Are there too many journalism courses?

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:

  1. Build core academic skills such as research, conceptual knowledge and critical skills
  2. Build practical skills such as communication, research, and production
  3. Develop creative skills
  4. Develop project management skills
  5. Develop teamworking skills and the ability to work on initiative
  6. Build a critical understanding of news processes and relationships of power
  7. Provide space to explore how journalism and publishing is, and might be, different (particularly important when it is in crisis)
  8. Allow people to find out whether they want to work in the news industry
  9. Allow students to achieve a degree in an area they find challenging and fulfilling
  10. And yes, to train people to enter the news industry
  11. And the PR industry
  12. 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.

‘Disappointed’ students

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’.


33 thoughts on “Are there too many journalism courses?

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  2. Todd

    Totally agree with the part about ‘disappointed’ students – the media is a notoriously tough industry, but it doesn’t matter what you study – there’s no guarantee of a job in that industry at the end of it. If you’re good enough and determined enough, you should be able to break through.

    As you say, a Journalism degree doesn’t just pigeon-hole you into a potential career in news. There are plenty of transferable skills that are useful for other industries, so it’s not as though the ‘unsuccessful’ graduates are left high and dry.

  3. F77

    I’m a journalist in Sweden. I hear a LOT of people saying there are too many philosophy degrees where I live. Also, while journalism students might learn skills in project management etc, they will be outclassed by people with degrees in business etc.

    That said, I believe there will always be people who work with professional communication in one form or another, and that those with talent and energy will break through.

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  5. Egrommet

    The age old argument of education versus training looms large here – and it is more of an issue as you focus on degree courses. Don’t forget there are postgrads (diplomas and masters) and private training providers.

    Interesting that a search of the UCAS site (the UK’s body that handles applications to degree courses) shows there are 731 courses with journalism in the title.

    That may give us some indication of why people may feel there are too many courses.

    A journalism degree is accepted by a large number of jobs – in the same way a politics, English or Economics degree would be.

    My main issue is where you rightly talk about employability. Courses need to make it clear whether they are about employability (and be very clear on how employable their previous cohorts have been) or looking at journalism as a study – both are fine as long as it is spelled out and those looking to do are course do not get the wrong idea.

    For example Cardiff is very clear it’s undergrad course is studies based (across journalism, media and cultural areas) while it’s diplomas are very industry oriented.

    It is tougher, and the days of journalism being a sexy course and a sexy industry may be over – but I agree with F77 people with talent and a passion will find a way to do what they want.

    That’s why j-schools need to keep developing and looking at the core skills that are required to work in the modern, distributed media or be honest that it is about a study of the media.

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  8. Chie

    I must admit I was moved by your words and agree with your reasoning. I think people like me, who trained for an NCTJ diploma with high expectations, tend to feel frustrated when a job doesn’t follow the studies. But, as you say, not landing what we perceive as a “standard” journalistic job (ie in a newsroom) isn’t the end of the world, and it does NOT mean the training led to failure.

    There are many ways in which journalistic skills can be applied, even if you can’t get the job you had dreamed of straight away. But these words coming from someone in your position, who actually teaches journalism, gave me reassurance that I can still be proud of being a journalist at heart even if my business card doesn’t say so.

    Thank you so much for a beautiful post, Paul.

  9. Dina

    I like the way you’re challenging the implicit assumptions within the question about journalism courses. I also like that you’ve identified so many skills learnt on journalism courses (will be helpful for future job applications).

    The problem is, and this an honest opinion, I don’t think J- degrees are in the same category in the educational lexicon as politics, philosophy, or history. I don’t think employers look at them and think about the transferable skills gained. I know that there are so many different journalism courses at different institutions which emphasise different skills, so maybe some courses are considered more vocational than others, and obviously it depends on the individual, but there does seem to be a general view of journalism degrees as vocational rather than educational.

  10. Mindy McAdams

    Paul, I really love your comparison to theater majors. Most students who major in theater hope and intend to work in theater — of course! But how many succeed? How many never work professionally in theater at all?

    Does this mean the universities ought to eliminate the theater programs? No, of course not.

    Where some journalism programs may be shortchanging students is where the program is set up with an emphasis on skills training — but the skills needed in today’s newsrooms are not part of the curriculum.

  11. Paul Bradshaw

    Dina, thanks for your point (I agree, which is why I didn’t mention those courses but specified drama and English Lit – apart from the joke at the end about the Philosophy industry).

    This is a problem for journalism courses: not being taken in some circles as seriously as older subjects such as history, which is no doubt related to the issue of ‘new’ vs ‘old’ universities (incidentally not doing any favours to the representational mix of journalism newsrooms particularly at a national level). It’s a cultural problem, so I’m not sure what the solution is, other than the same process that has happened to previously ‘new’ subject areas such as sociology and psychology which have now become increasingly accepted.

    On the one hand I think it’s important that journalists have expertise in an area outside journalism; on the other, I think it’s key that journalists have the ability to understand how the structures of their industries and jobs influence how they do their jobs, and now: how they change things to adapt most effectively in a period of change.

