The problem with studying journalism

I don’t remember very much of the class I took with Rachel Buchanan in 2010.

I do remember that she put her own work on our reading list and (this I will never forget) in our last tutorial read out her honours thesis, a long piece about which I recall precisely nothing – and cried as she did it.

I wasn’t exactly covered in glory during Journalism Research. I felt awkward after she cried, and anything that I could have offered, such as a hug or a tissue, made me feel even more uncomfortable. I wasn’t a very committed student anyway, not the kind to carry more than balled up toilet paper around with me.

In Rachel’s class, it took us all semester to write a single feature. My effort was so moribund I should have submitted an apology along with it.

The subject requirements for the class were research quizzes, in class writing exercises, one 2000-word feature and a 2,500-word news story.

This seems like a generous division of work for a semester, particularly when you consider the 70 percent three-hour exams I was battling in law. But ultimately the tasks felt useless.

I felt bored and shortchanged, secretly angry that it seemed as though, with the impersonal little pieces the lecturers had us working on, they wanted us to write in their own image.

We were reading their work and it unconsciously felt like the gold standard we could never attain. It was published, which was more than we could say for our squalid little attempts.

My inner voice – as I called it then, not knowing better – was stifled under the red ink from her pen.

Had I known the inner misgivings Rachel Buchanan would write about for the Age, and (I understand) in Stop Press, her book for Scribe, I might have felt more comfortable. I might have shucked off my shyness to tell her my thoughts on university level journalism, as she lectured me about the sanctity of deadlines.

Like her, I felt like a fraud, but for different reasons. I had enrolled in a law/media studies degree with a dim notion of being either a lawyer or a journalist. First year had divested of me any notions of a legal career, so I was relying on La Trobe’s media department to get me workforce-ready.

It wasn’t until I became an intern for several publications that I began to acquire proper journalistic skills. I wasn’t being paid, but I learnt a lot on the fly during the impromptu phone interviews and press conferences.

I don’t want to romanticise internships, as they are unpaid and exploitative in their own way but before I was lucky enough to opt out, I learned a lot.

I didn’t have twelve weeks to moon over a feature. I had half a day if I was lucky and being coddled. Rachel was right about deadlines.

I still haven’t cracked the code to launch me into proper grown up journalism but internships gave me the confidence that journalism school never bothered teaching.

I feel like I hardly learned anything, apart from some hard truths on bureaucracy and the nature of journalism academia.

In my opinion, journalism school is for academics, pondering the future of journalism as AHRC grants keep them in Homy-Peds and creamed rice.

For it to be worthwhile for students, there needs to be more of the bad news Rachel Buchanan presents in her book and Age article. It’s not until you’ve hit the six month mark post-graduation, and still need Centrelink, that you realise the enormity of the lie you’ve swallowed (and the accompanying HECS debt).

But that’s not all journalism schools needs. They might be worthy of the fees if they restructured themselves to impart to impart some useful skills. Three months for one dull university-centric fluff piece that is only worthy of publication in Snoozefest Weekly is an egregious misuse of time and money.

We should learn how to pitch, even if that’s as boring as drafting emails or text messages. We need to be taught how to cope with rejection, which is never easy irrespective of whether you’re starting out or as old as the hills. Lessons about invoicing should be in there, as well as compulsory media ethics.

Rather than being shuttled off into streams focusing on online, video and audio journalism, students aiming to grow up into being journalists need to learn all of these skills.

Mind you, had I known these things, I would’ve zoomed off, merry as pie, to study anything other than journalism.

I haven’t seen Rachel Buchanan since that crying episode, and if I did, I would blink a few times and offer to shake her hand.

It was because of my awful time in Journalism Research that I transferred out and studied media theory instead. The prospects are equally frightful but the subject was a lot more interesting. I’d tell Rachel about how I still feel like a fellow fraud, and I’m sure she would smile politely and look at her watch.

Aicha Marhfour

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @aichamarhfour

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  1. I did my journalism degree at QUT in Brisbane, and also graduated at the end of 2010. The course was fast-paced and quite contemporary – in contrast to Aicha’s experience, we submitted 8 feature articles during our 10 week-long Feature Writing unit. That doesn’t include the dozens of short news pieces, TV and Radio scripts and assorted reporting we all did (and were assessed on) over the course of the three year degree. We did stories for TV, radio and “text”, all to tight deadlines, with plenty of feedback. We were even assessed on our interviewing technique.

    Most, if not all, of the teaching staff were still working part time or freelancing as journalists. All of them had excellent partnerships with people in the industry. None of them burst into tears of despair mid-lecture.

    QUT’s offering seems to be a rare breed among journalism courses — overhauled every second year to keep up with the changes in the industry, practical, lots of chances to sink… but hopefully swim.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    I’m glad you had such a great experience studying journalism – it certainly sounds intense!

    I think an overhaul of a lot of journalism courses is necessary. At the university I attended, unfortunately, staff and classes were cut so what remains hardly seems worthwhile.

