Back to the future to train the next generation of journalists

There was a back-to-the-future aura around a full page advertisement in the Otago Daily Times last week. “Want to be a journalist?” it asked. “We’ll help you get there!”

The advertisement stated the ODT’s owner, Allied Press, was looking for five cadets “who have what it takes to be journalists in their South Island home town in 2023”.

It signalled its return to the sort of in-house cadet scheme that was standard practice in New Zealand when I started my career in journalism in 1965.

When I first set foot in a newsroom, I was a callow and rather shy school-leaver with no more knowledge of journalism than could be garnered from living in a household that subscribed to two daily newspapers, and from a spark that had been planted by an inspiring teacher named Bram Clark.

The Auckland Star taught me how to be a reporter through a combination of in-house courses, in-at-the-deep-end assignments, gruff but instructive subeditors, and a series of mentoring senior journalists to whom I will be eternally grateful. I also learnt things, and lost some of my shyness, through a chief reporter whose acknowledged journalistic talents were more than matched by his bullying attitude toward cadets. Almost six decades ago we were expected to toughen up or bugger off. It was all part of the training, you understand.

Of all the learning techniques employed during my cadetship, I think the most valuable was look-and-listen. I was ‘apprenticed’ to Bill Niland, who is a bit of a legend for my generation. Bill described himself as a “slum kid fromWoolloomooloo” (I can still hear him: “Now spell it back to me”) which gave him the common touch that was the mark of a trade that took its recruits literally from the street. We’ll overlook the fact that his brother D’Arcy and sister-in-law Ruth Park were almost Australian literary royalty. I dutifully followed Bill as he made his daily round of the waterfront picking up stories along the way. Bill taught me the importance of contacts and of dealing with people on their own ground.

The Allied Press Journalism Cadet Programme Te Waraki looks a lot like my cadetship, minus the bullying chief reporter. The five entrants will be paid “from day one” and require no news media experience or formal qualifications. They receive full on-the-job training, learn from “award-winning working journalists”, and their work will be published.

There was an expectation, during my cadetship, that I would continue to be employed by the Auckland Star when I reached the lofty heights of ‘graded reporter’. I was, and then sent off for my next round of training – in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Today, there are few guarantees in news media and jobs are not among them. Nonetheless, the Allied scheme does offer cadets “potential for permanent employment”.

The Allied Press scheme is funded through NZ on Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund. So, too, is Te Rito, a partnership between NZME, Whakaata Māori, Newshub and Pacific Media Network (PMN) whose first cohort of cadets is in the final phase of training.

The schemes beg the question: Why set up in-house cadet schemes when we have tertiary institutions offering formal qualifications in journalism and communications?

It would be easy to say that university degree courses are too driven by critical theory and that polytechs have been destabilised by sweeping restructuring. While there is widespread belief within the industry that tertiary qualifications do not produce ready-for-action journalists, the re-creation of in-house cadetship schemes is not an indictment on the tertiary sector. They are responses to specific needs.

The Allied Press scheme seeks to overcome real problems the group has in attracting young journalists, particularly to rural locations. Te Rito aims to address shortages of journalists with cultural and language skills and to improve cultural awareness in newsrooms (its first intake of 22 cadets covers Māori, Samoan, Cook Island, Fiji-Indian, South-east Asian and Finnish ethnicities).

Allied Press has 28 publications in Otago, Southland, Westland, and Canterbury. Otago Daily Times editor Barry Stewart told me the plan was to recruit within each region and give cadets opportunities to work in their local publications and live ‘at home’. The aim is to encourage later applications to fill roles in the company’s branch offices, where recruitment is proving difficult (last week it advertised bureau chief vacancies in Alexandra, Gore and Oamaru). He hopes there will be ongoing roles for all who graduate from the scheme.