  12. Karl

    I loved your comparison to students who pursue drama but aren’t necessarily bound for paid acting jobs. I studied broadcast journalism 20 years ago and ended up pursuing stage/acting work for years. I did find work but there were no guarantees and I accepted that from day one.

    We know historically that there has never been a guarantee of paid inclusion in the liberal arts or in communications industries. The motivation and the passion for learning and contributing skillfully to the profession is what is paramount for the aspiring writer. Time, applied talent and a sharp eye on opportunity is what leads to jobs. It can take months, years, decades.

    It takes persistence and realistic expectations in the pursuit of a viable, tangible career. Some people, as you wrote, aren’t cut out for it and don’t have the talent, despite the teachings. Anyone can learn the basics and technical fundamentals but what one is striving for should be extraordinary work and with that focus and applied ability often comes opportunity. Thanks for your post on this Paul. Continued success to you.

  13. Will Peach

    Spot on with the last section when commenting that those on degree courses are not simply destined to go on to those jobs the course is associated with.

    It’s all about thinking outside the box, applying and diversifying yourself and building on those skills that are practically taught and taking them forward in a constructive way. Some students need their hand to be held every step of the way.

  14. Nell Darby

    I did a degree in English Lit and no-one has ever suggested I did it because I wanted to be a writer – the common view is that I must have wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t – I just enjoyed reading! And that’s the most important thing, surely – to do a course because it enthuses you, it’s something you’re genuinely interested in, not just because you think it will get you a job.

    There is snobbery about journalism courses, and has been for years. I tried applying for journalism degrees but had pressure applied by parents and teachers because “it’s not academic” and “it’s not taught in respected universities but polytechnics – employers won’t take you seriously”!!

    That snobbery still seems to exist – take some of the press comments about the new BCU courses, Paul. There seems to be a blindness in some quarters about how journalism is changing in the contemporary landscape.

  15. Hiro

    I really am starting to think that those who actually get jobs in news are some kind of Gods. I am trying at the mo, and it feels more likey that I’ll play for Man U!

  16. Steve Hill

    Hi Paul, thanks for another wonderful post and the insightful debate.

    Your arguments are great, but we do have to be careful because of the highly influential Leitch Review from two years ago. It stated that we all needed to be far more ’employer-focussed’ (like we didn’t talk with employers on a day-to-day basis) and teach more ‘economically valuable skills’. (well, show us a definition and we’ll teach it!).

    The posts on this page highlight the value of a journalism degree course to employers (and the economy generally), but we still need to prove our worth.

    During the recession, its become fashionable to argue a case for simply axing courses that have poor employment rates and aren’t bringing in research funding. i.e. the “world doesn’t need more journalists, but it does need material scientists so that’s where we should invest’.

    So we can wave goodbye to a lot of arts courses (not just journalism), even though they are often very popular with students. I could go on, but this is the logic of morons….

  17. Karl

    @ Steve Hill: So true about the New Practicality, i.e. poor employment rates in certain fields dictating the availability of those courses. I truly hope we don’t lose arts courses just because the technology and the economy have changed (and they always do).

    I was the kid who unsheathed my grandfather’s typewriter and lined up typing paper to prattle off stories, letters or kitsch….later it would be the computer keyboard for another generation. We didn’t do this for money, we did it to see our thoughts, prose, fiction, words made manifest and tangible. We did it from the soul before we did it on assignment.

    It has been shocking watching the speed with which journalism jobs have been crumbling away. I know at my former outlet (magazine)we had four rounds of brutal, watch-your-colleagues-pack-it-all-up layoffs and this was before the economy truly crashed last fall. The fearful slashing of jobs and coursework is still alarming. No one has wholly figured out how to monetize web journalism and I still know there are people who want to hold printed pages in their hands. I think of ‘The New Yorker’ readers, 68% of whom probably would never read their issues online (in my opinion). We always will need good writers and I hope the current and future generation remembers that in these shrill, hard times.

  18. Paul Bradshaw

    @Caspar I don’t think I will ever write such a post. I can only recommend you research them yourself and make up your own mind – I’m obviously biased because I teach at Birmingham City University; I know of some excellent lecturers (I will name Andy Dickinson as one, for example) but ultimately the idea of a ‘good course’ comes down to what you want to get out of it, and that’s a combination of teaching, connections, student culture, and a dozen other things that I could not pretend to know.

  19. Natasha

    I am a journalist and gave a lecture recently to students at Kingston university. There were so many of them, and as I looked at them I thought how on earth will they all get jobs in journalism when the industry (in terms of print at least) is shrinking. But what you are saying is right, just becuase you do a journalism course doesn’t mean you actually will become a journalist, for many reasons. I did a biology/psychology degree, and haven’t become a psychologist. Most courses would give you skills that would be useful in many areas of life, not just journalism per se.

