Specialising is dead; long live specialism

Today I begin my ‘specialism’ module at City University. Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that when given the chance to specialise in something I would choose a subject close to my heart or something I am particularly interested in. Anyone who has read my bio or knows anything about me will be thinking, ‘Ah, he’ll have gone for sport’. Not even close. Sport was an option, as was music journalism, investigative journalism and UK politics but I didn’t go for any off those subjects, all of which interest me. No, today I begin what will be a steep learning curve in specialising in ‘Finance and Business’. Yeah, exactly.

Financial Times

Could my 'specialism' get me a job here?

Now, when I first set out on my travels towards journo land I wanted to be a sports hack and my journalism related work over the past few years has reflected this desire. However, at City I, along with the other students, were advised to pick a specialism a little out of our comfort zone and so – always striving to be a little unusual – I picked three preferences which I knew next to nothing about. And so here I am about to learn how to speak business and money.

But far more revealing and interesting than the fact that I am undertaking a module that the 18-year-old version of myself would have avoided like a plague of drunken cockney wide boys, is that fact that I am really quite positive about it. Rather, I am positive about it because of the pragmatic approach which clearly needs to be taken to getting a job in journalism today.

Long gone are the days when I could put all my eggs in the sport journo basket and hope for the best. I was forever being told at my various work experience placements last summer, ‘just take a job, you won’t get what you want, you might not get sport until you’re 50’ and to be honest, whilst slightly depressing, it seems like sound advice. It is no longer enough to have an in-depth knowledge of one subject area, we have to be the jack-of-all-trades journalists.

And so it is with the heavy irony that I begin a specialist course in a subject that I most likely won’t even be able to say I ‘specialise’ in when I’m finished. But, I will be able to write about finance and business, I will know the key terms and I will be able to speak business and money; all things which are very different from what else is on my CV and these are attributes which could provide me with some handy writing opportunities in the future. Just don’t go asking me to analyse the Comprehensive Spending Review just yet, I’ll leave that to the actual specialists.


About The Chancer
Tom is the former news and sport editor of Redbrick and also worked as the sport editor for The National Student. He has done work experience at local papers across the country and is currently studying the Newspaper Journalism MA at City University. He also co-writes the sport blog www.popeandswift.co.uk with The Student.

11 Responses to Specialising is dead; long live specialism

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Specialising is dead; long live the specialism « Wannabe Hacks -- Topsy.com

  2. Michael Pope says:

    Interesting article Tom, but I have to disagree with it. I think we, perspective journalists, are far too concerned with “making it” (working for a national) and are too quick to compromise what we believe just to get a job.

    Surely we’re too young to be adopting that mentality? I read a very interesting article by George Monbiot which I think is the perfect counter argument to your article: http://tinyurl.com/9fuy8 … would love to read what you think of it.

    • The Chancer says:

      Thanks for the comment Michael, in response to your first comment I am not all that concerned with ‘making it’ because I think that it is no longer as likely that we will be with one paper for a long stint and will instead move between many publications like hybrids of freelancers and writers contracted to one paper. In that respect I think it is probably more important to ‘specialise’ in more topics.

      Thanks for the link, it is indeed a very interesting article and he raises some valid points but I feel some of his points are now a bit idealist for these times. I am not talking about selling my soul to the world of finance writing for a secure job because 1. there is no such thing as a secure job in journalism and 2. I am merely looking for more knowledge in different topics. A point I failed to make in the post is that there is an increasing intergration between the things which City class as specialism. How much of the sport reporting on club takeovers would be greatly improved by the writers having some kind of knowledge about finance?

      • Michael Pope says:

        I too would say that Monibot’s article is idealistic, but that’s a mentality I hope to retain throughout my life.

        I would also say that people should try and know as much about everything as humanly possible, so I agree entirely with your last statement.

        My comment was merely warning people against compromising themselves out of fear or because of some sort manufactured belief that there is only one path to success in journalism.

        I don’t think you can “get it wrong” as long as you are honest with yourself.

  3. Tom Barfield says:

    Hi Tom, interesting article but I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree. On the International Journalism course we recently had a visit from David Schlesinger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Schlesinger) who’s chief editor of Reuters. As far as he’s concerned, he gets far too many CVs from budding journos claiming to be generalists and jacks-of-all-trades and finds himself unable to differentiate between them. He told us quite clearly that to make yourself noticed you have to specialise and identify a specific area where you can contribute something that sets you apart.

    All this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be aiming for adaptability and a depth of knowledge in a variety of fields – after all, in the current environment your specialism-desiring employer might not be around (at least in its current form) for all that many years to come, even if it’s Reuters. If and when you find yourself out of a job then it would never be a disadvantage to be capable of turning your hand to a variety of special subjects you have experience, training or specialist knowledge in.

    Of course there’s also a point to be made about being a generalist in terms of skills as well, but I think that’s being hammered into us in online and other lectures already so won’t rehash it.

    • The Chancer says:

      The differentiation point is a good one Tom but I think if I was to hand over my CV it would be as an aspiring sports writer or news reporter not actually advertising as a jack of all trades (although in that case I should change my bio!) My point is that if it came to the interview and my prospective employer said ‘well we’re impressed but we don’t have any openings on the sports desk now. We do need people to help with all the budget coverage over the coming weeks do you have any knowledge on writing about finance and business’ and then I might be able to get my foot in the door.

      • Tom Barfield says:

        righto, think that leaves us agreeing on just about every point then. As you say, the more strings you have to your bow the more opportunities you’ll have to get that foot in the door.

  4. nwsix says:

    Hi Chancer,
    I agree that being a jack-etc, and more importantly being able to adapt your skills to any given topic, is a useful/necessary ability if you’re planning to work on a newspaper, where the brief is “news” and could be on any number of subjects.
    However, there are thousands of specialist publications, many of which have a large core of knowledgeable readers, that demand more than simply an ability to string a sentence together and bash out a cracking intro. Could you work on Cycling Weekly without any knowledge of the cycling world? Well, maybe, but you might find it a lot more difficult to engage with your readers than your more specialist colleagues.
    Having said that, I’m hoping to get by on my adaptability, because a specialist I am not…

  5. Pingback: links for 2010-10-22 « Onlinejournalismtest's Blog

  6. I agree with Michael Pope – I think versatility is fine, but whoring yourself out to write about a cat fashion show (yes my real name is Rita Gankin) or the price of grass seeds with about as much enthusiasm as Wayne Rooney shows when apologising to his in-laws has got to get a bit soul-destroying. I’d rather have a few fields of expertise that demonstrate my skills as a writer than a broad, thinly spread portfolio that demonstrates my skills at bullshitting from Wikipedia.
    *she says, the penniless blogger*

  7. John Lister says:

    The best advice I ever got was to know something about everything and everything about something.

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