City MA is less competitive and more collaborative


Journalism postgraduate courses, especially in London, have a reputation for being intensely competitive. The few jobs within the industry plus a group of highly driven student journalists who know how tough it is to make a mark in the media often equal a group of wannabe hacks eager to trump each other.

Before starting at City University London this week, I had heard stories about students barely speaking to each other, stealing each other’s leads and battling it out for the same work experience placements. But is that a realistic assessment of dynamics on postgraduate journalism courses?

City

Certainly not at City (for now at least). Although the first few days seem a bit like speed dating, with frequent polite introductions, people (some are 25 years old, a few even 30 and above) are happy to remind you of their name/where you’re from, no matter how many times you forget. All in all, everyone on the course is friendly, switched-on and keen to learn.

Even when it comes to journalistic tasks, there isn’t the competitive edge I predicted. On Tuesday, we were given an interview task (to speak to someone from an organisation or charity with a view to writing a news piece on it) due just 48 hours later. Cue mild panic, some hasty researching and many phone calls. But no suspicious eyeing-up of each other’s ideas, no critical evaluation of one another’s interview technique, no scorning of the person who managed to get some great quotes. In fact, the task has generated nothing other than friendly interest and a pool of different ways to approach it. Already, there’s a real sense we’re are learning from each other (with all the work experience we have accumulated) as well as from the academics.

But it would seem that this isn’t the same across the board. For every@LauraOliver – the editor of journalism.co.uk – who said her Masters course mates were her ‘first network of colleagues’ and the people she shared leads with, there is someone like @SilentSmiler, who found her course ‘very frustrating at times’ for the fact that people kept contacts and stories from one another.

Jonathan Hewett, the Newspaper Journalism course director, hit the nail on the head when he explained how journalism was a strange profession for the fact that it is essentially an individual job, with much of your time spent on your own, finding stories on a patch or on computer. However, Hewett explained that journalists are never completely independent; they rely on the team around them, not least to sub their work and put it on a page. Such reasoning is perhaps why some journalism students share stories and others feel the need to compete for them.

If you’re wondering what kind of a student journalist you would be, it might be worth bearing in mind Ann McFerran’s advice first. The Sunday Times interviewer said that whilst there would be healthy competition amongst students, we would still be responsible for looking out for one another as fellow journalists, picking each other up on shorthand errors or filling in gaps in our social media knowledge.

And, more than that, McFerran said – at the end of the course ‘you will all be each other’s best contact’.

So, in that sense, a postgraduate course is, in part, just a big networking event, where you get the chance to speak to a group of acclaimed journalists, albeit before they earn the acclaim. And as of yet there’s no malicious, lead-hungry pilfering of stories, which is very refreshing indeed. Let’s just hope such collaboration continues.

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About benwhitelaw
Ben is Communities Editor at The Times

12 Responses to City MA is less competitive and more collaborative

  1. Matt Wiggins says:

    Networking is certainly a big part of Uni and something I never really picked up on at my course untill it was too late.

    Good read, Ben. How did you get on with the interview task? Anyone on your course heard of WH?

    • The Student says:

      Thanks all for your comments, apologies for the delay in getting back you, guess that shows how busy my first week at City has been!

      @Matt – That’s interesting about networking, although (as a City grad told us at an alumni event on Thursday) networking is actually a posh way of saying you’ve met someone, got on with them, or even had an email conversation.

      The task was quite tough as we had less than 48 hours to arrange it and were in lectures most of the day, meaning it was tough to arrange anything by phone. But a trip to Islington Museum meant I finally got a nice local story, albeit not Watergate.

      A few of my coursemates read the article on Monday and are slowly realising that myself and Tom (The Chancer) are part of Hacks. I’m hoping they will get involved a bit more as it would be interesting to see what they think the course is less competitive than they envisaged.

  2. Phillip Wood says:

    Good post, especially interested in the time scale difference from BA to MA. We’re given three weeks to organise an interview and everyone wants to share their ideas.

    How many mature students are there at City? I remember walking in on my first day after switching from a part-time BA to a full time one. I felt like I was in 6th form, very out of place and very much out of sorts with the ‘youth’ of today.

    • The Student says:

      Thanks for your response Phillip. What you say is interesting about having a bit longer for the interview. I’m not sure whether the 48 hour turnaround for the task would be the same across all MA’s or just at City, which has a reputation for being particularly intense. Can we we ask where you’re doing your BA?

      There are 36 people on the Newspaper MA (I think) but 6 other MA programmes (investigative, science, magazine etc) so there must be almost 200 MA students in total.

      Hope you pop back to WH again soon Phillip

  3. What I find interesting about City is the fact that it represents a centralisation of journalism education and prestige.

