Media graduates need practical skills, but they also need to see media in a new social context.
In the UK studying journalism and media at university has often been a strongly vocational undertaking, based on providing students with a set of skills they would use in professional life. Some of Britain’s most visible journalists have jumped straight into the profession from elite universities, propagating a myth that to work in the media it is more important to find the right social circles than the right degree course, but university media programmes still provide a huge number of new entrants to the professions each year with valuable skills sets.
Media studies as an analytical subject, meanwhile, has often been unfairly caricatured as a degree with little material benefit. As a lecturer in Media and Communication I would beg to differ of course; in Britain we have just seen a general election in which the power of media and its role in society was a central talking point, as old media institutions struggled to make sense of an extremely fluid circulation of ideas, rumour and news stories in a short space of time. Understanding media at the present moment is crucial to understanding the transformations in politics across the world, and to making sure our media is robust enough to survive.
The nature of media research is changing too, with the shelf life of research on contemporary media sometimes being measured in months rather than years. Universities exist in a triangle between government, the industry and academia, and are uniquely placed to respond to change. This means developing degree programmes to train media graduates fit for the future, but also providing an objective critical understanding of the sector which might not always be obvious to government policy makers or people in the media industries themselves.
Thinking about Scotland
In Scotland for example we now have a situation where commercial media is struggling to fulfil its longstanding role in politics and society. Previously we took for granted that newspapers like the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald would always exist in some form, but this is no longer certain due to a series of management failures and perpetual rationalisation in newsrooms. As so-called ‘legacy’ media shrinks and we look to move beyond journalism as we previously understood it, media teaching and research can play a crucial role.
A regular question I am faced with is why QMU does not have a pure journalism programme. Skills such as teaching journalistic shorthand and beat reporting used to be the bread and butter of degree programmes and drew huge numbers of trainees, but now we see an interest in more generic media skills well beyond the narrow confines of the old institutions of media work. Graduates are now expected to be able to combine previously separate areas of media into one role; shooting, editing, producing, writing copy and organising other people under them to do similarly diverse tasks. In a small country like Scotland where budgets are often tight, these skills are in high demand.
Media and creative practice
The last major report (external PDF) from the NCTJ, the industry body that provides accreditation to journalism programmes, found a paradox in the UK’s employment patterns – although media staff jobs in traditional areas are vanishing as newspapers and broadcast media try to save money or go out of business, there are now more people than ever before who describe themselves as journalists. This mirrors a trend across the creative industries, a blanket term used by policymakers to refer to a whole sector of the economy from computer games to tech, theatre companies and crafts and design. What we are now seeing is a tendency for journalism to adopt the working practices seen in other creative industries, with media workers jumping from project to project and media work increasingly resembling other forms of creative practice.
At Queen Margaret we have created a new undergraduate programme in Media and Communication, and a broad MSc in Media, Management and the Creative Industries to reflect this; more than ever before media workers have to understand not just their jobs, but the economics behind their jobs. Media is a subject that lies at the intersection of seismic social, political and environmental changes, and interest remains high from students. As media educators we can and should be pushing the relevance of media as a degree, not just as a stepping stone to a career but as a way of grasping the mediated nature of the world we live in.