Monday, 6 December 2010

The Making of a Journalist

This was published in the jubilee souvenir of Potti Sriramulu Telugu University in December 2010

As any wise one will tell you, there are many paths to get there. Be it Nirvana or the newsroom. Often, University-bound academicians assert the importance of journalism schools in making good journalists. One would like to believe, given the necessary sets of abilities, like language skills, commonsense and a healthy curiosity about the world, any one can be trained to be a journalist. And, the training may come from in-house schools, universities, private institutes of higher learning or just self-study. We have all read with great joy famous journalists who have never stepped into a j-school in their life. But then it took us anything between 10 to 20 years to find them shining in the firmament. However, for a profession in a hurry, it is easier if someone endorses/certifies that a given individual is fit for employment as a journalist, a priori.
And this is where the necessity for j-schools arises. The need was discovered as early as the 1950s when first the Hislop Christian College of Nagpur University (Eapen:1991) and later the Department of Journalism in Osmania University were started. Dr Roland Wolseley was associated with Hislop, while Prof DeForest O’Dell (Benner:1980) came to head the journalism department in Osmania, which was started in 1954. Dr O’Dell, who earned his PhD from Columbia University, worked for many newspapers and for Associated Press. He also had a distinguished career as a professor teaching journalism and public relations at several universities in America.
Under Prof O’Dell’s leadership, the Osmania Department began by offering the journalism course to editors and sub-editors of English language papers. The early course structure, curriculum and general orientation were all shaped by the American tradition of journalism education. Later, Prof Govindarajan who earlier worked for The Hindu headed the Department. The department continued to have a blend of faculty experienced in the journalism, advertising and PR industries, individuals with English Literature and creative writing background, and also those who specialised in communication theory and research. Till about the late eighties, Osmania University played a significant role in helping various universities in designing and setting up their media programmes.
By late eighties, according to a survey by Prof K E Eapen (1991), there were some 50 institutions offering journalism courses. The year 1991 also marked economic liberalisation and brought with it the phenomenal media expansion. It was logical that there would be a parallel expansion of j-schools as by then, a large number of media organizations began to look for and recruit graduates from j-schools through regular campus selections.
Till the early nineties, it was the conventional universities with well-conceived and designed courses that were providing recruits for the media industry. Many of those recruits are now in senior positions in their organizations. The expansion in media industry caught everyone unawares, creating a serious supply crunch for a rapidly expanding industry. The nineties saw a sudden spurt and a haphazard expansion of j-schools both in the conventional university systems and the private sector.
Expansion in the university system
In Andhra Pradesh, two new universities with journalism programmes were started in 1983 and 1988. The first one Sri Padmavathi Mahila Viswavidyalayam in Tirupati, exclusively for women and the second, Sri Potti Sriramulu Telugu University in Hyderabad, which is the first university to offer journalism exclusively in a regional language. Makhanlal Chaturvedi Patrakarita University in Bhopal began functioning in 1991 for Hindi journalism. Andhra University started its journalism programme in 1984 and Nagarjuna University in 2003. With the launching of several new universities in Andhra Pradesh, Nalgonda, Telangana and Krishna Universities have launched journalism courses during the mid-2000s.
From the 1990s onwards, there has been both a vertical and a horizontal expansion, with close to 250 universities and colleges offering journalism and mass communication courses.
Before 1990s, most conventional universities were offering broad-based journalism and mass communication courses that would cover a range of subjects like reporting, editing, newspaper management, history, media law and media research. The courses also had a wide variety of structures. Some were two-year postgraduate programmes divided into one-year post-graduate bachelor’s degree (BCJ) and one year post-graduate master’s degree (MCJ). This was the preferred mode as the students after completion of BCJ would go with a degree in journalism and begin working for a media organization. If interested, they would come back to do a masters degree in journalism later. Those who were keen on joining the profession welcomed this flexibility. Some universities began to offer a 2-year MA with a specific focus like TV production. The nomenclature varied from BA, MA, BCJ, MCJ, BJMC, MJMC and so on. The confusion in nomenclature and the need for comparability of courses is forcing several departments to gravitate towards a common 2-year MA in journalism and mass communication.
Another trend over the 2000s has been the vertical expansion of the journalism programmes. Many universities, under pressure to offer ‘job-oriented’ courses began to introduce journalism in under-graduate colleges. This was either as one of the three majors or as an entire programme for journalism. The downward expansion, however, still faces several problems. There is a severe shortage of competent faculty to teach the programmes. If there was criticism about journalism faculty not having professional exposure, these courses are often run by faculty drawn from other social sciences, who have not gone through a formal university-level journalism programme to know the essential strategies for teaching journalism. Apart from faculty shortage, most of the courses also lack basic infrastructure like subscription to a news agency, focussed library, subscription to newspapers and magazines and now TV channels. Such courses are struggling to survive as enrolment begins to rapidly dwindle even in the university systems, as most of these courses are offered under the self-financing schemes.
