The way things used to be. Photo: Getty

Why would anyone train to be a journalist in NZ in 2019?

As New Zealand’s media scramble for solutions to a borked business model, tertiary journalism courses are shrinking, too. Just how bleak is it? Communications student Sam Brett asks around

Until relatively recently journalism was a career which you tended to learn by doing, not studying. On the job training was how most people entered the news industry, and tertiary institutions weren’t really involved. Today, it’s a different picture. More than 80% of journalists working in New Zealand now have tertiary qualifications. The news industry, the tertiary institutes teaching journalism, and the students studying it have become linked together. But this change has happened as time the industry has confronted its own crisis. In the time I’ve been studying journalism, budgets have been cut and journalists made redundant, with nothing to suggest it will stop anytime soon. Against a backdrop of such uncertainty many of us who have embarked on journalism study are left wondering if we’ve made the right decision.

David Fisher, a senior journalist at NZME and part of one of the last cohorts of journalists to learn mostly on the job, thinks the shift into tertiary institutes was at least partly for economic reasons. “In the days when there were cadet programmes it meant that media organisations had to carry a degree of cost and effort themselves. Once things moved toward a degree programme, they stopped having to worry about that,” he says.

Much of the burden was essentially transferred from the media organisation to the government, and then when universities stopped being free, to the individual student. With newsrooms today running on ever tighter budgets, the ability to provide industry mentoring and oversight has dropped even further, meaning the training that students receive before entering the workplace has become essential. But Fisher also thinks that there “was a desire on the part of some practitioners to pursue the academic path of journalism, and they needed a home in which to do that”. Over time, studying journalism before doing it became the new normal.

Now there is another problem. Studying journalism isn’t as popular as it was. Over the last five years, enrolments at journalism schools have dropped dramatically, from about 250 in 2012 to 140 in 2017. This has resulted in the closure of several of those schools, from ten in the early 2000s down to just five today. Just as the number of people studying journalism over the past six years has dropped, so too has the number of working journalists. In one significant example, Stuff, New Zealand’s biggest news publisher, employed about 1,000 full-time staff last year. That might sound OK until you find out that back in 2012 they employed double that number.

Even if you do get a stable job, you’re not going to be paying off that loan anytime soon. In 2017, a study asked graduates of the Massey journalism school who no longer worked as journalists what their reasons for leaving were. Top of the list was poor pay. And it’s worse if you’re a woman. A 2015 survey of the industry found that after tax, women were earning on average nearly $10,000 less than men annually, and there were fewer women in management roles, despite there being more women in the industry overall. Maybe that’s changed in the last few years, but it seems unlikely, and is not a great look for an industry so happy to call out other fields for the same problem. Many journalism graduates are now skipping the newsroom altogether and working in other communications roles, where the pay is often better, and the work is less stressful. Even those who do go into journalism often don’t stay long. The Massey survey found that of the students who graduated between 2006 and 2016, over 40% of them left the industry, after an average of just three years.

For those teaching journalism in this environment, finding something positive to say can be difficult. As one graduate told me, “I feel like from the get go our teachers were telling us ‘oh, it’s going to be really hard, there aren’t very many jobs’”. It was a similar story for several undergraduate students I spoke with. Most were aware that the industry wasn’t exactly in a golden age. But many confessed to feeling even less enthusiastic after what they learnt during their studies, with one student saying, “when I started this degree, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a journalist, but now I don’t know”. Tara Ross, who runs the journalism school at Canterbury University, acknowledges that there can sometimes be “a tendency to focus on the things that are wrong with the media without doing enough to celebrate good practice, or to try and be part of the solution”. But at the same time, there’s no point in pretending that everything’s fine. “It is tough out there. The old business model [for news] has broken, and we’re still trying to figure it out. But that shouldn’t be the only thing we talk to our students about”.

While jobs and money are the obvious issues here, discussions with other journalism school students suggest that these factors might only be part of the problem. A graduate from the broadcasting school at Ara who I spoke with wasn’t aware of the state the industry was in when she started her course. After graduating, she spent six months interning at a major newsroom, but the expectation of “churning out stuff everyday” was off-putting. “I would’ve loved to have done something where I could take my time over it. I remember speaking to someone about how they got their job, and he said most people have to spend at least some time as a reporter before they can do what they actually want, and it was something I just couldn’t do.”