Lois Turei, NZME’s Head of Cultural Partnerships, told me 20 positions, for which the cadets could apply, were being put on the table by the four partners in the Te Rito scheme. Ten of the roles are for NZ on Air funded fixed-term roles which must be filled out of Te Rito. She said each role was an important addition to the respective newsrooms and was hopeful that longer term funding would be found for them.

Both Stewart and Turei see the schemes as a return to the type of in-house training that once characterised the industry. Both involve formal training sessions by tutors and direct work experience (under the Te Rito scheme cadets have been rotated through the participants’ newsrooms). Each emphasised the contribution that newsroom staff brought to the training, but Turei also said those staff had benefitted from the presence of the cadets, who had altered cultural perceptions.

Turei is impressed by the qualities of the Te Rito cadets and Stewart will doubtless have a similar view when his cadets reach a similar stage in their training. However, their cadetship will not provide them with a formal, industry-recognised qualification (nor did my cadetship).

The organisers of both schemes have discussed associations with tertiary bodies and the formal NZQA qualification process. I think the discussions are best described as work-in-progress, but it is important that they continue as the cadet schemes mature.

The New Zealand Diploma in Journalism is currently under review and is likely to be narrowed to a one-year course that is very strongly vocationally oriented – training people to become journalists rather than communications specialists destined for the burgeoning ‘comms’ industry or digital marketplace.

 The review is very encouraging and could well develop links with in-house training schemes. I could see, for example, cadetships earning credits toward the diploma. With suitable accreditation, the way could be open for links with tertiary centres such as Wintec to allow cadets to complete their diploma through block courses and distance learning.

I doubt that such developments would have been possible in the first year of in-house cadet schemes. The NZQA and tertiary bodies need to see them in operation before committing to partnering with them. And they would need some assurance that the schemes will survive. Currently they have limited term funding under the PIJF.

The test of their longevity will be the quality of journalists they produce. Allied Press is still recruiting (“Be quick: Applications close November 21”) but the first cohort of cadets from Te Rito are impressing the partners in the scheme.

In-house cadetships without prior qualification requirements have the very real advantage of attracting talented people from diverse backgrounds that might be filtered out by the requirement for costly tertiary qualifications.

When I began in the industry it was male dominated but those men came from varying backgrounds – the slum kid, a merchant seaman, ex-servicemen carrying the burden of wartime experiences, and the sons of Remuera’s finest. Turning the entry qualification into a degree or diploma made our newsrooms more middle class.

Now we can have the best of both worlds and there are good reasons to keep funding both forms of training. Together, they can produce newsrooms that reflect the communities in which we live, and journalists fully equipped for a rapidly changing media landscape.

7 thoughts on “Back to the future to train the next generation of journalists

  1. Thanks Gavin. As long as they learn their job is to report truth that’s a huge step. Too often in the recent past we’ve seen the stupid idea propagated in journo training that truth is relative. (PS I could log on with your social media icons below the comment box)

  2. Jim Tucker – Supposed to be retired, after quitting journalism teaching in 2013 (after 25 years, preceded by 22 years as a newspaper journalist and editor), but find myself busier than ever with various book projects, advising law firms, and writing articles for magazines like North & South and Live.
    Jim Tucker says:

    Well done on your detailed analysis of what’s happening with journalism training, Gavin. Your experiences mirror mine, even down to the year we both started. The media industry is very worried about journalism training, having some time ago lost faith in the tertiary world’s long-term push towards teaching about the significance (and grave sins) of news media rather than how to be a journalist. The two in-house schemes you describe are a very short-term response from the current government, given the $50 million public interest journalism fund will soon be exhausted and Willie Jackson (who took over from Kris Faafoi as minister in charge) has shown little if any interest in it continuing. Who knows what National would do if it is elected next year. Given its record in this particular arena, I’d wager “nothing”. The Workforce Development Council – as obscure a bureaucracy as you could ever find – has meantime done excellent work in coming up with a new journalism diploma, but there’s only one tertiary body left interested in delivering it, Wintec.

