How to choose a journalism degree

Right now (July 2015), the media industry in Australia and around the world is still working its way through one of the most significant transformations since the invention of the printing press.

That transformation has largely come about due to the internet which has eroded the budgets of big newspapers which historically relied on revenue from classified advertisements. These days, people are less likely to want to pay for their news, either.

There is good news, though.  These days the media landscape includes a whole bunch of smaller organisations that have sprung up in the internet world because unlike the old days, you don’t need to be able to afford a massive TV studio, radio tower or huge printing press in order to find an audience.

Digital publication companies like Private Media, publisher of Crikey and Smart Company, have mushroomed and ‘old media’ companies have had to adapt or die.

Take a look at the websites of newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, they include a mix of video, words and sounds. Then take a look at the ABC website. They’re not just doing TV and radio, but words, as well.

Previously, you would be either a print, radio, or TV journo, but these days journalists are increasingly expected to be able to do a ‘bit of everything’, especially in smaller organisations but often big ones too.

For this reason, media organisations often look for ‘cross-media skills’. This could mean being able to write articles, use a camera, use a microphone, have a broadcast quality voice, being able to edit digital video and sound, as well as having all the skills required to news gather (which is the practice of going out and finding things to report on).

This is all exciting and fun stuff once you get the hang of it. But the question in your mind should be: will my course provide me the opportunity to try my hand at all of those things?

Many do. Some do so to a lesser degree.

 

What sort of journalism degrees are out there?

This post is about UNDERGRADUATE journalism degrees. There are more and more postgraduate degrees out there these days, but I’m going to keep this simple for now and cover those at a later date.

(For more info on what an undergraduate and postgraduate degree is, see this post.)

There are all sorts of undergraduate degrees out there that teach elements of ‘journalism’. The titles of these degrees may have the words “media”, “communications”, or (of course) “journalism”.

For example:

  • Bachelor of Media in Communication & Journalism – University of NSW
  • Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communication) – University of Melbourne
  • Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) – RMIT University
  • Bachelor of Journalism – Macleay College

There’s only so much you can tell from the names of these degrees, so it’s a good idea to peek behind the curtain and see what these degrees are actually comprised of.

Have a look at the subjects on offer and make sure there are subjects on radio, TV, print and new and emerging media. I’ll write a seperate post which dissects a couple of course structures (watch this space).

 

Theory vs practicality

I’ve heard students bemoan the fact that their courses weren’t sufficient practical – and I don’t blame them.

Don’t get me wrong: learning theory is an essential part of going to university and it doesn’t’ have to be dry or boring if it’s well taught. Learning theory also develops your ability to reason and critique – and employers love that.

But at the end of the day, you’re probably studying media or journalism to learn practical skills you can actually apply in the workforce. For this reason it’s important to take a hard look at the mix of subjects comprising each degree.

This can be tricky, as some university websites are better for this and others not so much. They can be hard to navigate and the amount of information varies.

There will always be theoretical elements to every university degrees – if they didn’t teach theory, they wouldn’t be a university. It’s one of the things that sets universities apart from other types of education and training.

When it comes to theory, two things are important in journalism degrees:

  • WHAT sort of theory you learn; and
  • HOW MUCH theory you will learn.

Let’s take a subject like Approaches to Media Research offered by one Australian university. This sound pretty interesting and worthwhile – and I’m sure it is. But it’s not a subject that is about preparing you for a profession in journalism.

Were you to take a look at the subject description for this subject, it says:

This subject offers a critical introduction to the traditions, approaches and methods used to conduct research into media industries, texts, audiences and platforms.

Reserach is an integral part of producing quality news stories. But this subject is not about conducting research as a journalist. It’s about learning how to conduct an academic inquiry into media and communication. It’s about studying the field of media and communication.

Big difference.

By comparison, theoretical subjects that relate specifically to the practice of journalism might be considered more worthwhile.

For example, take the unit description of a theory subject called media law and ethics.

The course introduces students to a broad range of specific ethical and legal issues pertinent to various aspects of the media. The course will investigate and analyse techniques for dealing with moral problems and moral dilemmas that students may encounter in their professional lives. The course will also examine and analyse the general nature of ethical, legal and moral discourse pertaining to professional communication.

This subject is theoretical in the sense that you will learn principles underpinning journalism law and ethics. You’ll analyse and critique them, but you will engage with these ideas in the context of being a journalist.

It should, if taught well, help you navigate ricky legal and ethical issues that face journalists every day. Is it theoretical? Yes. But it’s quite relevant to the actual practice of BEING a journalist.

You want to make sure your course has subjects that teach a good mix of practical journalism skills as well as theory that relates to  being a journalist.

 

Specialising in a non-journalistic field

I personally believe knowing something other than journalism is a useful feather in your cap. I like it when journalists are well rounded, rather than just someone who knows how to find facts and compile a report.

It suggests to me they have bothered to engage in a topic that matters and have and interest in the world beyond getting a story on the front page for their own egotistical reasons.

But it’s also something that employers of journalists may also like, because it means the person has a speciality. Take, for example, someone who has studied science, as well as journalism. They’re a great fit for becoming a science journalist because they’re better placed to take complex scientific ideas and convey they to the public. They know how to talk to scientists and turn their scientific babble into stories the public will be interested in and understand.

Similarly someone who has studied business and economics is a great fit for reporting on those worlds. Likewise a politics major could report on government or a someone fluent in Indonesian is a prime candidate to be Jakarta correspondent down the track.

So… when considering your journalism qualification, maybe think about whether it will allow you to studying something interesting that will give you an added dimension.

 

What is the teaching quality like?

This is a tough one. At this point, I’ll refer to you my earlier post about where to find the best teaching.

But it’s worth trying to find out whether some of the people that are actually teaching you (especially the practical stuff) are seasoned journos with good insights into the industry.

Find out their names and Google some of them.

 

Disclaimer

The advice contained in this post is pretty high-level stuff. It’s based on my background in journalism, and my reading of the publicly available course materials outlining the structure of these degrees.

It’s absolutely essential that you go and seek further advice and information to make the right choice for you. Never swallow anyone’s opinion whole, including mine!

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