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July 20, 2009

Why journalism has become ‘most exclusive middle-class profession’

By Dominic Ponsford1

An all-party report on access to the professions says that journalism is one of the most exclusive middle-class professions in the 21st century and is to examine a range of ways to increase social mobility in the UK.

Unleashing Aspiration is being published tomorrow and identifies the rise of unpaid internships and “qualification inflation” as factors limiting social mobility.

A report back in 2006 revealed the extent to which the UK’s national newspaper editorships are dominated not just by the middle class, but by the privately educated.

This is a devilishly difficult problem to solve.

When I trained as a journalist back in 1996 I didn’t have any money, and neither did most of my contemporaries at Lambeth College. But we were pretty much exclusively middle class in background.

We found the money to train by either taking out massive loans, or in my case working nights at a press cuttings agency. (Incidentally, almost none of them are still working in journalism now – most have opted instead to move into more lucrative careers in PR).

Those who really want to become journalists will find a way – but there seems to a problem with people from working class backgrounds not seeing journalism as an option.

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A big problem at the top end of the profession is that editors tend to appoint people like themselves. Thus the Daily Telegraph, for instance, under Will Lewis is well stocked with City University graduates – whereas during the time of former Telegraph editor Charles Moore there was a much stronger public school and Oxbridge emphasis at the paper.

The really sad thing for me is that the ability to work for free for months on end seems to have become a prerequisite to getting a foot on the ladder at many national newspapers and high profile glossy magazines.

But there are still ways to get into the profession for the less well-off.

Many prospective journalists seem to think they need to take an expensive post-graduate academic qualification. City for instance charges £7,500 for its MA (in a cash-raising move last year, it scrapped its cheaper diploma courses insisting that all students now take the more academic route).

But practical journalism is not an academic skill – and much of the stuff MA students will learn will be useless in the newsroom.

In my experience as a recruiter – having a journalism degree, or a journalism MA, is not always an indication of someone being trained in the practical skills to become a journalist. Many journalism degree graduates emerge with little practical training at all, having done courses which are rooted in the theoretical discipline of journalism studies.

NCTJ fast-track journalism courses take 20 weeks, cost as little as £900 and are – in my opinion – a much more cost-effective way to get trained as a journalist.

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