The upward expansion has been by way of introducing MPhil and PhD programmes. After the passing of the first generation of faculty who pioneered journalism education in India, the emphasis of the academic programmes also began to shift towards communication from just journalism. The communication component of the courses opens up the possibility for those inclined to research to pursue courses like MPhil and PhD. But the universities that have started the research degrees find that the preferred career choice of the graduates after their masters is to join the profession. It is those who cannot for some reason join the profession who opt for the research programmes.
But the horizontal and vertical expansion has also exposed the universities to much criticism as the industry looking for trained personnel finds the system falling short in some way. The earlier focus of the departments on just journalism education catering to a much smaller field of demand was more closely attuned to the industry needs. Today, university systems have not expanded enough to feed the vast markets of varied demands.
The media industries, like all other industries, tend to look for cheap labour. Unlike the legal or medical professions where the education of the graduate is rounded off with on-the-job training with senior colleagues, journalism schools are expected to produce ready-to-use ‘hands’. And unlike the West, the media industry failed to value the liberal education the graduates bring to the job, and therefore, did not bother to build synergies with the j-schools that would have strengthened both the schools and the profession in the long run.
Private Sector
Barring a few exceptions, many private sector training institutions began to offer purely skill-oriented programmes. Several of the media organizations like Eenadu started their own, in-house training facilities. Later entrants into the newspaper and television market also routinely have an in-house training wing that moulds the new recruits into the organization. Some of the establishments like Eenadu select the recruits through a rigorous entrance exam/interview process. But, the concentration of the media houses is really to train a person in journalistic skills. Unlike the university courses which attempt to impart critical thinking about the profession itself by teaching media laws, media economics and industry, media ethics and history, these schools require ‘good hands’ who will deal with basic news production tasks.
Training set-ups that have come up in the private sector like Asian College of Journalism and Symbiosis have acquired a formidable reputation in the market but are prohibitive in their fee structure. Whenever there is a window for expansion of the private sector, there is a parallel buzz in the market that systematically undermines the conventional university systems. The private sector institutions can dictate not just the fee structure, but also which students they can take in. Sometimes the institutes conduct multi-stage, multi-layered entrance process that skims the creamy layer (both intellectually and financially). This is a luxury that the state-run university systems do not have. The universities do not have the flexibility sometimes to design their own entrance exam. Selection of candidates by interview process is virtually impossible in the highly politicised university environment. But a significant plus for the university system is the social profile of the candidates they offer to the market. It is a profile that is more representative of Indian social reality than that offered by the expensive private institutions. For instance, among the trained professionals sent by the state universities to the media industries, there are several who are first generation learners. This is beginning to matter in the regional language media.
Lastly, whether the in-house training facilities of media organizations or the private institutes, there is a technology fetish that they successfully infect the conventional universities with. The measure of good journalism education appears to be largely based on how much ‘media hardware’ the departments can provide. True, in a modern media environment a lot of technology is used. But if the objective of the school is to produce a competent journalist, reporting, writing and editing skills remain fundamental. The need for understanding journalistic ethics and values should be more privileged than the need to be tech-savvy. It is also futile for the schools to struggle to be ahead of the game in a constantly changing, volatile technology scene. No school can perpetually muster such resources.
Journalism and media education has grown into a big industry on the back of a media boom. There are trends in the media education market that are still crystallising into a pattern – if some trend followers start ‘new media’ courses, some others talk of ejournalism. One would think these are just modes of delivery. It is clear that there is a vast opportunity for expansion. Neither the private enterprise nor the state sector has been able to satisfactorily bridge the huge gap in supply. In a market poised for multi-dimensional growth, there is space for conventional journalism degrees offered by university systems and skills training offered by the private schools.
The upside of the situation is that there is a vast pool of talent that enters laterally from varied backgrounds, learns the conventions of responsible journalism and goes on to enrich the field. Over the years, through the thick and thin of market vicissitudes, one can observe that there are various routes through which one can attain great success in the field of journalism. Some have done it through formal training, some through self-learning and some through in-house training. But the formula for the success in the newsroom appears to be good language skills, better understanding of the social milieu and most importantly, great personal integrity that can distinguish the ethical from the unethical.

Eapen, K E. (1991). Journalism education and textbooks in SAARC countries (July 1991) retrieved on 25 October, 2010 from

Benner, V. S. (1980). DeForest O’Dell. The USGenWeb Project retrieved on 25 October from