Degrees? Internships? No – all savvy journos require is ratlike cunning and a plausible manner

Mumbrella’s Adam Thorn, author of this week’s investigation into whether journalism is becoming a profession for the rich, explains why he would never have got his break if he’d started out in 2018.

It’s time to end the debate right now. The greatest newspaper in history isn’t The Washington Post or The Sydney Morning Herald or The New York Times – it’s York Vision.

York Vision – shame on you for not knowing – is a student newspaper at the University of York in the north of England. It’s where I first became a journalist 13 years ago, and its reputation in the UK is the stuff of Fleet Street folklore. Really.

Click to read yesterday’s longform investigation into whether journalism is becoming a profession for only the rich

Yes, yes, yes – most uni rags are terrible. They’re illiterately written, wonkily designed gobbledygook that mix petty student union politics with highfalutin’ think pieces, often penned from the world-weary perspective of those who consider 11am an aggressive alarm call.

York Vision, however, is different. It’s a tabloid of yesteryear, fighting for the average student, with the kind of choke-on-your-cornflakes scoops that would land page one in the world’s finest publications. Before I arrived, for instance, one splash (LECTURER: MY CHILD PORN SHAME) exclusively exposed how a teacher downloaded 16,000 indecent images of children. Another (BULLIED: GAGGED BY ADMIN) unearthed evidence of harassment by one of the university’s most senior staff members. My own contribution to the mischief (RADIUM ROD SWEPT OUT WITH THE TRASH) detailed how York covered up a secret investigation into the loss of a radioactive chemical. (I mocked up the “bungling lecturer” responsible as Homer Simpson, naturally.) The paper’s swagger was such that, when it won one of its countless trophies over the decades, then-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger quipped: “We judged the best newspaper category in ten minutes and went to lunch early.”

But what makes Vision unique is the publication is run by 18–21 year old volunteers – or Visionites, as they’re known – with no experience. There’s not even a journalism course on offer at York. Yet section editors, in particular, do everything. Undergrads hunt for scoops, design the pages, sub the copy, snap the photos, fix the website, run the legal checks, butter up the local advertisers, distribute the editions and, in my day, even upload the PDFs to a CD-ROM before legging it to the printers. It’s fuelled by press day all-nighters and slightly gone off milk and bad sex on the newsroom sofa and lots and lots of Red Bull. Passion, basically.

Or maybe more specifically, it works because the older students teach the new ones how to operate InDesign. Or recommend good books on journalism to read. Or geekily chat the craft of news intros over a VK Blue at Toffs nightclub. And because there’s no wires or press releases, every article is an old-fashioned exclusive – sneer all you want, but as if the SMH or New York Times could match that for even one issue a year. Its success, I would argue, disproves the notion that internships or journalism courses are necessary to deliver quality reporting.

Vision’s ambitious philosophy mirrors the underdog mantra of the legendary “new journalist” Nick Tomalin: “The only qualities essential for real success in journalism,” he infamously wrote, “are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.” It’s maybe no coincidence that Tomalin learnt the trade as co-editor of the University of Cambridge’s student magazine, Granta.

Hell-raising student newspaper York Vision taps into journalism’s underdog spirit.

In other words, York Vision handed young people a chance, like many local papers and community radio stations once did. An opportunity to show off some initiative. Not just at the paper, but afterwards. My degree was dirt-cheap and my living expenses paid for by a loan. My time at York Vision then led directly to a national publication paying for me to go on a short course, paying me while I was studying, and then handing me a two-year contract at the end. I didn’t intern much because I couldn’t afford it. I’m from a relatively working-class background, outside of a major city and, shortly after graduating, my mum died. Today, the kind of schemes that saved me don’t exist anymore. And if I had happened to be one of the millions of young Australians growing up in country towns, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to stump up $19k for a degree, either. Now, someone like me would have fallen through the chasms in the system.

It brings to mind something Tim Burrowes, Mumbrella’s co-founder, recently wrote about the consequences of so many older journalists being made redundant. As the public, he explained, we simply don’t know what we don’t know, because the people who would have been able to tell us are missing. But we can apply that statement not just to those we’ve lost, but those who never got their chance in the first place. The anonymous case study I cited in my story – ‘Isla Williams’ – is an exceptional young journalist without a full-time job in the industry. Who knows what articles she could have published by now? In 2018, she’s essentially silenced by lesser candidates because they have wealthier parents. And that’s just plain wrong.

Moreover, I suppose the ultimate point of the feature was not just to suggest the very poorest are being locked out, but to point out, increasingly, the 75% majority are, too. As the industry struggles to survive, supply has outstripped demand to such an extent that publishers and broadcasters now demand recruits turn up with a degree certificate and years – years! – of experience before their first paycheck lands on the doormat. Bluntly, what’s happened is we’ve quietly shuffled towards a quite disgusting social cleansing of the one profession that, more than any other, needs to reflect the diverse country we live in. So much for A Fair Go.

And you need the perspective of those ordinary people. Postman’s son and ex-Tele editor Garry Linnell made a fantastic point when we spoke. “In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s some of the best Aussie journalists came in from the bush,” he said. “That background enables you to be a bit more sceptical about how the world runs. Not because of any working-class ideology, but because you’re just used to knowing you’ve got to work a little bit harder sometimes to get ahead.”

Bang on. Often, the best scoops, I found, come not from the higher-ups in an organisation, but those lower down; those in a position to know what’s going on, but have nothing to lose by speaking out. To be a good journalist, so the rhetoric goes, requires the ability to talk to a “prince and a pauper”.

Tomorrow, on the Mumbrellacast podcast, I’ll explain a bit more about the issue, answering questions from my colleagues Zoe Samios and Josie Tutty. But right now, I want to build on an ominous warning, written by the late Guardian editor Peter Preston in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in London last year. Reports in the days afterwards revealed not only did the expensive cladding speed up the spread of the blaze, but that money was spent on this superficial exterior rather than sprinklers demanded by residents.

“What if Kensington and Chelsea had a vibrant local newspaper scene,” Preston argued. “What if real reporters, with real resources, had latched on to the fire fears of Grenfell Tower tenants and made local councillors jump to attention? What if a press that investigates and champions cases on the streets where you live still flourished, a vital part of democracy’s response system?”

He was right.

But moreover, what if the now decaying local paper, desperate for real content, had someone on staff who lived in Grenfell or one of the many similar hi-res buildings in the area? How would things have panned out? Well, that reporter would have heard about the lack of sprinklers from a neighbour, or, more likely, their parents’ neighbour. Sensing a good feature, that person would have pitched it at the always tricky Monday morning ideas meeting. It could make a spread, don’t you think boss? “No!” screams the editor. This is a big campaign! We can splash on this son!

And so, week after week, said local rag hammers away at the story until the embarrassed local councillor, seeking re-election, decides to install some better fire prevention methods. And 72 now-dead residents survive.

It sounds far-fetched, but it really isn’t – it’s the sort of thing that happened every day 30 years ago. And, if the industry is to remain relevant, the sort of thing that needs to start to happening again, very soon.

Join us at Mumbrella’s Publish conference on September 20th, where we will be discussing the state of the journalism industry in our panel: ‘Has Journalism Become a Profession For the Rich?’ Details are available here.

This was the fourth instalment in a week-long series. Also read:

Monday (news): Broadcasters and publishers escape punishment for illegal internships

Tuesday (news): Just one quarter of journalism grads find a job in media

Wednesday (main feature): Journalism is becoming a profession for only the rich – so why won’t anyone talk about it?

Friday (podcast – 28:30): Mumbrellacast – Illegal internships exposed


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