Should journalists go to university?

The interwar period saw the continued rapid expansion of print media, which started in the Victorian and Edwardian period. A host of tabloid newspapers launched between 1896 and 1910, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Express. During the 1920s and 1930s national newspapers aggressively sought to expand their readership. In addition to the national morning papers, British readers could also enjoy Sunday and evening papers, as well as local newspaper titles. The magazine and periodical market also continued to expand, providing content catered to specialist interests.

This ever-growing market required a constant and increased supply of journalists to provide content to all these publications. Journalism was an occupation without formal entry requirements, and traditionally journalists were trained on the job. The sheer size of the print media sector meant that most British people learnt about current affairs, and the world around them, through journalists’ reports. As the interwar period progressed, there were increased concerns about the influence that this group of writers, who often lacked formal qualifications, yielded over the British public. These concerns crystallised in a debate which has continued for the remainder of the twentieth century: should journalists receive a formal university qualification, or is it better to receive on the job training?

As a government-issued report in 1938 noted,

Most London journalists are still recruited from the ranks of the provincial Press. In the past this has meant that reporters and sub-editors on Fleet Street were men whose formal education ceased when they left school at the age of 14 or 15, and this has been a considerable obstacle to the raising of the cultural standards of the Press.[1]

The raising of the ‘cultural standards’ of the press is closely linked to the level of formal education received by journalists, and there was a real concern that journalists ended up having to report on items that they would not understand, which could lead to incorrect reporting. Formal education for journalists, then, seemed to be the answer, but the sector continued to be sceptical about the value of this.

Recent studies suggest that journalism was not established as a university subject in Britain until the 1970s, and that compared to other English-speaking countries, journalism has not been considered a subject worthy of study in Britain.[2] It is true that journalism enjoys a much longer history as a university subject in the USA, and that Australian universities and journalism professional bodies collaborated in the interwar period to build a recognised and respected curriculum.[3] Although developments in Britain were less structured or widespread, here too, the first university course in journalism was established in 1919.

This Diploma for Journalism was established at the University of London, initially as a training course for ex-servicemen who were entitled to government funding for their education.[4] The diploma course existed up until 1939 and throughout the interwar period was the only university course in journalism.[5] Its creation suggests that there was an appetite for university-educated journalists. However, from the start, the diploma was ambivalent about its purpose, and had detractors as well as supporters in the journalism sector.

Initially, students on the diploma took only academic subjects which were part of degree courses delivered by the University of London, such as general history, languages and composition.[6] Unlike students on degree courses, however, the diploma was open to students who had not passed the matriculation exam, the general entry exam for entry onto University degrees.[7] From the start, the academic nature of the course drew criticism from, amongst others, the National Union of Journalists. Throughout the interwar period the syllabus was revised, including a significant update in 1933 after which students spent at least a third of their time on ‘practical journalism.’[8]

According to surveys undertaken by the diploma’s own lecturers, a significant number of graduates landed jobs in the regional or national press, and graduates were generally positive about their experiences on the course.[9] It should also be noted that the diploma welcomed a significant number of female students, who may have experienced barriers entering other types of university education. However, the course delivery team did not unpick whether the diploma was the deciding factor in graduates obtaining employment.

Teaching on the diploma was delivered by journalists, and guest lectures were delivered by high-profile industry names. Needless to say, none of them had themselves undertaken any formal journalism training, and even those involved with the diploma hesitated to state categorically that it was a necessary pre-requisite to employment in the newsroom. When Frederick Peaker, president of the Institute of Journalists, delivered an address on ‘The Training of the Journalist’ to the International Association of Journalists in 1927, he talked at length about the diploma course, but still concluded that ‘the real training of the journalist must be inside a newspaper office.’[10] According to Peaker, the diploma gave the complete novice a general sense of what is required of the role, but the real training began once they are in the newsroom.

Interestingly, graduates of the diploma mostly praised the solid grounding in general knowledge that they received, which expanded their analytical skills.[11] This implies a tacit acknowledgement that practical skills were better learnt in the work environment, a sentiment echoed by Scottish journalism graduates nearly 100 years later.[12] Despite the diploma course, which saw healthy enrolments throughout its twenty years of existence, the 1938 government report still raised concerns about the general lack of education of journalists. As a profession without entry requirements, journalism was difficult to regulate, despite the government’s efforts in stimulating the diploma course. The persistent ethos that the best route into journalism was that of starting at the bottom and working your way up, further hindered acceptance of formal qualifications for journalists. Although those taking the diploma clearly benefited from it, the general view remained that journalists should not go to university.

[1] Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 14

[2] Mark Hanna and Karen Sanders, ‘Journalism Education in Britain: Who are the students and what do they want?’, Journalism Practice, vol. 1, no 3 (2007), 404-420 (p. 405); Simon Frith and Peter Meech, ‘Becoming a Journalist: Journalism education and journalism culture’, Journalism, vol. 8, no 2 (2007), 137-164 (p. 138)

[3] Kate Darian-Smith and Jackie Dickenson, ‘University Education and the Quest for the Professionalisation of Journalism in Australia between the World Wars’, Media History, vol. 27, no. 4 (2021), 491-509

[4] Frederic Newlands Hunter, ‘Grub Street and Academia: The relationship between journalism and education,1880-1940, with special reference to the London University Diploma for Journalism, 1919-1939’, unpublished PhD thesis (City University, 1982), pp. 160-161; PEP, Report on the British Press, p. 14

[5] Ibid., p. 205

[6] Ibid., p. 164

[7] Ibid., p. 167

[8] Ibid., p. 188

[9] Ibid., p. 184

[10] Frederick Peaker, The Training of the Journalist. An Address (London: International Association of Journalists, 1927), p. 14

[11] Newlands Hunter, ‘Grub Street and Academia’, pp. 183-184

[12] Frith and Meech, ‘Becoming a Journalist’, p. 152