  3. Great piece Gavin. It captures some of the conversation we are having at Wintec, and more widely with industry (and yes, you’re right Jim, we’re still here and we’re keen!)
    I valued being part of the review panel convened by Toi Mai leading to the new qual. I also appreciated the robust discussions with tertiary colleagues and industry, which included conversations with Barry Stewart to see if we could partner to deliver a qualification for his 2023 cadets. As you correctly note, this is a work in progress. We can’t always move as nimbly as we’d like within a large institution, and my understanding is that cadets can’t ‘double dip’ from the public purse for both PIJF and Studylink.
    Your summary of the way forward for a tertiary centre like ours is absolutely spot on. A key focus for me is developing our new L5 programme in partnership with industry so students can gain their qualification through a mix of work-based cadetships and study. Ideally, they could do the bulk of this from the regions they live in. For people who want a one-year vocational qualification, it could work well to have access to studylink support as they complete an accredited programme that has a mix of academic and work-based learning. As part of the review, I advocated for increased credits for Professional Practice for this purpose and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can extend this in the new programme 1/2

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Thank you Cate. This is a very useful addition to the conversation.

  4. 2/2 There is always a place for the deeper critical thinking, variety of study pathways and employment outcomes that comes with a degree. Many school leavers want career flexibility and benefit from a ‘uni experience’ and the maturity that comes with a 3-year programme. However, for those who are focused on a shorter-term vocational qualification, a course that offers a mix of work-based learning could help get people into newsrooms and be sustainable over time. I am hopeful that the wider Te Pukenga network will be an advantage as we look at best skills and local connections in the regions.
    We will be meeting with industry soon to start consultation as we develop our new programme. There are a lot of moving parts, but I am looking forward to the conversations.

    Cate Prestidge, Programme Coordinator Communication/Media, Wintec-Te Pūkenga

  5. Firstly I must apologize for the tardiness of my reply. I have spent some of the time reviewing the documents you linked and some other pertinent information, as for the rest of the time, well I do have a real job to attend to. Some of the information I dug up is a few crusty old legal Latin phrases, which although hoary with age do point to some fundamental concepts of a reality still in effect today. One of my personal favorites is,
    “Nemo iudex in causa sua” no one is a judge in their own case.
    Your 100% assurances of your own integrity, the political impartiality of the committee you sit on or the profession you work in is hardly the rock solid defense you seem to think it is. The effectiveness and integrity of any system cannot be judged from within.
    So where can we turn to for this judgment ? Vox populi Vox dei may offer us a way. But on that score journalists are not doing too well and if the old school Romans are to be believed have earned a poor score, not only with the general population but with Lord God Almighty as well. You claim that the PJIF is being maliciously criticized by those who seek to undermine faith in journalism, but that assessment relies on you having access to people’s internal motivations, something you can’t possibly know. You can’t look inside their heads.
    The public’s trust in journalists (and politicians) is low and getting lower. It hasn’t fallen over a few years either, it’s been on the slide since the 1970s, that’s half a century or two full generations. It’s not isolated to New Zealand either, it’s all across the Western world. In any other industry in the world, falling public trust in the products produced would be seen as a failing in the industry that produced them, not in the public that refused to buy them. People such as myself with deep skepticism of the PIJF are not part of a malicious campaign to destroy the public’s trust in journalism. We are just the latest manifestation of an old and wide phenomena. It’s not as if journalism has recently been corrupted by political influence, it’s ALWAYS been a political activity since it’s creation centuries ago. Your assertion that funding through the PIJF wasn’t influenced by the government or any political party might be true, but only if you define “government” and “political party” in an extremely narrow sense. If you were to say that funding decisions were not influenced by any political faction or political philosophy then that statement would certainly be false.
    I have no problem with political influence on journalism per se, information is essential to the state and the people, journalism is the channel through which the information flows to the people, so political influence in journalism is essential.
    What I object to is it being done badly.
    I believe that the public’s loss of faith in both journalists and politicians is linked, they are being driven by the same underlying cause. Politicians, social elites and their allied journalist are increasingly coming under the influence of political philosophies that are harmful to and deeply distrusted by the general population.
    In the specific case of New Zealand and the PIJF, the documents you kindly provided concerning the gate keeping and dispersal of that fund are radically political. Exactly how radical they are could be reasonably debated but the fact that they’re political can not be.
    For example, in Irirangi te Motu NZ on Air Te Tiriti Framework and evidence for News, section News angles: The disruption to the norm, we read,
    “The decision about what is disruptive is an ideological one, made by news managers.”
    That’s an explicit admission of the political role of news managers, if you can find a clear bright line between “ideological” and “political” in that context I’d like to hear it. But as I said, I don’t have a problem with the political influence of journalist, I have a problem with certain specific political influences.
    In this specific case I find the idea that New Zealand is institutionally racist and that it’s the task of society to ensure equal outcomes across all races to be both false and dangerous. The unambiguous references to such ideas within the NZ on Air documents are too numerous to be quoted here. Any idea that these are just “frame works” and not rules are utterly naïve. It’s a rule if it acts as a rule, calling them “frame works” is a euphemistic dodge to get around well known concepts within The Rule of Law. Money, influence and access will be distributed to those journalist who adhere to these dangerous and false dogmas, by both the PIJM specifically and by politicized journalists more generally.
    In summary, journalists are political actors on a political stage, now what remains to be seen is their roles and who gets to write the script.