    I believe that Rachel’s tears were emotional ones, not of despair. I’ve definitely cried despairing tears at journalism school though!

  3. I did a postgraduate degree in journalism. I’m stuck with a huge debt. Pointless exercise.

    I remember one class, my lecturer was telling us how to do doorknocking after someone had died. She’d worked for the Herald Sun. She’s now an academic.

    That is all.

  4. This is essentially defamation. I guess desperate people stoop to any sort of bottom-dwelling level in order to seek a little traffic. Sad really.

    You know what the best part about this article was, when I looked up your twitter handle and saw a mere sixty-nine followers and ; “Tiny freelancer. Writing often linked here. Tell me that I’m wrong but I do what I please.”

    As opposed to Rachel Buchanan’s ;
    “Historian, scribbler, mum. Stop Press: the Last Days of Newspapers out soon (Scribe), author of The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget” and three hundred and eighty-seven followers.

    Good try. Hope you’re enjoying that Centrelink line.

    1. I enjoyed your comment, Amy.

      With respect – I’m a recent graduate and Rachel has many many years on me – not only in the industry but on the planet.

      I also don’t Tweet very much, hence the small handful of followers.

      It would be a lot more worthwhile to judge one on the content rather than something as superficial as Twitter bios.

      Also, defamation? What I recounted was true – those events took place. It is also opinion. Rachel has made public comments about feeling like a fraud as she taught journalism, which is why I mentioned her.

      Anyhow. My post is in retrospect, a bit more naive and bitter than I intended, but I’m glad if it stirs up debate.

      And I’m loving that Centrelink line – it’s all online so no more queues!

    2. I worked in journalism for 7 years, with experience dealing with deadlines and editors at Fairfax, News Limited and West Aust News at various times, as well as other small publications – then moved on.

      Aisha didn’t defame Rachel Buchanan – any functioning journalist knows, or should, what is and is not defamation.

      I think it is truly sad that you could hold up Twitter as a platform of validity for anyone – moreover how they word their description. An online forum based on 140-character messages, which most users seem to use to intersperse insults, is hardly a basis for judging anyone’s worth (except perhaps Ashton Kutcher, who seems to have found a way to put a dollar value to it).

  5. Thank you for your refreshingly honest appraisal – without fear or favour – the facts, not opinion is what the public wants, then we’ll form our own opinions based on the facts

  6. Hi Aicha,

    I was in the 2010 Research in Journalism (RJ) class you’ve described here. How differently we remember it!

    You might recall Rachel repeatedly encouraging us to ask three questions of every story:
    * what is the point? (billboard paragraph)
    * what are the facts?
    * what is the deadline? (sounds like we both took this on)

    And so, it’s only fair to ask those questions here. I’m struggling to see the point of a story that has “someone wiped a tear and I didn’t know how to be empathetic” as its billboard paragraph. Or have I missed something?

    As for the facts, I think they might need revision too. I remember us exploring the work of many writers. Rachel’s was included, which I would expect in a journalism class taught by a former journalist, but I’m certain that wasn’t her Honours thesis she read. 15,000 words would have taken far more than that one hour class!

    Also, I’m surprised you don’t recall the lesson dedicated to pitching ideas; it was fairly memorable. Rachel told us a great anecdote about the danger of ‘boring’ pitches and how they would almost certainly be rejected in the real world.

    It’s a tad ironic to see you’ve pitched a piece based on criticising the class and teacher you disliked so much!

    All this being said, I think your and Rachel’s criticisms of journalism programs are entirely fair. There are indeed far too many students gaining enormous debts and few employment prospects.

    It’s great you’ve continued writing, despite these odds, and I really do wish you the best of luck going forward. I also hope the conversation about journalism schools vs employment prospects continues, without the need to belittle those who are trying to improve the situation.


    1. Hi Sarah!

      Thanks for your response.

      One thing that I’ve been overwhelmed with – and am glad for – is that people have shared their experiences of studying journalism with me. No experience is the same, and some people have echoed and reinforced my ideas and others have totally differed.

      It’s also interesting to hear from a fellow alumni who took the same class (I think). Our take-aways different it seems.

      Thanks for correcting me. I recall that she read her thesis however it may have been an extract? It took a very long time so I remembered it as the whole thing. That is my memory.

      The point isn’t that she cried, or that it was Rachel at all, but to underline how alienated and uncomfortable the whole experience of studying journalism made me.

      Also, the essential point is reforming journalism school and changing practices. It’s highly personal and subjective – not every school needs an overhaul, but not every school is turning out graduates with few skills. Rachel argued in The Age against the rising popularity of journalism as a degree and the point of it all.

      I suggested that it needs to be changed, drawing on my experiences. This is opinion.

      Thank you for sharing!

