The Hollywood style days of seeing an office boy rise through the ranks to become Editor-in-Chief suffered a mortal blow nearly 50 years ago – at least in the UK. Entry requirements for the major newspaper group, both national and regional, changed from applicants needing a clutch of good grades and exam results at school.
The new mood was for graduates only, eliminating at a stroke the raw talent that had poured out of the school gates and into newspaper and magazine offices for more than a century before that. In theory, better educated journalists would produce better quality publications.
However, a degree doesn’t bring with it a guarantee of common sense, a sine qua non of observing, investigating and writing on the news of the day. Nor is having a couple of letters after the name synonymous with having enthusiasm of a level that can never be rewarded in cash but only recognised and appreciated by employers. A university education doesn’t even necessarily offer literacy or even the ability to spell correctly. Quite the opposite. In some, it seems to have imbued an arrogance to ignore Spellchecks and rest content that some other, lesser minion will correct the mistakes. The schoolboy who persistently knocked at the door until he was admitted had all these positive qualities, a will to succeed and few of the drawbacks.
From the publishers’ standpoint, there was also the need to pay higher salaries because graduates supposedly warranted a fatter pay cheque then school leavers.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, the education authorities turned a point of principle – let’s upgrade the educational standard of journalists – into a first class opportunity. In the UK, formal education in journalism at the time of the switch from allcomers to graduates only was limited, classroom-based and bizarre in its naivete.
A journalist-turned-lecturer in the trade he had failed to make a success of himself would, for example, announce that his name was Leonardo Bertorelli, a circus owner whose lion had escaped and savaged a five-year-old girl. “This is a press conference, ask away,” he told a bunch of trainee journalists sitting in the classroom of a technical college.
The approach unsurprisingly seemed not to motivate six of the class who came from the same newspaper. One left to become a schoolteacher, another to join the United Nations Association, a third to work on a book producing statistics on racehorses and yet another to bear the child she accidentally conceived. Two survived the course and serving Oxford Business Group (OBG). Not the world’s greatest success rate.
The suggestion in the UK was always that such theoretical and unrealistic courses would be best replaced by attaching trainees to experienced journalists with a brief to watch and listen twice as much as they spoke. Nature provided two eyes, two ears and one mouth and they should be used in the same proportions. Too simple an idea and would have made some HR personnel redundant.
Meanwhile in the United States, there was developing a string of journalism schools attached to universities that were producing publications – under the guidance of people who had made successful careers in journalism – of a professional standard far higher than many newspapers and magazines being sold in the shops. It works. Some of the graduates can walk into almost any newsroom and shift seamlessly from practising and being taught into being useful, valuable and productive additions to the staff.
As Oxford Business Group, this publishing and consulting group focusing on emerging markets in the Middle East and Asia, we know that journalism is a job to be learned as it happens. The US schools of journalism, for the most part, do a good job of emulating that experience.