    P.S my original comments appear to have disappeared. I’m sure it’s just a technical glitch soon to be remedied, after all a man with your 24K personal integrity wouldn’t prune out comments just because they were of a contrary opinion, for as those old school Romans teach us,
    Audi alteram partem Let the other side be heard

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Whether you accept that I am a person with integrity is entirely up to you, but I am more than prepared to stand by my record. I am certain my colleagues involved in the PIJF rounds will do likewise.
      I reject any implication that we were part of a grand conspiracy to make media subservient to government. That is, quite simply, nonsense. I think a day in a newsroom observing journalists at work, and the processes through their endeavours pass, might change a few minds.
      Every editor I have come across takes the view that she or he is bound by the law, but any other ‘guidelines’ provided by Government are just that: Suggestions to be accepted or rejected as the editor sees fit. I put NZ on Air guidelines in that category. I also believe that, like me, those editors would take the view that if Government or its agencies did not like an editorial decision, tough. There is more backbone in newsrooms than you imagine.
      The current attempts to undermine journalism here and in other countries takes full advantage of a phenomenon known as ‘bandwagoning’. A core starts the narrative and other join in (a) to be part of the crowd and (b) because they believe – erroneously – that the views must represent a majority and are worthy of support. A positive feedback loop sustains and boosts acceptance of the original proposition.
      To the bandwagon effect I would add a pervasive dystopia that leads people to always think the worst of others. There is a negativity here and elsewhere that leads inevitably to a downward spiral in trust in institutions and in each other. I concede that trust in journalism is an issue and has been for a long time. Part of it due to public negativity but media must also accept responsibility for paying too much attention to entertaining their audiences and not enough to informing and contributing to civic discourse. That must change.
      You refer to journalists as political actors. Of course, they are…just as every member of a democratic society is a political actor. We all have a part of play in determining how we are governed, and how well we are governed. A democracy is a complex machine in which party politics and journalism are two of its moving parts, each with its own function. For example, I was referred to by Labour and National Prime Ministers at various times as “The Opposition” simply because I was holding each party equally to account in its exercise of power. That is the one of the functions of the media component of the democratic machine. To write off journalists as political players in the sense that they are cogs in the party political system does hardworking and principled reporters a disservice.
      I am sure you will find ample scope to challenge some of my forthcoming offerings, and I welcome other viewpoints. For now, this discussion has run its course and comments here are now closed. I have no idea what happened to your earlier comment, but I assure you there was no conspiracy to silence you.

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