    Look at most of the nationals, and you’ll see a tried and tested route of (quite) often Oxbridge then an MA at City. That’s obviously because those institutions are considered to be the best in their field, etc etc. What I do worry about is that by definition they recruit a certain ‘type’ of person. Just because someone went through the motions at City (albeit at a very high level) doesn’t mean they still aren’t a product of a cookie-cutter system.

    It’s interesting, I don’t think I’m qualified to say any more, to be honest.

    • The Student says:

      Thanks for your comment Jo, sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you.

      You make a good point and there is a real case to say that journalists should have lived a bit (travelled/ done other jobs etc) before going into the media. That way you avoid cookie cutter journalists. In fact, many of the students on the News MA have worked in various jobs before coming to City (advertising, working at Whitehall, working for a charity, for a news wire in Israel etc) with a view to avoiding that.

      However, I don’t think it’s universities like City that are responsible for producing similar journalists but journalism itself. Unfortunately, as we all know, you benefit a lot in journalism from a) being able to afford an NCTJ/masters course (which put you in better position than people who can’t) and b) from living/being able to live around London (where so many of the media organisations are based). Journalism makes it very hard for people who don’t tick those boxes to get into the industry.

      I’m hoping to do some research on my follow colleagues to see what background they’ve come from so that may yield some interesting points.

  4. Peter Newlands says:

    I’m just starting my second year of my BA at City and I’ve found it to be pretty collaborative when we’ve had assignments. I’m a mature student (only 26 so not ancient) with probably more than average experience and a few paid shifts under my belt but I still find that there have been occasions where one of my colleagues suggests something I hadn’t thought of.

    I think there is a slight issue with City, and the other well-respected journalism schools, putting out a very similar type of journalist. However, it is still the best name among UK journalists. I’ve been able to get people’s attention that I otherwise wouldn’t have when they hear that I’m at City. This week I’ve spoken to the Sunday Times’ foreign editor and deputy managing editor and both have responded positively when I’ve mentioned I’m at City.

    In terms of Networking, being at City is a big bonus. People are immediately prepared to accept that you’re probably going to be competent and useful in a newsroom and that you wont be silent and need hand-holding.

    My overall impressions of City are positive, with the caveat that the post-grads are treated better than the undergrads – obviously I’m biased about that though, so objectively it might not be true.

    • Peter,

      I think it’s interesting you’re doing an undergraduate at City. Being there for 3 years means you probably have a more in-depth knowledge of what the institution is like.

      Re: Networking, my only worry is that a lot of people will be able to become very connected merely because they attend City, despite the fact that there are more competent graduates to be found elsewhere who risk being locked out of an industry that sees a City MA as a benchmark.

      Maybe I’m being short-sighted, but I’m sure I’ll find out when I graduate in 2 years whether the industry is willing to judge my on my achievements rather than my educational background. Good discussion as always on Wannabe Hacks!

      • Joseph,

        “whether the industry is willing to judge me on my achievements rather than my educational background”

        Everyone wants to be judged solely on their merits, but being at City doesn’t mean nothing. The only reason that people respond positively is that City has, for the most part, produced good graduates that are competent and hard-working.

        There may be more competent graduates elsewhere, we don’t know. It’s absurd to think that City has a monopoly on young journalism talent in the UK. Cardiff also has a great reputation for example.

        However, there’s a couple of things to think about. Current journalists and editors are, by and large, pretty unforgiving and give new people a pretty short leash, so I’d be very surprised if the people I’ve dealt with let incompetent people last very long just because they’d been to City.

        Secondly, what is competent to you. Like it or not, a pretty important part of being a journalist in Britain, especially a young one, is getting yourself noticed and in front of people who can use you and pay you. You might be a very talented reporter but there are definitely cross-over skills in convincing an editor to buy your story and convincing a source to give you information.

        Thirdly, editors only need on reason to turn you down. Don’t give them a reason. City is a plus on the “where you’ve trained” category so use it to your advantage. There’s nothing wrong with that.

        Lastly, you almost definitely will, at some point, get judged on your educational background. There are still countless people working in UK journalism who see going up to oxbridge as a pre-requisite, never mind an MA at City. There’s still countless people who get, if not jobs, good placements through being the cousin/god-daughter/love-child of someone else. It’s bollocks and it needs to change but in the meantime, that’s the stream you’re swimming against.

        End of rant.

  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention City MA is less competitive and more collaborative « Wannabe Hacks -- Topsy.com

  6. rosieniven says:

    Journalism is a competitive industry, but I think that many newsrooms has misunderstood competition and taken it too far.

    Competition between news organisations is healthy. Competition between individual journalists on the same title is not. From my experience, journalists produce the best results when they work together, share leads and contacts and teams that encourage collaboration prosper.

    That said, new media is making competition between news orgs as outdated too – it is increasingly about opening up, for example, linking to the best work.

  7. Pingback: Guest Post – Harry Low: fast-track journo courses « Wannabe Hacks

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