Rantings of a sub-editor

May 20, 2010

The man on the Clapham omnibus writes…

Filed under: guest writers,Vince Bamford — substuff @ 10:39 am
Tags: , , ,


Left to right: Kit, Vince, Cathy

I am sure this will come across as the rantings of a grumpy old man with a chip on his shoulder. Which is fine, because that’s what it is.

Sitting in the newsroom of a weekly B2B title, looking around at the baby-faced buggers tapping away at their keyboards, I can’t help but feel concerned for the future of journalism.

They are a good bunch – most of them can ask the right questions and string a sentence together – but, almost to a man (see, I said I was old), they are white, middle class and university educated. And that’s the problem.

While it is true that British journalism has never been representative of the country’s racial mix, when I entered the business – more than 20 years ago – it did at least represent a range of social classes.

Money was tight in my family when I was growing up and, as far as my parents were concerned, university was something people with money did. I left school at 16 and became a reporter at 17.

That first, smoke-filled newsroom was populated by colourful characters including a sports editor who could have been the inspiration for Life on Mars’ foul-mouthed Gene Hunt; a rough-diamond reporter who grew up in the toughest part of town and was a talented boxer; an editor who was a country gent. Even a couple of graduates.

The key thing is that there was a range of experience, outlook and background: between us we were a fair representation of the social spectrum of Britain in the 80s.

Twenty years later, journalism has become dominated by the university-educated middle classes. It is virtually impossible to get started in the business without a degree, and junior staff are paid so poorly that many cannot afford to take a job in journalism without some form of financial support – financial support that only the privileged have access to.

There is the risk of journalism becoming a bland business dominated by a narrow range of values – lacking the clash of backgrounds and opinion that can make a newsroom such a fascinating place. But there is a more serious issue.

The background of journalists probably doesn’t matter too much in B2B media – where most of the people reporters talk to will be middle class and university-educated themselves. But what about the regional or national press, where journalists will often be expected to understand and accurately report the hopes and fears of people very different to themselves?

If journalism is not representative of the British, can it represent what is happening in Britain?

Vince Bamford was bitten by a radioactive type ruler as a teenager, rendering him incapable of any form of employment outside a newsroom. In those rare moments when he isn’t sitting in front of a computer screen he likes to play with his kids, kittens or plastic cars that turn into robots.



  1. But surely a decent reporter should be able to empathise with his/her readers and interviewees?

    As a masively class-confused hack (working class parents but public school til 12yo, first of family to go uni, dad in the building trade all his life, best mate is a cab driver etc) I’ve long poshed up my voice/smoothed out my accent when interviewing serious people but when say, interviewing bands or those from similar background I’m far more like my actual self.

    Surely you should just use whatever tools you can to get good quotes and insight? Even if that entails a cewrtain amount of acting.

    Comment by Punkrockhack — May 20, 2010 @ 11:02 am | Reply

  2. The journalism degree has been a disaster for journalism (I should know – I teach journalism undergraduates). Far from being a route for young bright, literate working class people into what could be called a profession, journalism now excludes everyone who doesn’t have a BA. Which means anyone who can’t afford to take on £20,000 in student debt. And for what? Starting salaries of £15,000? It’s ridiculous.

    It’s partly the industry’s fault – for abdicating its responsibility for training its workforce. And partly the government’s, for insisting that 50% of school-leavers end up with a degree (not sure where we’re up to with that – just over 40% perhaps).

    The upshot of which is that media HR departments take the easy route and decide to filter out anyone without a journalism degree as an entry-level qualification.

    As for journalism education itself – despite our best efforts (honestly, we try), university-style education does not sit easily with the vocational-style training really needed by publishers. Journalism needs a lot of hands-on tuition and practice – not something afforded by the self-directed, project-based practice of the universities.

    Not sure where we’ll end up – but maybe cutting funding to higher education will not be the disaster it’s painted. If it leads people to go for lower-cost, more focused alternatives, it could better serve both the industry and its new recruits.

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 20, 2010 @ 11:43 am | Reply

  3. Well I’m a limp-wristed namby pamby graduate (two degrees actually) and I hate to say it but Vince is right. I was part of and then ran a hard-knocks newsroom in Bracknell back in the 1980s and we had two types of reporter – sheltered intellectual graduates and Bracknell ‘kids’ from the estates. Both had to go out and hit their patches and get stories. The hard-knocks kids came back with the better stories.
    Perhaps – and I am not sure – the graduates were better at court and local council reporting. But the stories that the hard-knocks kids brought back were the sort that sold the paper. Even if they didn’t represent some sort of moral high ground.
    I would like to suggest that graduates go further up the ladder – but in my case my degrees benefited my journalistic career very little indeed.
    The graduates in them days earned more than the hard-knocks kids, I might add. Pass a bowl for Vince’s venom.

