Back to the future: It's time to rethink the way we train journalists

When it comes to training journalists, the university sector is out of touch with the real world. Photo: Shutterstock

When it comes to training journalists, the university sector is out of touch with the real world. Photo: Shutterstock

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan's plan to drive students into degrees which give them the best chance of finding a job, by overhauling fees, has sparked plenty of debate.

But in one specialised area, at least, the need for reform is evident. That's journalism, where there is an obvious disconnect between tertiary training and employment outcomes.

For years, universities across the country have been churning out thousands of journalism graduates, while in the real world the news industry has been shedding thousands of jobs.

Personal experience - backed by data on media trends and university course enrolments - tells me it's time to scrap journalism degrees and revamp the old cadetship scheme, to support those in newsrooms instead of largely out-of-touch lecture rooms.

For 30 years I called myself a journalist - still do - but never considered it a profession. Anyone can gather and distribute stories. You don't need a tertiary qualification and are not compelled to belong to a professional body with the power to stop you practising if a complaint is upheld.

By offering journalism degrees, universities are selling the idea that spending a minimum of three years and around $20,000 studying media ethics and theory, with a sprinkling of practical skills, will place them a cut above other would-be reporters. It won't, for two main reasons: journalism jobs are disappearing and graduating from university doesn't mean you're ready for one even if there is a vacancy.

The journalists' union - the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance - reported that in the decade to 2018, about 3000 journalist positions had been lost with the growth of digital platforms in Australia contributing to the closure of traditional outlets like newspapers. In roughly the same period - from 2009 to 2018 - 11,284 students completed journalism courses, according to data sourced from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Even allowing for attrition, those numbers indicate a serious oversupply, particularly when newsrooms don't only hire journalism graduates for journalism positions. It makes sense that a degree in business/economics is an advantage for a business reporter who can be taught technology and news writing on the job.

Australian universities have pontificated about the fractured media landscape instead of directly responding to industry trends. The department has confirmed that in 2018, 43 courses were offered in the field of journalism. Scan this year's courses and you'll see that enrolments have been sought for a similar number of degrees, despite hundreds more editorial jobs lost - through the collapse of digital start-ups, consolidation of television newsgathering, suspension of newspaper printing, cuts to radio bulletins and other services.

So where do all the journalism graduates go? Many into public relations I suspect. The last thing this country needs is more spin doctors when public interest journalism is under threat. In an age when propaganda bombards us online 24/7, Australians must be able to rely on trusted sources of news and information.

I argue that the way forward for journalism is to go back and refine an old approach to entry and training.

Before journalism degrees, paid cadetships were common. It's how I found my way into a newspaper at the age of 17. As distinct from an apprenticeship, training was purely in-house, advancement through the notional three years of a cadetship was by promotion and I didn't receive a piece of paper to verify a qualification.

Cadetships, otherwise known as traineeships, haven't disappeared completely. The ABC and SBS provide one-year placements with no guarantee of an ongoing job at the end. In 2018, the federal government paid 41 commercial media organisations wage subsidies as an incentive to hire 70 cadets in regional areas. At the same time, it funded journalism scholarships through 16 regional universities that are already heavily funded by the taxpayer.

Abandoning journalism degrees and redirecting the dollars to an improved cadetship scheme, more aligned to the apprenticeship system, would surely deliver better outcomes for the news industry and prospective journalists, while enabling government to identify whether taxpayers are getting value for their money.

Media organisations could receive financial assistance for hiring a cadet, who may have a broader-based degree or one in another field. In return, they should commit to employing and training the budding journalist for a minimum of three years. A requirement for senior supervision of cadets would place greater value on experience than we're currently seeing in many newsrooms.

Additional training through an accredited provider, linked to a qualification, can ensure a standard level of competence. The news industry's involvement in developing and reviewing a cadet training package is essential so that it remains relevant and flexible enough to respond to media trends. It also requires media to take more responsibility for training their journalists.

The dividend for the community is news and information they can depend on, as the government directly invests in people who can create content while learning instead of sitting in a lecture room, writing essays or using tools that can differ from what they'll find in a workplace.

If we embrace journalism as a trade, we will surely create a more realistic and certain pathway into the news industry.

Today's student, who is in high danger of graduating with a specialised journalism degree, no job and a huge HECS bill, pays the biggest price for a university sector that is out of touch with the real world.

  • Fiona Reynolds has a PhD in Journalism, Media and Communications, with 30 years' experience as a journalist and news executive across print, radio, television and digital content.
This story Back to the future: It's time to rethink the way we train journalists first appeared on The Canberra Times.