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Work experience in journalism – an essential part of training for all or an outdated concept only accessible to the well-off?

University of Northampton journalism students grill Saints players at Frankins Gardens. Pic © HScott

University of Northampton journalism students grill Saints players at Frankin’s Gardens. Pic © H Scott

GAINING work experience before getting a career may be the trend for many jobs today, but for journalists it has been a standard requirement for decades.

There are few editors or broadcasters who will not have started out their career on the bottom rung of the ladder as a cub reporter, and to get those traineeships you always needed to show enthusiasm by volunteering in your ‘spare time,’ as a ‘workie,’ willing to type up sports results, proof village correspondents’ copy, shadow ‘real’ reporters and make the tea.

It made for some loose equality and understanding in an industry that often means more than just a regular hard day at the office. Most pre-internet journalists, even those who climbed the ladder into management, will have experienced a death-knock, a murder scene, a grim sexual-abuse court case and several missing-kid stories.

It is only in recent years, since the traditional ‘prof-test’ training route has been overtaken by university journalism degrees, that would-be hacks are now also expected to be graduates. But they are all still expected to get at least one stint of work experience on their first CV.
Many undergraduate courses now include work experience as a compulsory, assessed element, which means more and more student journos looking for fewer places in newsrooms every summer.

But with the huge changes in modern newsrooms, and often far fewer staff available to supervise a terrified newbie, (not to mention the paranoia about HR policy and procedures), are workies still getting the chance for hands-on experience they need to show their commitment and ability to do the job?

Despite a tacit agreement by employers not to exploit volunteers (goodness, there’s even laws against it) and to sometimes pay travel expenses, placements might still cost hundreds for the workie in train fares and accommodation.

Our Northampton-based students may only be an hour by train from London, but to take up a placement in the city they need at least £132 for five day-returns (and that’s only if they use London Midland’s pre-booked weekly season ticket, if they don’t it’s 300 quid).

If they need to head north, to say Media City in Salford, then they need pricey accommodation or a Mancunian relative with a sofa-bed. Even locally, they often need a car due to the lack of reliable public transport.

Many regional papers and broadcasters simply won’t take work experiences anymore because they don’t have the manpower. Some are forced to refer locally-based students to nationally-administered placement schemes that might send them anywhere. These organisations seem to have little interest in their workies having local knowledge and contacts, which seems bonkers.
Anyone who grew up on their paper or station’s patch will usually nuke the opposition when it comes to genuine exclusives. They went to school with that woman who’s up in court, or played football with someone who gives them a great tip-off. Their aunties will always know what’s happening around the community.

Even if the student journo gets a place at a media organisation, is there much for them to do? There are few opportunities to shadow different departments if they are no longer all based in the same office.
A day on newsdesk, a day with the snappers, a day on sport, in court and with subs isn’t possible if they are all now working in ‘hubs’, often in different counties, let alone different towns.

If they come in with their own stories or leads, as we encourage them to, is anyone going to have time to go through it with them? Will they be trusted to go to a job on their own, like we make them do during university newsdays?

But those who do get placements, and working journos who can spare the time to guide them, can get priceless experience. Some of our students have gained full-time jobs as a direct result of their work experience while at university. Newsrooms and PR agencies have sent glowing feedback about how useful it is to have a young, enthusiastic workie in the office, and many reveal that they in turn end up being taught new ideas on multimedia and mobile by the students. Everyone benefits; the workie gets a real-life view, the newsroom gets a new perspective, and an extra person on the tea rota. And that means it must still work, right?

I’m very keen to hear your views. Please feel free to comment and most importantly, please take five minutes to fill in the survey below, aimed at people who have undertaken media work experience, even if their careers took them elsewhere. You can fill in the survey by clicking here. Please feel free to share too.

Work experience survey 2016

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