    Comment by Kit Davies — May 20, 2010 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  4. I am one of these filthy graduates, I’m afraid. And whatever I was before going to university, three years of English literature has certainly ensured that I am middle class now. I have a degree and an NCTJ, but I’m inclined to agree with much of the above – I’m not doing anything in my job now that I couldn’t have done without these two qualifications (and that bank-load of student debt). The only difference the qualifications have made is that editors who previously would have thrown my CV straight in the bin now at least give it the once-over. Don’t get me wrong, I loved doing my degree – I just don’t think it gave me any particularly relevant skills for my current job.

    Probably more useful in terms of life skills were the four years of working in bars and restaurants that I did before going to uni. It’s amazing how well dealing with a man who just discovered an inch-long screw in his fish pie prepares you for a rampaging deputy editor who has found a comma in the wrong place.

    I should mention, though, that there are still some ways to get into journalism without a degree. After my NCTJ I did a week’s work experience at the Worthing Herald, and some of the staff there hadn’t been to university. The editor, Jon Buss, proudly introduced me to a chap he had hired because he had come on work experience and been too good to let go – he was a sixth-form student, so can only have been 17 or 18.

    To Freelance Unbound – it’s a bit off topic, but in response to your question ‘who can afford to take on £20,000 of debt’… actually, it’s surprisingly affordable. The amount you pay back each month is minimal – the earning threshold is £1,250/month and you only pay 9% of whatever you earn over that. So for years I got away with paying nothing, simply by not earning enough! (umm… hurrah?) So as long as you can deal with the concept of being up to your eyeballs in debt, basically forever, it doesn’t really impact your day-to-day life too much. Regarding costs, if your parents earn below a certain amount then the local council helps with the tuition fees – in my case they covered them entirely. And if you’re smart, rent doesn’t have to cost loads – mine was £46/week ten years ago. And there’s no excuse for not getting a job in your holidays… I was lucky to have parents who helped with my rent and with other things when they could, too, but basically, I don’t think cost puts people off going to uni – or it shouldn’t. It’s more an expectation thing, in my opinion.

    That £15,000 starting salary, though, is really tough. It IS possible to live on it without support – I’ve done it – it’s just very hard.

    Comment by substuff — May 20, 2010 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

    • Substuff: The trouble with student debt is that it’s affordable as long as the terms and conditions don’t change. I worry that students with a whacking student loan my face higher interest payments and, more worryingly, the burden of paying it off more quickly if the economic situation stays bad or gets worse. Mortgage holders suddenly found themselves out in the cold when all the cheap money dried up a couple of years ago – I wonder what guarantees students have that this would not happen to them…

      Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 23, 2010 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

      • well that’d certainly wipe the smile off my face!!

        Comment by substuff — May 24, 2010 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

  5. It’s true you were lucky, Substuff. But what of those youngsters who really want a degree, for whatever reason, and whose parents fall in the middle class category of not quite qualifying for any financial assistance and, in fact, ending up in a worse position than if they were below the threshold? Some parents would rather go without many things that middle-aged, middle class people generally come to expect in order to assist their offspring to ‘better’ themselves.

    I find it sad reading some of the above. It seems that to be white, middle class and educated is somehow a bad thing and apologies should be made. I totally disagree. If individuals, whatever their background, colour, religious beliefs, etc. want to make something of themselves, and if this entails studying for a degree in order to do so, then sobeit. All my children went to an ordinary state school and had to work jolly hard to further themselves.

    Has anyone ever considered that it may be the actual job that attracts the type of people described above? It may be nothing at all to do with being baby faced, white and middle class. Thirty years ago only about 10% of people made it to university and they were mostly from grammar and public schools. Now, rightly or wrongly, it is nearer 50%, so it stands to reason the majority of applicants for a job such as journalism will be graduates. Of course, with such an increase in university educated youngsters comes the unfortunate loan situation which has left so many hard working people in debt before they can even embark upon a career. In essence, it is misguided to assume that all graduates are privileged. There are a great many who have suffered unwarranted hardship in order to reach their goal so what you see on the outside doesn’t necessarily show the whole story. One doesn’t have to have a flat broken nose or talk with an East End accent to be a bruiser and a fighter or to have had an interesting and diverse life.

    Comment by Stefmez — May 20, 2010 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

  6. this blog is a waste of time

    Comment by Anonymous — May 21, 2010 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  7. Ah, Anon, incisive and considered as ever. Your understanding of the subject and wielding of your critical faculties once more astounds this poor, ignorant beast.