If you know where to look, there is still outstanding journalism being done in this country, for both traditional and new media platforms. But it is widely felt that some of the tactics used by commercial newsrooms to generate traffic are damaging reputations. Certainly, we are seeing more and more that journalism is an occupation struggling to maintain a level of public trust. Ross thinks this is also influencing those studying it. “You can’t keep ranking in the bottom of public trust polls and not have that impacting on who wants to be a journalist.”

Part of this may be the struggle of commercial newsrooms to stay afloat, and the content that this need dictates. But there is a deeper issue here. In 2015, the Pacific Journalism Review conducted a survey of the industry, generating some concerning statistics. Over 85% of those surveyed identified as NZ European, with just 8% identifying as Māori, even though Māori make up nearly 15% of the general population. The representation of other ethnicities, such as Pasifika and Asian were so small as to be negligible. Ross thinks this is part of an ongoing issue where “there is no appetite for wanting to be part of an industry that is often seen by minorities as being racist”.

But is the training pathway partly responsible for this? Māori and Pasifika are disadvantaged when it comes to attending and graduating from universities. Placing journalism schools in universities can make it even harder for the few Māori and Pasifika who do want to become journalists. This can lead to a lack of diversity in the industry being fed by a lack of diversity in the journalism schools. When Massey surveyed the makeup of its postgraduate journalism programme over the past fifty years, it found Māori were consistently under-represented, and Pasifika didn’t even figure, a predictably similar result to the industry survey. Some polytechnics have better representation, like Waiariki Polytech, which had an especially strong focus on diversity. Or at least it did until it had to close because of low enrolments.

Fisher, who is often a guest speaker at these journalism schools, puts it bluntly. “When I stand in front of journo classes I almost always feel like I’m looking at a bunch of people in their early twenties, from nice white middle class families. It astonishes me that we have such uniformity among the generations of journalists that we’re producing”. That description covered almost all the students I spoke with – myself included. Ross acknowledges that running a journalism course at a university, especially at a post-graduate level, can have this effect, but argues that the industry needs to look at its own role, and how it can help. “There are some good things being done for example by RNZ, but there is still lots of room for improvement. Scholarships help, but until the industry changes how it portrays minorities it’s not going to have much of an effect.”

It’s not hard to pick up on a certain amount of tension between the tertiary journalism schools and the industry itself. At one point while I was speaking with him, Fisher asked me, “do people go to university to get a job? Is that the idea?” It’s a good question. What value does journalism studies add to journalism as a practice? For most vocational pathways, like engineering or medicine, the focus is on equipping students with the skills they need to do the job. When the industry that the students are entering is in a healthy state, that’s usually enough. But what about when the industry isn’t healthy? Just feeding the journalism industry’s demand for young graduates who can do everything and get paid very little to do it is probably not going to end up well for anybody.

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By way of example, consider this list of requirements pulled from a recent job advertisement. Applicants will need to be able to write, shoot and edit multimedia content, have a strong understanding of social media, maintain an exclusive contact base as a source of stories, of which you will have a daily quota to fill, and at all times be expected to maintain an “eye for detail” and the capability to “innovate and generate fresh ideas”. Remuneration? Not listed.

In other words, whoever does this job will be filling a role that in the past would have been done by three people, and they’ll be having to do so many different things that they may not end up doing any of them to the best of their potential. Having the right skills is obviously important. But a job market based on extracting everything it possibly can out of its employees is not sustainable, and it is probably another factor in the decreasing enrolments. Many of the students I spoke with don’t consume traditional “legacy media” and have little interest in working for them. Perhaps the best thing that journalism schools can do is concentrate less on cramming as many skills as possible into their students, and more on how innovation and new ideas can help make the industry sustainable in the long term.

This seems to be the approach that Ross and her colleague Jo Malcolm are more interested in. Malcolm, who is also involved in the journalism school at Canterbury University, acknowledges the need for their students to enter the workplace with the right skills. “I think it is essential that tertiary organisations meet the needs of the workplace to some extent, but having said that universities are places of higher learning and thinking”. Ross adds: “I don’t think we’re going to get all the answers from the industry in terms of future focused practice, so I also look a lot at the research being done”.

Canterbury’s one-year postgraduate diploma is in the process of being merged into a three-year communications degree. Part of the reason for doing so is that Ross wants to be able to draw upon a wider range of skills that students might need in such a fluid industry. She says: “Bringing it into a degree programme allows us to offer more, introduce skills early and consolidate them over three years”. Whether this will be a positive change may largely depend on whether Ross and her colleagues can achieve a balance between teaching hard skills and nurturing a student cohort that really wants to get into the industry and help change it.


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