The Duke of York was right: Journalism needs apprentices

It’s not often I nod along in agreement with a member of the Royal Family, largely because I’ve never spoken to a member of them.

But the Duke of York, speaking at a seminar focusing on the regional press held by the Society of Editors, appeared to be on my wavelength – or me on his, as I imagine royalty gets ownership preference of all wavelengths, as they do with most of the land in Lancashire – when he talked about apprenticeships.

He was at the Forest of Arden Hotel in Meriden, West Midlands, to promote a project being run by the NCTJ and the SoE to get more apprenticeships created in journalism.

I didn’t write down exactly what he said, largely because I was nodding along, but basically he was saying that there’s an assumption that you will go to university once you’ve finished further education, and I think he was saying that such as assumption can be perpetuated by the fact most, if not all, teachers have also gone to university.

He argued he knew he didn’t want to go to university – because he knew what he wanted to do as soon as he played with helicopters in his back garden with his dad. He lost me at this point, because I realised he meant real-sized helicopters, not toy ones, and that the back garden will have been the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

But, size of one’s parents back garden and access to military equipment as a child, the point he was making – that there should be more than one way to progress into careers such as journalism – really hit home for me.

I’m in my 30s, and was perhaps one of the last people to be allowed to go into journalism without a degree, having demonstrated my commitment to journalism through about two years of on-off work experience, and a determination to find stories.

My sixth form college, which took great pride in shouting about the ridiculously high percentage of its students who went on to university, pushed and pushed and pushed for me to go to university, arguing it was the only way I would get anywhere in journalism. I had a place to read English at Newcastle, but deferred it, and when my friends went off to their hall of residence around the country, I began my £8,000-a-year job as a trainee reporter on the Preston Citizen.

Was I a better reporter for having not gone to university? I’ve no idea. How many times have you heard editors argue that they don’t care about degrees, especially journalism degrees, and that in some cases it can be a hinderance? I’ve known great journalists who’ve studied post grad courses, 16-week courses, three-year degrees and no university at all.

The point the Duke was trying to make was that there should be more ways into professions than just via university. I’m not sure when journalism by and large became a graduate profession, but that is in many cases what it has become. I get cross when I see universities describing their courses as ‘the best way into journalism’ because I don’t think they can claim that.

The best way into journalism is to have the ability to find a good story and develop it – something I’ve never been convinced you can teach – and be prepared to work very hard to convince an editor they should give you a job. Does a three-year journalism degree guarantee you’re a better journalist from the off? I’m not convinced.

So the idea of bringing back the idea of an apprenticeship in the newsroom is one which appeals to me. Sure, there are cynics who will argue it’s a good way of keeping costs down, but it’s a risk for newsrooms to take. In the same way many newsrooms don’t take people on work experience because of the time and effort involves, so to an apprenticeship could become a drain on resources, and in some eyes maybe make it more cost-effective to bring someone in who has been externally trained already.

But for me, the pros outweigh the cons. How many newsrooms really reflect their local communities? I’d argue you get a more reflective newsroom if it’s one which offers multiple routes into it. Journalism risks becoming a special place only for those whose parents can afford to pay them through university and that’s not good place for journalism – a profession/craft which prides itself on fighting on behalf of others – to be.

The apprentices who spoke in Meriden yesterday were passionate, excited and determined. The thrill of interviewing your first MP. The excitement at getting your idea taken seriously. The delight at working on the sportsdesk for the first time. These are special to anyone who experiences them, and if journalists are to really claim they serve a role in civic life, they/we need to come from all sorts of backgrounds.

The Duke argued that newsrooms should ask what they want from an apprentice, and what an apprentice would want from them. Newsrooms up and down the country have led apprentice campaigns to get more firms to take apprentices on. He didn’t say it in so many words, but he was arguing the industry should put its money where its mouth is.

I don’t think missing university did my career any harm. I was lucky. I was supported by experienced journalists on the Citizen series, who turned a blind eye – at times – to my cockiness and were always on hand to offer advice and, on occasion, the proverbial clip behind the ear. People like Gill Ellis, Belinda Jenkins, Steph Johnston, Rob Underdown, Naomi Bunting and Harold Heys – the latter of who set my password to ‘accommodation’ so I had to learn how to spell it. Yes, he really did do spelling tests. In fact, he threatened my wife with one at our wedding.  There are many more who, even before becoming a trainee, offered words of advice and encouragement.

I’m from a middle class home and would have been supported through university, it just wasn’t for me, just as it isn’t right for many others, especially now there’s a £9k a year millstone around the necks of most students. Offering apprenticeships might feel a bit back to the future, but journalism faces a much brighter future if we allow new ways into newsrooms.

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