’t pay an SEO company is realising it needs to produce regular content for that website it paid for.
In an article in the latest issue of The Journalist, Vivien Sandt puts it well when she points out a number of job ads for journalists: “The skills required do not differ substantially from those of a sub-editor or journalist. But none of the advertisers is a traditional media company.”
The biggest problem with journalism degrees is not that there are too many, it is that too many of them are ignoring these parts of the media ecology.
Assumption number 3 underlying the question of ‘too many journalism degrees’ similarly involves employability, but from a supply perspective rather than that of demand.
‘Students come into journalism degrees expecting jobs in publishing,’ it runs. ‘And there are no jobs.’
Notwithstanding the points I’ve made above about jobs, there are some other points to be made here. I’m sure that most people studying drama hope to become actors; that most people studying art hope to work in the creative industries; even that many people studying English Literature hope to become writers.
Not all of them will. Shit happens. Some people are not very good; some people don’t try very hard; some people are just coasting along on the path of least resistance – we can’t design that out of our education system without excluding those that work hard, who are talented and dedicated and want to achieve great things. A degree isn’t the promise of a beautiful career – it is the promise of an opportunity for personal development which relies on your own commitment and ability as much as that of the lecturers, support staff and university.
The philosophy industry is pretty dead right now, but I don’t hear people saying ‘There are too many Philosophy degrees’.