  20. Gene Kurtu PHD

    Clearly there are good and not so good journalists. The problem lays with the incompetent ones that try so hard to establish a name but in the meantime ruin whatever reputation they may think they have. A great example is the joke of Tucson reporter for the Az Daily Rag Carla McClain.
    This he/she has been persecuted so many times for falsifying facts and has been in the hot seat so many times that is comical amongst the readers here. She should be put in jail for slander and defamation, but our courts here are overburdened with other cases. That’s OK ,her stories are better than the comic section

  21. Rick

    I have an English degree, and I can tell you that having an English or Journalism degree is useful in the job market. These are the only liberal arts degrees I see specifically listed in job postings, usually as a means of proving you can research, write, and edit. Those skills apply in many professions. Too many journalism degrees? Bah. Can’t have too many people who can think and express themselves concisely.

  22. Carmen Sisson

    Excellent points. I’m thinking about returning to college, and my friends and family are saying it’s a waste of time. They point out that I’m freelance, writing for people like Christian Science Monitor and TIME. But writing for these guys makes me realize how little I know.

    When I was in college, I took what interested me. I had enough English electives to declare a double major. I have a double minor in psych and French. I hated history and political science. Took as little as necessary. And I need them.

    I struggle when writing recession stories. Economics and business courses would have been useful. Same for criminal justice. I’ve taught myself web design, which is why I stayed up all night last night trying to change a WordPress CSS template by trial and error. Yes, I can do it. It wouldn’t take as long if I knew what I was doing. Same for multimedia. I’m teaching myself, but I’m constantly worried I’m not learning fast enough or well enough.

    I write national news, but my education is slanted to art, literature, journalism, photography, languages. I can’t afford to return to school, and lately I feel the overwhelming gaps in my education. I wish I’d realized how much I was mucking up college. Hindsight is 20/20.

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    1. JB

      Surely the issue here is that people don’t study English expecting to be a writer, nor sociology expecting to be a sociologist, but a vast majority of people studying journalism do so because they want to be journalists.

      Surely if you ask most people why they want to study journalism their first response will always be: “Because I want to be a journalist.”

      In short, they expect to be trained towards a specific career. It’s all well and good to mention many degrees that don’t lead to a specific job – but how many journalism undergrads expect that of a journalism course?

      I’m sorry to say that this does strike me as a get out of jail free card for courses that are failing to provide what prospective journalists want and what the industry (in its many facets) needs.

      1. Paul Bradshaw

        As I said in a previous comment, I mentioned courses where people do expect to work in related industries. And I agree that it’s a poor journalism course which does not provide what prospective journalists and employers want. My point is that some students come onto journalism degrees – and, for that matter, NCTJ and other training courses – with an expectation that the piece of paper will be enough. Of course it takes more than that.

      2. JB

        There should be no course where the piece of paper is enough. I am confident we can all take that as a given, or we’d all be buying our degrees online from the State University of North North West Idaho by the Fork on the River.

        It’s your basic idea that journalism degrees don’t just exist to ‘just’ to train people to enter the news industry that bothers me.

        Why? Well, in essence I think institutions and students have an ever-diverging idea of what’s being delivered and why.

        Students, overwhelmingly, study journalism and college, university or training centres because they want to work in ‘journalism’ in its widest sense, be that in print (papers and magazines in their many guises), online, in radio and television, or in PR or publishing. Their prime assumption is that the course they choose will prepare them for that, make them useful and, crucially, employable in their chosen field.

        I think the list of other skills you list which people will pick up on a journalism degree are all fine. No great issue with them at all – but there is a very clear difference between the scenarion where a student picks a journalism degree because they want to work in journalism and a scenario where a student picks a journalism degree because they want to “build core academic skills such as research, conceptual knowledge and critical skills” etc etc.

        I’d also add that practical courses, which do have a clear focus on training people for a profession, don’t automatically fail to educate or to deliver the many things in your list.

        Perhaps the question really isn’t ‘Are there too many journalism courses?’ (Yes, by the way), but really should be ‘Are there too many journalism courses that arene’t good enough and mislead students along the way’.

        Either way, fascinating discussion.

      3. JB

        Apologies for the woeful spelling too. Hardly a great advert for journalism education!

      4. Paul Bradshaw

        I think the post is taking the issue from the point of view of the industry, in other words saying that journalism degrees do not exist just for the benefit of the publishing industry, but have wider economic benefits.

        From the point of view of the student, yes they should provide the skills to be a journalist, but I guess I’m saying that’s not all that they provide, which is why journalism graduates are able to enter any number of other careers – either because they decide they do not want to become a journalist after all (once they discover the wage, for example), or because they simply turn out not to be good enough, or because there aren’t any jobs.

        Like you say, fascinating discussion – there’s a wider issue here about whether higher education should be tied to the existing industrial landscape or whether we should be allowing people to study things that they love, regardless of the employment prospects in that area. I think the latter has wider benefits than short-term economic ones. Today’s journalism graduates may not all go into the publishing industry now, but may do so later, or use their skills for all manner of unforeseen applications (for example web startups, or amateur blogs scrutinising local power).

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