    To continue the earlier thread …

    1. My experience of the default standard of prose (including the stuff which ought to be bread and butter to a journalist, spelling, grammar an ting) at university these days makes me want to cry. Sometimes in fits of laughter, admittedly. It is risible. Execrable. Carp. Degrees in English these days offer no guarantee of writing ability, so it surprises me that anyone who wants to employ writers would give a damn about them – and I’ve got three.

    2. Did I say three? Well, there are no jobs in academia, so be ready to repel the phalanx of uber-qualified (doubtless still functionally illiterate) freelancers who will shortly be charging down the hill at you.

    3. Anon, this is for you. A complete waste of a numeral. You may comment accordingly.


    Comment by trenchard cleats — May 21, 2010 @ 11:05 am | Reply

  8. Sorry Vince, but your post is, as you say, a little too “grumpy old man with a chip on his shoulder”. Inverted snobbery would be another way of putting it to be honest.

    As Stemez says, the world has moved on and you’ll have to move with it whether you like it or not.

    Most employers look to graduates for new recruits (quite rightly) because:

    They are cheap.

    They are bright* (generally speaking).

    The inequalities you refer to have always been there and, I guess, they always will be.

    *From my limited experience the key is making sure you don’t equate a university education with intelligence. Two examples from recent Oxbridge graduates being . . .

    “Is Scotland a country?”

    And the other candidate who discovered the main servers we all work on after 18 months.

    Employ bright people: don’t worry about their background.

    Comment by Vice-Chancellor — May 22, 2010 @ 12:27 am | Reply

    • Vice-Chancellor’s comment is a carousel of muddled thinking:

      “Most employers look to graduates for new recruits (quite rightly) because they are bright” – “make sure you don’t equate a university degree with intelligence”/”Employ bright people: don’t worry about their background”

      One or the other, surely.

      Also – “most employers look to graduates because they are cheap”. Actually employers tend to look at young, inexperienced people because they are cheap. In the old days being a graduate usually boosted your starting salary as it was a rarish qualification that boosted your value.

      The fact that Vice-Chancellor casually conflates graduates with cheapness is a clear indication that much of the distinctive value of a degree has been lost.

      Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 22, 2010 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

    • Oh V-C! You left an ‘f’ out of a certain person’s name. Didn’t they teach you anything at university? 😉

      Comment by substuff — May 22, 2010 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

  9. I thought I would add something else. My earlier comment was in the context of who makes a good local newspaper reporter. Well all journalists tend to start on local papers as they give a far better grounding than trade press.

    Does one need a degree to get to the top of the senior reporting ranks of national newspapers? One had better ask senior national newspaper journos. For The Times, almost certainly, for The Sun, probably not, where we remain in the field of the original comments by Vince. But ask the experts.

    Two further points. VJ Bamford Esq may not have gone to university but has a mind of graduate calibre. He just happens not to have gone to university. He is not just a middling boy who knows how to talk to people (knows too well actually) and made good.

    Secondly – subediting. What I wrote does not apply to subs. Graduates will on the whole make better subs. But it is very different work from reporting after all. In assessing applications for the sub-editing job at The Grocer, I do look for a degree. And further experience with TEFL goes down very well.


    Comment by Kit Davies — May 22, 2010 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

  10. Correction:
    TEMR-TEFL!! oops

    Comment by Kit Davies — May 22, 2010 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  11. Hi Freelance Unbound

    I’m not sure I understand why you feel the three statements you’ve chosen to highlight are in some way mutually exclusive or illogical.

    1 “Most employers look to graduates for new recruits (quite rightly) because they are bright.”
    Generally speaking, graduates are, by definition, educated and most of them (though not all) are bright.

    2 “Make sure you don’t equate a university degree with intelligence.” Don’t underestimate people just because they haven’t been to university. Likewise, don’t overestimate them as the Oxbridge examples illustrate.

    3 ”Employ bright people: don’t worry about their background.” In other words, don’t fixate (as I suspect that Vince is) over the fact that B2B newsrooms are staffed by middle-class graduates. The graduate pool is much wider these days. Not all graduates are middle class.

    I happen to believe (rightly or wrongly) that there’s no conflict in me holding those views simultaneously and I can’t see why you would want me to pick between them.

    As for your other comments, you say:

    “Also – ‘most employers look to graduates because they are cheap;’. Actually employers tend to look at young, inexperienced people because they are cheap”.

    Why don’t you just repeat what I said and change a few words? What are graduates (on the whole) if not young and inexperienced?

    You also say: “In the old days being a graduate usually boosted your starting salary as it was a rarish qualification that boosted your value.”

    How far are we going back here and for what purpose? We’re in the depths of a recession in case you hadn’t noticed.

