How do you get into broadcast journalism?

Thursday 21 April 2011, 11:00

Jonathan Baker Jonathan Baker is head of the BBC College of Journalism

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You suspect you're heading towards the end of your career when you're asked to advise others on how to start theirs.

This week I was a member of a panel taking part in a live Q&A on the Guardian Careers website entitled 'Routes into Broadcast Journalism'. There was a wide range of questions and you can follow the whole discussion here.

Many people just wanted some tips on how and where to get a first-hand look at what the job is really like. It's clearly getting harder and harder to find work experience, let alone a full-time job. 

The number of questions about internships suggests that some media organisations are taking advantage of the huge demand for any kind of on-the-job experience. For some aspiring journalists, 'work experience' just means working for no money.

What I found more striking, though, was the number of questions about university courses, postgraduate degrees and MAs. Many people are trying to break into journalism by amassing ever more, and ever more impressive, qualifications. And yet their questions betray a suspicion that this might not after all be the most effective approach. This one was typical: "How valuable/invaluable is a postgraduate qualification in broadcast journalism as a route to employment?"

The panel was divided in its responses. Some felt postgraduate qualifications are vital; others that different kinds of experience or specialist knowledge might be equally attractive to a potential employer. No-one went as far as former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie who in a recent newspaper article suggested that virtually all formal journalism training is a waste of time and the only worthwhile way to get in is at the grassroots, on local newspapers.

For those of us of a certain age, that was indeed the best, even the only, way in, and it produced generations of great reporters - among them Harold Evans, who wrote a memorable account of his early days on local and regional newspapers in his book My Paper Chase. But, for the majority of today's entrants, a university degree is the norm, and a postgraduate qualification very common.  

In a shrinking industry - regional newspapers in particular - there are too many candidates chasing too few jobs. It was distressing to hear of so many people who are clearly committed to a career in journalism and who simply cannot get their feet on a rung of the ladder.

The panel was sympathetic. In response to many questions, we were able to give practical help and advice. But, more broadly, we couldn't offer much beyond encouragement, and telling people that if they persevered they'd get there in the end.

As one contributor put it: "If you are the type of person who is going to be put off by people saying there's no hope of a career in broadcast news these days, then you probably don't have the determination and commitment needed."

Jonathan Baker is Head of the BBC College of Journalism.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Hi there

    A great blog by Jonathan. Over on Guardian Careers we'll soon be summarising the best advice for anybody wanting to check it out.

    I think the debate over postgraduate courses is an interesting one. I did one and it was a pricey way of hitting the ground running, and the good thing is you start your career with skills such as law knowledge and shorthand. Plus, you get to make your mistakes in a classroom environment, rather than in a newsroom and encountering the wrath of an angry sub!

    Although, I'd say you need to make sure the course is of a high quality, with all the key boxes ticked (accredited, practical experience included) to make it worth the investment.

    I've never really understood why MAs are required - 've never churned out a 20,000 word article in my career so why is a dissertation needed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Re: "i've never really understood why MAs are required - 've never churned out a 20,000 word article in my career so why is a dissertation needed?"

    So that one understands why no one will ever read a 20,000 word article. ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I am currently studying a Society, Culture & Media undergraduate degree. Having just turned 30 and just finishing my second year, I am now looking into what to do when my degree ends.
    My motivation to do a degree was the fact that I have always wanted to be a journalist, although to work in print was always the ideal dream, I am now considering broadcast journalism due to the gradual decline in print based newspapers. I am thinking about going on to do a MA in either Journalism or Broadcast Journalism. Would this be something worth doing or not? And, how likely, due to my age when I would finish a masters, would it be that I would get a job within the media compared to those a lot younger then me? Any advice would be greatly appreciated...

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Industry-wide there is, without a doubt, a strong preference for young and pretty. Although news should be a bastion of meritocracy, that is simply not reality (especially early in a career). There are, however, an increasing number of local news managers willing to take a chance on non-traditional broadcast types, especially if the journalist can write and/or has producer instincts, You might have to work hard to find these stations -- and be willing to start in a market you can not now anticipate -- but there are opportunities out there.

    IMHO it’s key not to cost budget-starved news directors and station managers money while you learn the craft or prove yourself. If you can find a station or spot that seems to prize diversity in the age and physical attributes of its broadcasters, then it’s up to you to close the deal with talent, hard work, and ability to be flexible, etc.

    Try approaching a station manager about an internship and combine that with formal academic work. Be willing to start at the bottom and prove yourself.

    Good luck!


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