Is it possible to widen access to journalism?

Last week the former MP Alan Milburn made a call for professions such as law, journalism and medicine to become more open to candidates from poorer backgrounds. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There’s a series of barriers that, maybe inadvertently, the professions put in the way of those with ability and aptitude from a variety of backgrounds…’ Milburn went on to say that those from less privileged backgrounds were thwarted from the start from these professions and that part of the problem was how these professions recruited and provided work experience opportunities.

While I cannot speak for law or medicine, I can confirm (the obvious) that journalism and media in general is incredibly hard to get into anyway and even harder if you are from a poorer background. I applaud any effort to improve this and am pleased that this issue that is being talked about at Government level, however, looking at the reasons for the lack of people from less privileged backgrounds in journalism, I am dubious as to what actually can be done without some very drastic action.

First and foremost there is the problem of location. The majority of journalism jobs are located in London, with some now up in Manchester thanks to the BBC’s move there. Most of the major magazine and newspaper publishing companies are based in London, or the South East. These are incredibly expensive places to live, just about manageable on a salary (if you are prepared to live in less salubrious areas) – but of course work experience and most internships are unpaid…

Work experience and internships are crucial to get ahead in journalism and as they should be – people should demonstrate they are really passionate about pursuing a career in this highly competitive industry. Yet, how can anyone but those fortunate enough to have well-off generous parents afford to do the months of internships (and yes months is required, one two-week stint, ain’t going to land anyone a job who doesn’t have a helping hand from a dad with a useful job/friend…) in the expensive South East? Yes there are local papers, but are there really enough of them with enough work going spare to sustain the hordes of wannabee journalists?

Well d’uh the obvious answer is to say pay interns enough money to afford rent, breakfast and dinner on top of the standard travel within London and lunch expenses most places give (and that’s a dying treat for interns too) you cry. Well, the fact this obvious answer hasn’t been implemented years ago is that the majority of journalists don’t get paid enough. Rumour has it that the salary of editorial assistants at well-known glossy magazines is in the region of £16,000 and then they must have done quite a few unpaid internships to get where they are. B2B journalists are a bit better off but not that significantly. So, given that the average junior staff salary just about lets them live in London and that there are serious job redundancies happening at the moment, how can an employer look his staff in the eyes about paying a similar monthly wage to a bunch of interns who may not turn out to be very good or who are certainly not at the talent level of their staff?

Working in temporary jobs to help pay for months of unpaid internships is an option of course, but given that a lot of university students have to work their holidays and part-time to just help them through university they probably can’t give up precious weeks they could use to earn money to do one unpaid internship that won’t get them anyway on its own anyway. Privileged students immediately have an advantage on getting journalism jobs sooner because they can spend their holidays doing work experience.

Another problem is the matter of education. Media is dominated by Oxbridge and red-brick university graduates. There’s a running joke that the famously left-wing Guardian is stuffed full of Oxbridge-educated graduates (Oxbridge of course does not necessarily mean upper class, but those universities do famously have a high proportion of private school pupils so by that reckoning that means a high proportion of Oxbridge educated journalists were lucky in the birth lottery). I know the fact I can put Cambridge University on my CV has played a part in me getting some internships – it has been hinted at and openly mentioned.

And can you blame the harried and stressed editors and journalists for their very quick way of weeding out who to let near their computers and finely-tuned work system by a quick look at what university someone went to? (And how many other internships they have done – another irony – you need internships to get internships). They don’t have time in a lot of cases to do a thorough recruitment process for someone who isn’t a permanent member of staff – they are hiring interns because they don’t have any time spare.

The education problem doesn’t just stop there – to just stand out among graduates it is important to have a journalism qualification, NCTJ or other on top of that. Something that has become a more prevalent attitude much recently. Postgraduate courses aren’t free and then you have to factor living costs on top of those. A full-time MA in newspaper journalism course at City University, is £9,000 for EU students. Even a Newspaper Diploma at Lambeth College is £1015. These are not cheap prices to for out for. You might think the obvious answer is to do something journalism related as an undergraduate degree so you can at least get a student loan from the Government – well it is a great irony that an undergraduate degree in journalism isn’t actually a very respected one… employers much prefer that their staff have degrees in ‘traditional’ subjects that give them a thorough grounding in how to research and then gain the practical skills as almost an afterthought diploma or MA.

So there we are – the main problems preventing those from less privileged backgrounds from entering the journalism profession, money, a London-centric job sector, education and oh money again. So what can be done?

Frankly I would welcome people’s suggestions for what could possibly be done that isn’t massively drastic to open journalism to all. Based on the problems I have identified we would need to:

  • Persuade major publishing companies to relocate in an even distribution around the country.
  • Raise salaries for journalists and pay interns enough to live in London for months at a time. Perhaps the Government should force heads of companies to give up some of their pay-packet to enable this. Ha!
  • Encourage more companies like Pearson Publishing, owners of the FT) to do paid internships but it is hard to see how small companies can do this, and this still wouldn’t open up many more places. And I imagine to get a place on one of these schemes you need some other internships under your belt.
  • Have the Government and education institutions put thousands of pounds aside to enable bursaries and scholarships for diplomas and MAs.
  • Increase access to universities for all…..

In conclusion – money, money, money that old dirty thing is at the heart of widening access to journalism and is itself the problem behind it. I think the best we can hope for is for more generous people to donate money for bursary schemes aimed at wannabee journalists. And I doubt that will be enough to really redress the unfair balance. Here’s hoping, but I’m not counting on hope.

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