  7. Hi Aicha, all I can say is that it sounds like little has changed in the 16 years since I “studied” undergrad journalism. (At least you seem to have avoided the compulsory postmodern claptrap of “Literature, Language and Culture” that I and my fellow students had to sit through in first year.)

    I didn’t make it as a big-time journalist, but I’ve managed to make something of a career in the broader field. There are numerous smaller publishing houses that focus on specific industries that you wouldn’t normally have any interest in but which can provide valuable experience; here in Perth, for example, mining magazines offered a step into the industry for many people who went onto bigger and better things. Sure, a lot of it is purely online now, but some people still like a monthly industry publication that they can leave in the office foyer (or the loo…).

    Good luck.


      1. Jobs pay the bills and provide exposure to the broader world, such that I’ve also worked on biotechnology and farming publications. Mining (in WA) was the hand-up; there’ll probably be other industries in other states that offer similar opportunities. I’m not interested in sitting around talking about gendered literature concepts with a bunch of people who don’t really ever graduate from university. Snob.

      2. Correct! Learn only the facts. Don’t get sidetracked by courses addressing critical literacy concerns, where you are liable to be sidetracked by a questioning of values and other piffling ethical and moral social concerns.

        1. Critical literacy concerns that aren’t grounded in the real world as largely pointless to 99% of humans. It’s a funny reversal of the Occupy movement’s meme of being the 99% – the small groups squatting on public property, or huddled in university or Trades Hall meeting rooms discussing these “ethical and moral social concerns” are the 1%, really the 0.001%. Tangible ethical and moral concerns include feeding and housing one’s family, respecting the law, and behaving in a tolerant manner to views that differ from one’s own.

          Journalists and publications that realise this are the most impactful upon society and people’s lives. They are also the most read and discussed among the majority of people.

          The discussion and oft-quoted but completely incorrect 70% ownership figure of media by News Limited is probably one of the better examples of this phenomenon. Murdoch interests own far less than half of media, but have 70% of the readership – that doesn’t tell you that they have media power that can be regulated away, it tells you that they write what people want to read. Fairfax still hasn’t learned this lesson.

          Lecturing to a throng of people about how they should think and lead their lives isn’t journalism – it’s advocacy. I don’t have a problem with that, but advocates for a side who believe that they are journalists are fooling themselves not the readers. “Climate reporters” are an example of the latest incarnation of this advocate-journalist.

          For historical comparisons outside the currently emotive climate debate, Anne Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56” gives a very interesting description in a couple of chapters over how journalists under the Communist systems of East Germany faced with the contradiction of being a journalist, yet essentially only being allowed to advocate for a system. I’m sure there are other books that look at the historical role and contradictions of passive journalists in totalitarian regimes, or journalists that advocate a cause through selective reporting. It is all seen through in the end.

          That was a long-winded way of saying that journalism is about facts, not “critical literacy concerns”. That has its place in a very narrow part of the intelligensia, but when a journalist is told to factor in “critical thinking” or the like, it’s usually code for adjusting the presentation of facts, or changing reporting to advocate a cause or political line.

          1. Long-winded alright, I thought I was in the Freeman newspaper offices of the Aeolus chapter of Ulysses again for a bit.

            And I rest my case, as what you have written is precisely why I don’t read the Murdoch press etc, and use Firefox on the net as it applies a Murdoch filter. Filtration is not everything, however, why is also why an understanding of basic critical literacy tenets enable resistant thinking should one happen or choose to read those Murdoch rags, refusing to fill the gaps supplied by supposed journalistic facts, questioning the silences etc – all part of reading and writing against the commonsense, factually ingrained, dominant, value-free, socio-cultural grain.

  8. Aicha,
    This is an excellent article, sounds to me like you didn’t need to go to journalism school to learn how to write 🙂
    Buchanan sounds like your typical journalism lecturer, self obsessed! It’s true what they say, those who can’t, teach 🙂
    I have been a journalist for over 10 years and worked for Forbes and WSJ, I never did a degree in journalism and I have done fine, so like you said, you don’t really need it!

    good luck!

  9. This post could have done well under its own red pen.

    In what context is Buchanan crying? It is completely unclear. You have painted her as self-involved and unstable, however, the reader has no context for making an assessment.

    What is she talking about, what is the content of her “thesis”? We don’t know as you failed to pay attention. Your fellow classmates’ recollections of the course contradict your assertions made in the piece. You incorrectly recalled what the assessments actually consisted of in a piece largely about course content.

    You aren’t a reliable reporter.

    Whether the course is well structured or not – it sounds like not – is irrelevant, as it is clear that you are not suited to journalism. The most essential trait of the journalist or writer is curiosity – which you very obviously lack.

    1. Well done.

      I conceded early on that this is not the best thing that I have written.

      However, it is also clearly am opinion piece. Opinions differ between people, obviously. I wrote about my own.

      Furthermore, it was 3 years ago so some details are hazy.

      Enjoy the smug feeling that clearly accompanied your comment. It never lasts though, mate. Or maybe it does for you, who knows.

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