    Finally, as for: “The fact that Vice-Chancellor casually conflates graduates with cheapness is a clear indication that much of the distinctive value of a degree has been lost.”

    Thanks very much. I didn’t casually conflate economic reality (but you can blame me for it if you like). A lot of graduates can’t even get a job.

    May I suggest that the next time you disagree with me so vehemently that you at least start your post with a “Hello, but I disagree with you” as opposed to “Vice-Chancellor’s comment is a carousel of muddled thinking”.

    A bit of civility never goes amiss whether you are a graduate or not.

    PS Substuff: I can only apologise and hope that Stefmez will forgive me for my gaffe. And it was definitely a gaffe on my part. To err is human after all . . .

    Comment by Anonymous — May 22, 2010 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

    • Ah, the cut and thrust of online debate. No incivility meant – sorry.

      However, I do think the argument is muddled. If employers should look for bright people, regardless of background, then why should they “rightly” employ graduates?

      And yes – graduates are young and inexperienced. But, crucially, no more valuable, it seems, than young inexperienced people without a degree. So why bother? The whole point of getting a degree should make one more valuable to employers, surely. Otherwise why spend the time and money?

      Recession aside, the big problem is that so many young people get some kind of degree that it has lost its economic value. Now employers seem to just use it as a crude, box-ticking filter to reduce application numbers. But most undergraduates don’t understand this (until they graduate anyway).

      As for history – the goal of 50% of school-leavers to get a university degree was government policy for only a decade or so. Go back 15-20 years and the higher education landscape was very different. That isn’t such a long time ago. At least not at my age…

      Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 23, 2010 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  12. Hi Freelance Unbound

    Re online debate: no problem.

    I think we are just stuck on two points . . . but I’m sure you’ll disagree if that’s not the case!

    Employers rightly seek out graduates rather than bright young people because:

    1 Graduates are more mature
    2 Graduates are educated to a higher level (therefore cost less to train)
    3 Graduates often have more relevant experience (on a university newspaper for example)
    4 Because employers can (given the prevailing economic conditions)

    I’m not saying for a moment that I agree with it: I’m just saying that I understand why employers work that way.

    The second point, however, is where I think we depart:

    “And yes – graduates are young and inexperienced. But, crucially, no more valuable, it seems, than young inexperienced people without a degree. So why bother? The whole point of getting a degree should make one more valuable to employers, surely. Otherwise why spend the time and money?”

    I think you answer this question yourself in the same post where you say: “Now employers seem to just use it as a crude, box-ticking filter to reduce application numbers.”

    And that’s the crux of the matter isn’t it? A degree is now the very minimum employers expect for an entry into journalism. So degrees haven’t lost their value: they have simply become a prerequisite. If you don’t have a degree you don’t stand a chance.

    Which brings us back to your earlier post about vocational degrees/training: employers are now looking for a degree AND additional relevant experience (the latter often being the deal breaker between candidates with similar qualifications).

    I’ve had more applications for unpaid work placements in the past year than I’ve had in the previous five.

    Our last recruit . . . an English graduate with a post-grad journalism degree who came to us on a work experience placement. But we are still talking about 18 months’ training before she was up to speed (and she’s way beyond that now).

    You say: “As for journalism education itself – despite our best efforts (honestly, we try), university-style education does not sit easily with the vocational-style training really needed by publishers. Journalism needs a lot of hands-on tuition and practice – not something afforded by the self-directed, project-based practice of the universities.”

    And I guess that’s where we’re at: make university courses more vocational (as your previous post suggests). Which, on the whole, wouldn’t be a bad starting point . . .

    Regards, V-C.

    Comment by Vice-Chancellor — May 25, 2010 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

    • Ironically, of course, we aren’t allowed to make our courses too vocational – because then they wouldn’t be “degree standard” – ie academic and rigorously critical. (That’s also why I can’t include grammar and spelling as part of the assessment criteria, irritatingly.)

      It’s a bit of a mess…

      Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 26, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  13. And guess what the majority of the training has been over that 18-month period?

    Would it be things like the inconsequential difference between referring to companies in the singular rather than the plural? And checking the spelling of people’s names despite an education in being rigorously critical.

    A first-class degree in astronomy: ideal for a budding astronaut? Sure, great, once they get up there. But no good if they can’t find the switch to launch the rocket in the first place.

    PS I think the muddled thinking rests squarely with an education system that often doesn’t equip graduates with the right skills they need in the modern workplace.

    I do empathise about your plight about grammar and spelling because you are spot on: forget about just getting a degree. Make it relevant.

    Regards, V-C.

    Comment by Vice-Chancellor — May 26, 2010 @ 11:49 pm | Reply

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