March 12, 2013 by Colin Kelly
This is a question I’m asked a lot. And it’s closely tied to another common question, ‘How do I get into journalism?’
My answer is, if you have the opportunity, and would like to, you should study journalism at university. But don’t despair if you can’t. There are loads of different ways in and a degree in itself is absolutely no guarantee of success.
I graduated from Edinburgh Napier University with a BA Journalism in 1999 but has it actually made a positive difference to my career?
No-one comes round checking to see my certificate and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what I learned during those 3 years of study that was so important. There have been times I wondered if I’d have been better doing all my learning on the job and, if I’m honest, there were a few points during the course itself where it all seemed a bit slow and pointless.
But today, I’m really glad I stuck it out and got my degree. And here’s why.
1) It developed my writing. Working on a radio news desk is great for learning to write short stories, very quickly, under pressure ,that are designed to be read out loud. But there’s so much more to written communication than 3 minute radio news bulletins. The idea of writing a blog, public sector tender or scripting a corporate video was completely alien when I was a student but I now write these regularly. University forced me to learn to write in a variety of styles and being able to adapt to do this has been a big help with my business.
2) It introduced me to some great people. Journalism is all about people. Success in business means contacts. There’s an obvious link there. 3 years of study meant working with a large number of people who’re now scattered all over the world, in some very interesting places. Aside from the friendships, it’s useful to have common ground with former classmates working in a range of sectors and there are frequent opportunities to help each other.
3) I learnt about myself. Living away from home, in a new place where you don’t know anyone makes or breaks you. It throws up some tough experiences such as living on a budget, taking responsibility for yourself and your work and going through all this builds confidence. More than confidence, journalism requires a degree of gumption. A few years toughing it out on your own or sharing a flat helps develop this.
4) There’s much more to journalism than the skills required to do the job. This is probably the biggest benefit of studying journalism at university. Anyone can be a journalist. Of course the real nuts and bolts of the job can only be developed by getting out there and doing it. But what about when you want to stop being a ‘beat reporter’? What about when you want to move into management? Or go out on your own? Or specialise and become more analytical in your work? It pays to know about how journalism works. The thinking behind it. Ownership, the history, regulations, the role of the ’4th estate’, the changing nature of communications. Think of last year with the Leveson inquiry – these issues are more relevant than ever. Even basic things like how to use a search engine. Having time and space to explore and learn, or more accurately, learning how to explore and learn equips you for a whole heap of things that life is going to throw at you in future.
In short, it’s all about the pace of change and being able to adapt. The job of a journalist has changed dramatically in the last 10 years and will do again in the next 10. To survive, it’s not enough to be brilliant at the job you’re currently doing. You need a set of skills that you can apply no matter what. A university degree isn’t the only way to develop these but it helped me and I’d certainly recommend it.