We talk a lot about the future on TheMediaBriefing. But where are the people who will make it happen come from? Despite record numbers of young people wanting to work in the media, there is something of a crisis in training.

University degree vs university of life

In the past, media companies played a much bigger role than at present in recruiting and training youngsters through training programmes. Newspapers of all sizes, for example, used to train journalists and commercial staff as school leavers. Some still do, in rare cases.

But as newspapers have become smaller so have the opportunities for trainees. So in stepped higher education to fill the gap and the explosion of journalism degree courses was born. In the 55 days after 2010?s A-Level results were announced (so this is not by any means a final figure), 2,960 students had applied to journalism courses in the UK, according to provisional UCAS figures, a 10.7 percent year-on-year increase. The full-year 2009 figure was 13,299, 24 percent higher than in 2008. The squeeze on university funding and the increase in fees will no doubt put a dent in these numbers.

But, at the moment, every flavour of journalism course is now available, including ones accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and ones that don’t see the point. Some are faintly ridiculous, such as the infamous Journalism with Dance BSc (hons) at the University of Sunderland.

Journalism education not fit for purpose

Derek Tucker, the outgoing editor of the Aberdeen Press & Journal, thinks universities have failed the industry. He told the Society of Editors conference on Monday (I wasn’t there but Press Gazette was) he wouldn’t put faith in graduates to sub their own pages, the current cost-cutting caper sweeping the UK newspaper industry:

“It may well be that reporters writing direct to pages is the way ahead but I would be very reluctant to embrace that given the current state of the education system and our industry’s decision to handover to universities the training of the future generation of journalists.

“It frustrates me – and I know many other editors feel the same – that a lot of the young people leaving so-called university journalism degree courses are totally not suited for coming into newspapers… Very few possess the street cunning and inquisitiveness that is the hallmark of good journalists and it often appears that English is a second language.”

Back in the rose-tinted halcyon days Tucker is yearning for, senior journalists would coach youngsters on the job. There’s no better instruction than to do the job every day, presumably while being shouted at repeatedly by an unforgiving, goose-stepping news editor with a throbbing vein in his head and a vendetta against, well, everyone.

Tucker’s remark on journalism lecturers was brutal: “Tomorrow’s journalists must be identified and trained by today’s journalists not yesterday’s enthusiastic amateurs.”

There’s no doubt that sloppy spelling and a lack of style and attitude from trainees would make any editor mad (though it’s tempting to ask why he hired them if they’re not any good). I agree with him entirely that on-the-job training is invaluable.

But Tucker is living in the past if he thinks newspapers could take over training from colleges. Look at what journalism academic Paul Bradshaw was doing at Birmingham City University and now at City University in London in teaching data management, social media and real-world skills – would Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror like to take that on? It’s not going to happen.

If you’re in doubt what a regional newspaper trainee goes through on a day-to-day basis, read this anonymous account published in Nick Davies’ essential Flat Earth News in 2008. It’s not pleasant reading.

Beyond training: the brightest learn media skills on their own

The truth is: neither newspapers or colleges can offer all the skills people need. Journalists are not made. All the seriously talented digital-savvy journalists, editors, developers, managers and producers I know learned so much of their skills by themselves. So many journalism colleges don’t teach the most basic web publishing skills – students have no choice but to do it in their spare time. Lest we forget, some newspapers and magazines still ban access to Facebook and Twitter during certain hours (well, you wouldn’t want journalists contacting people, would you…)

So the advice to prospective entrants to this turbulent market – all c.13,000 of them – is to learn the skills you’ll need yourself. And my advice to employers is to look for the people who have taken time to learn them.

Patrick Smith is editor of TheMediaBriefing