Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.
Paying for the future
What price investment in the future of digital journalism?
For some, as I've previously written about here, it's the kindness of strangers - user donations left via the digital equivalents of a collection plate, looking for right-minded visitors to place a welcome fiver or two in the dish in gratitude for the hard work.
For others, it's an entrance fee - placing a paywall around content and requiring visitors to cough up in order to enjoy their wares. Some go all out and place a ticket booth on the door, not letting the hot polloi in the door without sticking their hands in their pockets, while others let folk wander around the lobby and have their before charging to see the special attractions
And for others yet it's the Don Draper approach - traditional advertising models, hoping that enough visitors will be taken in by shiny banners, MPUs, pre-roll and sponsored links to justify charging agencies for their placement
But the Guardian seems to have hit on an entirely new model - deciding the best way to protect the future of digital journalism is by restricting it to those who can afford to be the next generation of new media hacks.
The announcement that the Groaner, fresh off the reported £150k failure of its fan convention, is planning to run a £9000 a year digital journalism course in conjunction with an as-yet unnamed university has caused more than a few raised eyebrows about the industry in the last couple of days.
Now, it’s not like there isn’t a shortage of university courses offering journalism qualifications these days. We’ve come a long way from there being just one diploma course in journalism a century ago, to the point where there are genuinely dozens of different courses across the UK, delving into every aspect of the industry.
In many ways, it’s a canny move by the paper. The Guardian, whatever you think of it, has built an impressive reputation as a digital operator, pioneering a lot of interesting work in online journalism and being seen across the world as a flagship for how to do digital publishing. Having any kind of affiliation to it is an impressive bait with which to hook young hacks.
But I can’t help wondering, also, what exactly that nine grand will be buying? Is a Guardian-affiliated qualification going to have any more value out in the industry? Are folk more likely to land a job - at King’s Place, or anywhere else - because they’ve been through a course which was invigilated by Charlie Brooker?
To an extent it feels like trading on a name, hoping prospective students will fork out an extra nine k just for the privilege of getting Alan Rusbridger’s signature on their diploma over the vice chancellor of Napier. It risks being the iPhone of journalism courses - doing little different to any of its rivals, but being seen as ‘better’ because of the expense and the logo on the box.
And will the Guardian only plump for graduates who have been through their own, accredited courses in future? Will a straight shoot-out for a vacancy come down to whether or not prospective cub reporters ponied up the cash to get the Kings Place Seal of Approval on their graduation certificate? And if not - what’s the point of paying for that Guardian Degree anyway?
Free internships and the expectation of young hacks writing copy ‘to get their name known’ already makes me slightly uneasy - because it creates a sense of elitism. Only those with the money, and not necessarily the best talent, face having a chance of making it with a major title in future should that be the road down which the industry continues to progress.
And there’s a worrying knot in my guts that this move by the Guardian is the next step. This isn’t launching a training scheme or putting cubs through shorthand courses at the local paper. This is an internationally renowned supposed champion for the social underclasses expecting prospective journalists to pay just shy of ten grand for the privilege of a fleeting affiliation with the paper.
Right. Cue the Hovis music...
When I started as hack, filthy assistants, it was back in the dark and heady days of the mid-90s, when even the first dotcom boom was but a glint in Ernst Malmsten's eyes. I was faced with a straight choice. On one hand - a place at university to study journalism. On the other, an indentureship with the Press and Journal on its first in house training scheme.
The course, accredited by the SVQ, saw us do six months of classroom-based learning, covering largely everything being done on degree courses, before being shipped off to work in the districts from which we were largely recruited. In between we got snippets of work experience - a week in Inverness here, a week on the sports desk there - to give us a full flavour of what working on a busy regional daily was like.
And we were paid to do it. Not much, admittedly - £6,000 as a starting salary. But at 18, when your contemporaries are facing four years of doing what you’ve largely compressed into six months, when you’re getting front page splashes and covering big tales on a regular basis, it’s a big old lure.
I got lucky with one story early on - returning to my old school at the same time as the new Headmaster was being battered by one of his pupils. It got me a shared byline and a front page splash three months into my career, and annoyed phone calls from my old head of year accusing me of being a traitor.
There's a picture in the archives of the Press and Journal that I used to have a cutting of, but which has since long been lost to house moves and flits. It shows the nine of us in that first week, along with Sheuna Martin - the paper's deputy editor and head of the training room project. We're all sat round the desks - fresh faced and eager. If I remember rightly, for 1996 there's a disturbing number of waistcoats.
Some stayed within the industry, others left to enter PR or exited the media altogether. Of those who remained, the course produced some impressive alumni: Kim Dawson - currently editing the pop pages of the Star, former STV presenter Isla Traquair, and of course, Alan McCabe - now editor of the Evening Express, running the paper his career started at a decade and a half ago.
The industry’s changed dramatically in the last 15 years, but the number of young cubs coming into it hasn’t decreased - quite the opposite, in fact, and the majority of them are coming in via academic, rather than vocational or indentureship routes.
There’s been days when I’ve wondered whether I made the right move by not going to university. Days when I’ve wondered where I would be now if I’d accepted Nottingham Trent or Napier’s offer rather than the money and the job that the P&J placed before me. But there’s only been a couple of instances where not having an honours degree seems to have been an issue, when it’s been intimated to me through back channels (wave hello, BBC) that my route into the industry would not fit in with their requirements.
And the skills I learned in those six months in a concrete sweatbox at the back of Lang Stracht, then in a cupboard-sized office in Stonehaven town square, have stayed with me from job to job. The core techniques needed to do core journalism effectively. That was the result of a paper investing in its staff properly, not by asking would-be hacks to pay up in order to associate themselves with it.
Was there a degree of exploitation in the way the traineeships ran? Possibly - the papers certainly got talent on the cheap. But Aberdeen Journals also made specific investment in their future, training raw talent up to be the sort of reporters they needed, securing local contacts and knowledge, and guaranteeing them a job at the end of it.
I wonder if those who will end up being asked to fork out nine grand, in order to help keep the Good Ship Guardian afloat in the name of journalism education, will be able to say the same?
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