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News, March 2005

What happened to journalism as a top career choice,
and where is our Bachelor of Journalism?

By Jim Tucker, executive director of the Journalists Training Organisation.

Whatever happened to journalism as a hot career choice for young Kiwis? Why is it that pre-teens list it as their number one option, but after that it disappears off the preferred occupation radar?

These are questions that bug me as the NZ Journalists Training Organisation's new executive director, and I want to make finding the answers one of my priorities after I take up the appointment in Wellington this month.

At this stage I can only guess at some of the reasons:

•  At primary and intermediate school, most pupils are exposed to newspapers-in-education programmes, plus widespread enthusiasm among teachers for using the news media as a teaching tool. Writing, broadcasting, making DVDs, taking pictures - all made easier and cheaper by computers and digital technology - are possibly linked in students' minds to careers which use those tools.

•  At high school, some of that carries on, but at Year 12 - the second-to-last year for many - interest in media hits a ceiling. Media studies has never been a serious (for bursary) option for the final year at school, so momentum is lost.

•  Tertiary institutions have tended to subsume journalism into a broad "communication studies" mix for the purposes - often purely bureaucratic - of setting up viable degree programmes. The word "journalism" disappears into a morass of specialties, even though these tend to be related more to delivery method than a philosophy.

Journalism was caught out by the latter development over the past 15 years. The media industry has always regarded it merely as a trade, so when communication studies arrived as the sexy new subject in the 90s, journalism - with no strong professional and theoretical basis from which to demand a separate profile - was simply overwhelmed.

The educational bureaucrats held all the cards when they began to organise this relatively new (for New Zealand) discipline. I recall the problems we had when then-Auckland Institute of Technology started to put together the country's first degree: the newly appointed academic leader announced there was "too much news" in the programme, and I was outvoted when I made a plea for graduates to be able to list their major after their qualification.

I foresaw strong - and probably justifiable - resistance would come from media industry employers as the new media degrees appeared. Being able to say you had a Bachelor of Communication Studies (Journalism) would have helped.

But I was told very firmly by the academics that getting graduates into jobs was not a priority. In fact, prior to a session we had with second year students to advise them on their choice of major for the third and final year, we were instructed not to mention job prospects. Naturally, I ignored that: our high employment rate was one of our biggest appeals.

Now that degree qualifications have a semi-acceptance among media employers, it seems appropriate to ask: where is New Zealand's Bachelor of Journalism? Where is our Master of Journalism? No such qualifications exist, and employers are still left with the problem of not being sure what exactly the job candidate sitting in front of them is qualified to do.

To some extent, that situation has been met by the quality of the National Diploma in Journalism, which has a good reputation for delivering graduates with a sound grasp of the basics of news journalism. However, even that is under some threat from the pressure tertiary institutions are feeling to do more research, which in turn translates into moves to eliminate teachers without academic qualifications.

I was told recently that a highly experienced journalist with proven ability in the classroom was not a suitable candidate for a long-term job teaching on a diploma because he lacked a degree.

This vexed question of who should be teaching our future journalists their craft will be one of the biggest conundrums I will face in the job. It erupted in a rather unseemly debate at one of our major journalism training institutions last year and is a problem pushing at the edges of every viable and successful journalism school in the country.

Even small institutions face this perceived threat. It was made plain at my former place of employment that only those with a PhD need apply for a department head's position. My mere master's degree was not enough to make me a serious candidate.

The major teaching schools also face more and more pressure from the numbers game, which demands bums on seats to meet ever rising costs. What impact is that and the pressure for teachers to be academics having on the quality of journalism graduates? Is there significance in the outcome of last year's Qantas Journalism Student of the Year Award, which saw first and second go to two of the smallest schools in the country? One such result may mean nothing, but let's watch for a trend.

More work needs to be done to ensure that journalism training continues after graduates start in the industry. I make that judgement from the appalling standard of writing I came across at the coalface of one of our major national newspapers last year. This was work produced by graduates from various J schools. It was poorly constructed, ignored basic grammatical rules, lacked clarity, was often unreadable.

There appear to be a number of reasons for this, only some of them to do with the standard of journalism training.

First, these reporters personified the problems extant in society since some woolly-minded bureaucrat in the ministry of education decided in the early 70s that our schools didn't need to teach grammar any more. (I once met a man who owned up to this - he was advising the JTO on the formulation of unit standards! He was as you imagine - small, grey, myopic. When I congratulated him on his fine work, he said simply that I didn't understand).

Second, most of the reporters seem to have had no mentoring in the arts of journalism writing since they left J school. They'd had plenty of advice on how to find stories and what stories to do, but nobody had taken the time to help them hone their story skills. This may be partly due to chronic under-staffing in our newsrooms, or the retirement of a generation of subeditors who cared about such things as split infinitives and commas and didn't mind passing that knowledge on. Or it may link to a philosophy which dictates that getting the story is all that's important and the subs will take care of the mess that results.

Journalism tutors - almost all of whom have sound knowledge of writing basics, if my experience of meeting and observing them is any guide - can do only so much to repair the "damage" of school education in the space of a 36-week programme. After that, the industry itself must take over. I have always told students that when they enrol in the diploma in journalism they are taking on a three-year programme - one in the school and the following two at a newsroom where they should receive adequate advice about honing their skills.

One problem is that most employers believe journalism graduates are fully formed and ready for anything. I say they are merely ready to begin. I want to have a look at this partnership between tertiary education and the media industry and explore ways to ensure the development of new entrants continues after they get out of school.

There are plenty of other challenges ahead. Due to the excellent work of my predecessor, Bill Southworth, journalism training is in a stable position in this country. In fact, from my observations during a tour of J schools in the US and UK in 2003, I would say we are ahead of the game when it comes to producing graduates who are well acquainted with the body of knowledge and skills a journalist needs on day one of his or her first job. We are the only country which allows journalism students to contribute significant numbers of real news stories for publication in real news outlets, a factor that sets us apart as a trainer to be envied.

Some of the challenges I have alluded to above. Others involve updating our extensive range of texts and adding to them, satisfying that august body the NZQA that we can offer a viable in-service training qualification, and exploring the needs for training in newly emerging areas such as online journalism, photojournalism and editorial graphic art.

I have plenty of ideas about how this might all be done, but my inclination is to keep the lid on those until I have had a chance to talk to everyone who has a stake - employers, tutors, educational managers, the NZQA, students. I want to do that by encouraging journalism schools to hold advisory committee meetings over the next couple of months so I can get around and talk to as many people as possible.

Look for a mild eruption of plans and visions sometime after the middle of the year. I can see some of my former colleagues in training sighing warily already.