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August 11, 2022

How to become a journalist in the UK

By Silvia Pellegrino

Getting into the competitive industry of journalism can be an intimidating and daunting experience, with qualifications and experience both something to consider.

It is not rare to encounter unpaid internships or expensive courses, so it is best to be informed and know what you are getting into.

Press Gazette has rounded up some of the most useful things to know if you are preparing for a career as a journalist.

What qualifications are available to become a journalist?

Jason Bennetto, a senior journalism lecturer at City University in London, told Press Gazette that the three main routes into journalism are:

  • To go straight from school or university into a media organisation, possibly on their own in-house training scheme
  • Get a master’s (MA) qualification in journalism
  • Achieve a professional journalism qualification such as the NCTJ diploma.

“Increasingly, editors are looking for applicants with a proven record of journalism, and having a lot of skills already,” he said.

He added that the journalism field “is also very competitive, so you’ll end up against people with potentially more skills, experience and contacts”.

When it comes to academic qualifications, such as an undergraduate or masters degree, there are a few options to keep in mind.

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Usually, full-time undergraduate journalism degrees last three years but they can take up to six years if attended part-time. The advantage of these courses is that they are very thorough and they are designed to shape journalism skills – from building a reporting portfolio to learning technologies and software.

If you have already found your niche and want to pursue a more targeted education, specialist courses such as Fashion Journalism or Music Journalism might be a better fit.

A journalism-related master’s degree may be in a specific area such as digital journalism, media law or video production, but can also be more generalised.

There are also alternative, non-university routes to becoming a journalist, but they still require some form of qualification. For instance, many media organisations prioritise journalists with National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) accreditations.

The NCTJ sets a standard that is recognised across the UK media. It is a trusted kitemark that provides new skills and knowledge to successfully become a journalist. Many universities provide NCTJ-accredited courses, but the body also provides its own.

The NCTJ describes itself as “the media industry’s professional body and awarding organisation regulated by Ofqual, CCEA and Qualifications Wales to deliver industry standard qualifications for journalists throughout the UK”.

It offers four different courses which can be found at centres across the UK:

  • Certificate in Foundation Journalism: a Level 3 qualification, ideal for those looking for an introduction to journalism or who wish to use journalistic skills for a specific purpose, such as blogging
  • Diploma in Journalism: a Level 5 Qualification designed to prepare for the demands of working as a trainee journalist; it is available to study on NCTJ-accredited courses or on a journalism apprenticeship
  • National Qualification Journalism: a Level 6 qualification, after which the recruit will be qualified as a senior journalist. This is usually taken after completing the Diploma in Journalism and having at least 18 months of experience, often at a local or regional title
  • Practical International Journalism: a Level 5 qualification aimed at non-native English speakers. It covers all the core elements of being a working journalist operating in an international environment.

Some NCTJ courses include shorthand, although this is no longer mandatory for non-news trainees. In 2020 Press Gazette asked a mixture of regional paper and news agency editors whether they still viewed shorthand as essential for job candidates – and the consensus appeared to be that it helped people get to the top of the pile.

Bennetto advised aspiring journalists: “If you do go for the training route – such as an MA, BA or NCTJ – then make sure you have picked the right course. Be careful as not all colleges offer comprehensive training and have industry contacts. The students and teachers are an important factor: you want to be surrounded by motivated, skilled, and connected people as they will be part of your jobs network in the future.”

Are qualifications necessary for journalists?

According to Bennetto, qualifications are “not essential, but without knowing about things such as law, ethics, news and feature structure, and multimedia skills, you can find yourself stuck at a junior level”.

According to a 2016 report from City University, 98% of journalists who began their careers in 2013, 2014 and 2015 had a bachelor’s degree and 36% a master’s, although not necessarily in journalism.

However the fact that 80% of journalists come from professional and upper class backgrounds, meaning those from working class backgrounds are underrepresented in the media, was highlighted in a recent NCTJ report on diversity.

Funding for journalism training

The downside of getting formal qualifications in journalism is the expense, which can exclude some aspiring journalists. A master’s degree in journalism could be upwards of £10,000, and NCTJ-accredited courses can cost around £5,000. An undergraduate course can cost around £30,000 for three years.

There are financial solutions that are in place to help students, however. For instance, the Journalism Diversity Fund exists to give opportunities for those from diverse backgrounds who need help funding their NCTJ training, covering course fees and/or living expenses. The recipients will also be paired with a working journalist to mentor them throughout their studies.

The Journalism Diversity Fund is not only aimed at young aspiring journalists, but also at people who may be going through a career change, for example.

There are also other bursaries available. For instance, the Scott Trust Bursary gives three master’s students funding every year, covering tuition fees and providing £6,000 to cover any other expense. This bursary is aimed at those who face financial difficulty getting journalism qualifications and recipients usually come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the media, such as those who are from a lower socio-economic background, LGBTQIA+ or live with disabilities.

Financial aid is not the only help as trainees can learn on the job and get paid. For example, the BBC offers advanced apprenticeships in journalism for applicants who have already obtained degrees. Apprentices will receive an NCTJ National Qualification in Journalism and get paid while learning during the two-year programme.

The BBC also offers a fast-track apprenticeship for those without degrees or an NCTJ Journalism diploma who are aged 18 or over. The apprentices earn the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and the entry-level qualification.

How can you become a journalist in the UK?

If you are 16, 17 or 18, the John Schofield Trust offers an online mentoring programme for 16 to 18-year-olds from sixth-form colleges and schools in Cornwall, Cardiff, Sheffield and Nottingham. It also runs a 12-month early career and apprentice mentoring programme to help aspiring journalists to develop their skills.

If you are aged between 18 and 25 and live in London, Manchester or Merseyside, you can apply for mentorship organised by Arts Emergency. This is a mentoring charity that helps young people get into the arts and humanities sector.

Other available apprenticeship, networking and education opportunities include:

  • We Are Black Journos: for POC journalists, aspiring and established, who are looking for a sense of community
  • Creative Access: for people from underrepresented groups
  • I Like Networking:a platform that aims to support women and non-binary professionals looking for a career in the creative and cultural industry, as well as offering support for those who feel stuck
  • Journo Resources: this organisation offers journalism workshops starting at £4, or even free if you can’t afford them
  • Press Pad: a social enterprise that helps find interns accommodation with journalists in London. It also offers free workshops and CV clinics

Giving one last piece of advice to aspiring journalists in the UK, Bennetto concludes: “Journalism can be exciting, varied, an opportunity to try new things, meet people, travel, learn new skills… but it is also hard work, demanding, often poorly paid and competitive. Just make sure you really want to be a journalist as you can’t do it half-heartedly.”

Picture: iStock

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