Opinion

My $18,000 journalism degree was a waste of time

Paul Maland is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Journalism, but $18,000 in HECS fees later, he argues he could have learnt the important information from a one-hour YouTube video and saved himself a lot of time.

Three years ago I sat in my dingy two-bedroom flat, romanticising the day of quitting my soul-crushing call-centre job to finally go to university and pursue my passions as a career.

Since then I’ve landed national bylines, editorial positions, and dozens of hours on radio. In a matter of weeks, I’ll be graduating with a Bachelor of Journalism—the thing is, in an age where someone’s breakfast receives its own multiplatform coverage via social media, I’m not sure it’s good for anything.

I’d often heard the tried and true “it’s not what you know, but who you know” mantra so often preached to those foolish enough to try working creatively as a career, but with no discernable media contacts, you have to start somewhere.

A walking early-20s stereotype, I had a love for the gonzo journalism in the fiery writing of Hunter S. Thompson, and the politely assertive enquiry of documentarian Louis Theroux.

A Bachelor of Journalism with a sub-major in film and television production, and I’d be the jack-of-all-trades contemporary journalists needed to be and more, while getting to pursue the backbone of my passions, I thought.

After an underwhelming mid-year start, brought on by an existential few months ensuring I’d saved up enough to not starve without my full-time income, I eagerly awaited study to pick up, and the networking and competitive emphasis of the industry to emerge.

When I first started, I was beyond excited that instead of wasting my daylight hours during the week debating Graeme from Fitzroy’s telephone bill, I’d rather be soaked in academic discussions about what makes a journalist in the era of peak uncertainty and mistrust in the media industry.

I have a distinct memory of my first semester at uni, because it set the tone of clichéd apathy for the following three years. Dozens of students filled white-walled classrooms, carrying in textbooks and notepads I’m not sure ever necessitated the weight they added to the designer backpacks and satchels used to carry them.

Excited beyond words, students can’t wait to tell you all about how many assignments they’ve got due, and just how under-the-pump uni’s got them—or just how much of a blasé slacker hero they’ve been.

Amongst the acne-faced, straight-out-of-school students (who weren’t sure if they even wanted to be a journalist, let alone participate in a class discussion), I soon realised those hours of academic discourse or practical tips for the industry I’d looked forward to weren’t going to eventuate in anything but vague generalisations.

It’s hard to blame the lecturers or tutors, either. Those who have worked in writing, editing and news positions in the years leading up to their transition to university have a lot to tell, but with how much the industry is evolving, the information becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Following a hugely anticlimactic first semester, I started to volunteer to write for music blogs, citing my study of journalism as qualifier.

Now I had places to be, events to cover, real deadlines to meet, and the pleasure of knowing my words actually had an audience beyond one defeated tutor finishing a glass of Shiraz to My Kitchen Rules.

Though I wasn’t actually getting paid, and still rarely do, and though I wasn’t writing hard news or steering national conversation, I had a sense of access that being a journalist is supposed to give you.

My degree’s internship (with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) was analogous in a lot of ways to studying journalism—it’s impossible to get an insight into an increasingly decentralised industry as a disposable student in three years, let alone in one two-week glorified work experience.

When you graduate from a bachelor of journalism, there is no board or authoring body to register with. There is no contract you automatically sign. There is no transition to professional practice. There simply is no formal pathway, with the exception of a handful of increasingly rare cadetships the entire country simultaneously competes for.

Naturally, working for free under the guise of exposure is the sacrifice one must make if they’re optimistic enough to expect a career from creative industries, even those supposedly as objective and rigid as journalism.

A lot of it comes down to the nature of contemporary media—as reluctant as some may be to admit it, anyone, with the right access, can report news. Even the integrity that comes with being as objective as possible is at odds with the sharing-based tools which fuel most media today.

Even in the era of fake news vigilance, the original information taught over three years of a journalism degree could be condensed down into one hour of YouTube content.

The principles of journalism should be obvious to its audience: informing the public with truth, via a newsworthy presentation rich in objectivity, sound ethics, and research.

It doesn’t take three years to understand good journalism, and while the ethics do sometimes come close to eliciting fruitful discussion, you’re wasting time better spent landing real bylines.

It’s hard to say if a news degree these days is anything more than a shortcut to the gatekeepers through internship access and C.V. padding—$18,000 in HECS to say you’re worth considering for a byline.

In the three years it takes studying, writing about and discussing journalism in university, you’d almost be better off working for free elsewhere. At the end of the day, you’ll need the experience, because you really can’t teach it.

Paul Maland is a freelance journalist, online editor with Yewth Magazine, and upcoming journalism graduate with The University of South Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulMaland.

Editor’s note: If there are any academics or universities who would like to respond to the claims made in Paul Maland’s article and argue the case for the validity of tertiary media training and journalism degrees, please email Vivienne Kelly.

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