It is a sad fact that thousands of post-matric students, desperate for further education, are taken in by fly-by-night educations institutions promising them training that will lead to jobs. It’s another sad fact that they rarely deliver what the promise.
The media industry is no different. Aspiring journalists and media professionals who are strapped for cash unwittingly sign up for courses that lead to nothing but disappointment. But how do they identify which are actually accredited by the industry, and which are taking their money without offering much more than the most basic of skills in return?
Industry expert Gordon Muller says he can’t name them “off the top of my head but given the number of rip-off schools, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many”.
And he offers the kicker: “Here I think you have to look at the past failure of the MAPPP Seta to deliver any value to the industry in terms of standards setting,” he says.
Muller says there is a “simple rule of thumb” to gauge whether the course offered is kosher and will deliver returns in the form of real jobs. “Is the industry directly involved in the organisation or not? If the organisation has no skilled industry people designing content or delivering lectures, I would raise a red flag,” he advises. “Judge the quality of the lecturers and you can judge the institution. Who would you rather have … a journalist trained by Anton Harber or one trained by Mommy’s Media Emporium?”
Editor of The Witness, Angela Quintal, says she hasn’t come across specific dodgy course, but believes “anyone offering a one year diploma gives the false impression that that’s enough”.
“The issue should be the quality of diplomas/degrees offered generally, and that includes established journalism schools,” she says. “There are times that I think that rather than have too many journalism departments, we should be looking at fewer and ensuring they become true centres of excellence.”
Editor of The New Age, Ryland Fisher, says there are people who are abusing people’s willingness to get any education. “Short courses, no matter how good, are not enough to train journalists properly. Training needs to be combined with solid in-service experience,” he says.
At the same time, he believes that “good journalists will become good journalists despite of and not necessarily because of where they train. You must have journalism in your DNA and a desire to become journalist that will transcend poor training and will take advantage of good training”.
That’s a strand that runs through editors’ responses. Quintal says while having a degree or diploma in journalism helps, “I do come from the school that a degree in journalism, doesn’t necessarily make you a journalist”.
So what does, then? “Personality and drive/enthusiasm is a huge consideration. They need to have a strong sense of self and be confident. They must communicate well, be curious, have a good general knowledge, as well as an interest in reading (from newspapers to magazines, to books, to anything they can lay their hands on) and have analytical skills,” says Quintal. And she adds: “It would help that they’ve actually read the newspaper they’re applying to for a job! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewed candidates for a job, to find that they haven’t read a newspaper at all.”
Fisher agrees. “The most important criterion for me is enthusiasm. Young journalists need to realise that journalism is not an ordinary profession but a calling. A degree or diploma is helpful but not the most important factor when considering a new appointment. However, it is important for young journalists to have some basic training.”
Muller, commenting on the agency and media planning space, comes from another angle. “If you’re talking strategy then AAA and Vega are sound option. If you’re talking media buying, then neither of these schools prepares buyers adequately. Take someone who has trained in the bank and who is accurate and able to handle money. First prize for me is always a university degree. Preferably in marketing or human behaviour. IMM in the past always proved to be an excellent source. So any institution with an IMM stamp was sound.”
Muller believes the source of the diploma or degree is vital in the media agency business. “A marketing degree from Wits or University of Johannesburg beats a post matric diploma in media studies every time. You can’t beat Rhodes as the benchmark for a firm foundation in journalism. The problem with universities is that even where they do teach media studies, they don’t teach commercial media planning. That’s our fault as an industry. We should have a chair of commercial media studies at Wits or UJ and that would really open the talent pipeline,” he says.
There is a firm school of belief that while you can teach the academic subjects journalists might need, there is no substitute for on-the-job training which is why some newspapers recruit graduates and then put them through cadet school. The New Age took its first intake at the beginning of this year, with industry veteran Raymond Joseph putting them through their paces.
“We started a cadet course earlier this year and have put nine young people through training. They are now working in various departments in our newsroom. We hope to have another intake quite soon,” he says.
Quintal says The Witness has a newsroom coach at present that works with reporters on a one-on-one basis. “This has proved invaluable as a tool to empower our younger reporters. From time to time we send reporters on IAJ courses, as well as to Rhodes University. I think training at all levels is key and should not be confined to junior staff only and should include the editorial executive,” she says.
Muller has the last word. “For every fly by night’ organisation professing to train media people there are three ‘fly by night’ people trying to pass themselves off as media professionals, whether they have a paper qualification or not. Perhaps the SABC might have a view on this point? The industry has allowed itself to be devalued and this opens itself up to all sorts of malpractice. Not just dodgy training.”