Kelvin MacKenzie sounds off today about university journalism schools, how they’re all a waste of space and how they should all be shut down. If training on the job was good enough for me, runs the argument, then it should be good enough for today’s generation.
First, a declaration of interest: I lead a university journalism school. Second, Kelvin is talking bollocks.
There is a delightful irony in the route that Kelvin’s opinion took to be published. Last November, he came to speak on a panel at City University on local television news. While wandering round the subject in characteristically subdued fashion, he took a sideswipe at journalism teaching in universities and advised any students present to abandon their course and get a job as a reporter on a local paper. The students took this on the chin and ignored the advice. And one of them must have thought: there’s an idea there someone can use.
One of the many pieces of practical journalism our students complete is a 108-page magazine, X-City, which has just appeared. Kelvin developed his views about training journalists at greater length and the interviewer, Harriet Thurley, turned it into a first-person piece. This was then ripped off, without any attribution, by The Independent today (a lesson in itself on what to expect from national papers). Credits were inserted a few hours later.
Kelvin’s right about one thing. There are plenty of courses in “media” and “communications” whose advertising might imply that they prepare people to work as journalists but don’t deliver on the promise. What we try to do at City is to produce thinking journalists ready to work in newsrooms. Ideas and principles are debated and discussed; but the emphasis is on practice (as a result, our graduates are employable: see Roy Greenslade). Anyone wanting to study journalism should look very carefully at courses which don’t have that word in the title.
Very little of this would be happening in universities if the news business still undertook training on the scale that it once did. Kelvin seems to have missed a big development of the past 20 years: finding on-the-job education isn’t any longer easy. This point is eloquently made by the Wannabehacks blog here. (Yes, they’re at City too).
Yesterday I spent several hours judging entries in the regional press awards organised by the Society of Editors. Looking through a couple of dozen of the best papers outside London is salutary. We’ve read so much about the pressures on the local press that it’s good to be reminded of how outstanding that journalism can be. Some of the youngsters might even have been on university journalism courses.
But before we all get too pompous about this…good newspapers will always blend raw talent with trained talent. Don’t forget that three of the five awards won by The Times at the national press awards this week were won by Caitlin Moran and Matthew Parris, neither of whom have ever been anywhere near a journalism course.