Perhaps one of the things Oxford taught us was the value of being well taught. So when it came to entering a career, naturally people looked for a way to learn their chosen profession – and that applied to the media, too.
In my day, one of the few graduate routes into the media was the legendary Mirror Group training scheme. Providing a genuine route into a career in journalism, it was ferociously competitive, despite the fact that instead of parachuting into Fleet Street, the course required you to work on a local newspaper somewhere in the sticks in order to learn your craft.
Alongside such eventual media luminaries as Alistair Campbell, the Mirror trained many Oxford alumni, such as Patrick Bishop (Corpus Christi, 1971), who became a distinguished foreign correspondent for several broadsheets as well as Channel 4 News, and has written a string of military books; John Gapper (Exeter, 1978), business columnist and associate editor of the FT based in New York, who has won several awards as a business commentator and columnist; and Ros Wynne-Jones (Wadham, 1990), who went on to write from conflict zones around the world, as well as covering UK stories, for several national newspapers. She described Oxford and the Mirror Group scheme as “Wholly diverse, but equally life-enriching experiences”.
Sadly, the scheme was halted in 2008, by which time there were just two coveted places available each year. Its closure was put down to a recruitment freeze, which would remain in place “for the foreseeable future”.
In the meantime, journalism had become a degree course at several universities. Courses run or accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) are acknowledged by the industry as providing the skills for the jobs – but the jobs aren’t there in the way that they were. So whereas once there were media jobs but little training, now there’s plenty of training, but few jobs.
Other media brands are now offering journalism courses – but unlike the Mirror, which paid its graduate trainees, these are courses for which the trainees pay. Guardian Masterclasses range from “How to be a football journalist”, an “intensive” one-day masterclass for £220, to a one-to-one distance learning course in feature writing for £800.
And who runs media courses nowadays? Well, some may be run by journalists who have taken training courses in, er, training courses. According to journalism.co.uk, “Many journalists recognise that offering training courses can be a useful way to boost income and raise profile”. The site offers a one day workshop, which introduces journalists to “the skills necessary to design, run and assess training courses”.
But the industry itself can be wary of qualifications, of training courses and degrees in journalism. The majority of Oxford alumni who have made it in the media underwent little formal training. Brian Flynn, Investigations Editor of The Sun, spoke about this recently to the Press Gazette. “Newspapers are like football clubs,” he explained. “They promote or poach talent based on ability, not qualifications or time served.
“The fact is that many of the abilities that make the best journalists – tenacity, social skills, an understanding of life, an ability to learn from mistakes and apply that knowledge to your next story and, above all, a drive to work bloody hard at all hours regardless of whether someone is watching over you – are not things taught in a lecture theatre. It’s something I love about our industry.
“In my experience, it’s about as close to a meritocracy as you can get outside of sport.”
Or, as some of us might say, outside of Oxford.