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About A Week: British Journalists Need Wealthy Parents

Peter Hinchliffe deplores the lack of opportunities for working class youngsters who wish to become journalists.

The first essential for would-be ace reporters in Britain is parents with deep pockets.

Starting pay for newspaper reporters is low.

Beginners on provincial daily papers get £12,000 a year. After ten years they still may earn no more than £20,000, which is considerably less than teachers or senior nurses with that length of service.

Ninety-eight per cent of those embarking on a journalistic career are university graduates. UK university students accumulate an average debt of £17,000 during their studies.

Prospective journalists can run up a further debt of £20,000 in obtaining a postgraduate diploma following journalistic studies.

Despite poor pay rates journalism is still regarded as a fashionable job. Wealthy parents have to subsidise offspring lured into a career with a glamorous image.

If your father is a bus driver or a brick layer, don’t even dream of being a reporter. Fewer than 3 per cent entering journalism come from semi-skilled or unskilled working class backgrounds.

Fifty years ago most British journalists started their careers on a local weekly newspaper, leaving school at the age of 16. When I left a grammar school at that age I had to see a careers officer. I told him that my one ambition was to be a reporter.

He informed me that there were no vacancies on the local papers. However if I liked words there was a job going as an assistant in a municipal library.

For 18 months I was a librarian, intensely disliking the work. Then I joined the Royal Air Force for two years’ national service, and that I did enjoy.

While in the RAF I wrote letters on all manner of subjects to a weekly paper, The Batley News. On the strength of those letters they offered me the opportunity to become a reporter when I completed my military service.

The editor and proprietor of that paper were not graduates. Not one person in the news room had been educated at a university.

There was no formal journalistic training. We were supplied with notebooks and sent out to report on the town’s events – local courts, local government meetings, fires, road accidents, football matches…

Senior journalists sub-edited our stories, making corrections, passing on tips. The only formal training involved learning to write 120-words-a-minute shorthand.

Learning by doing on a weekly newspaper stood young journalists in good stead. Many went on to work on London national newspapers, some to hold key posts up to editor level.

My informal training led me on to jobs on daily newspapers in England, the USA and Africa. I news edited papers in Yorkshire and Kenya and covered major stories for Associated Press.

For a time I was one of the three trainers working in the Thomson Newspapers Academy in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. We ran a 17-week course for university graduates. There were 842 applications for the 15 places on the course. The chosen 15 were graduates of either Oxford or Cambridge.

We three trainers had all left school at 16. Those bright young Oxbridge grads soon realised we had a lot to teach them. Within 24 hours they were made to realise that reporting news is a practical skill, not a matter for leisurely intellectual discussion.

Andrew Marr http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Marr, formerly BBC TV’s political editor, now an author and a BBC radio show host, received his journalistic training at that academy.

In his brilliant and funny book My Trade, a modern social history of British journalism, Andrew acknowledges the practical instruction he received. John Brownlee, the head of training, is singled out for special mention.

Before becoming a teacher of journalistic technique John was news editor of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. I was his deputy on the Chronicle news desk. Our third training colleague Walter Greenwood is co-author of Essential Law For Journalists, the standard guide for UK journalists which has been in print for many years.

Because British journalism is now the preserve of the well-to-do middle classes it can no longer claim to truly reflect society. Inevitably most stories and features result from middle class attitudes and upbringings.

This contributes to millions of working class folk feeling alienated. They say that no-one listens to them. Their opinions for the most part are not featured in the media.

By the way, even if your parents are rich enough to pay your way into journalism, the opportunities for a newspaper career in Britain are rapidly diminishing.

Provincial newspapers are employing fewer journalists. Circulations are in steep decline.

When I was working for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle its audited sale was 254,000 copes a day.
That is now down to around 70,000 copies a day.

The Yorkshire Evening Post sold 275,000 copies a day when I worked for it in the mid-1960s. It now sells 55,000 copies a day.

Printed journalism may become an expensive luxury, favoured only by the moneyed classes.

The rest of us will be reading, and writing, our news for Net newspapers.


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