Media headhunters’ perspective on journalists working as academics

This article first appeared in Press Gazette

Over the next three months, I’ll be writing about journalism and academia, from opposite ends of the spectrum. Next month, I’ll try and give some guidance to aspiring journalists on what they might seek in a degree course. This month, though, I want to briefly give a perspective – held by us as media headhunters – on the attractions that an academic career can have for experienced journalists.

A small seismic shock was caused at the Guardian last month when Emily Bell resigned to head up Columbia University’s digital programme for post-graduate students. At the time, she said that this was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help reshape the future of journalism”, and she is part of a growing trend.

Of course, Bell is not typical; she is going to Columbia, after all, and is founding a new chair at the school. Nonetheless, she says, there are compelling reasons for journalists to join academia. “There is an intriguing role to play in the future of journalism. Decisions over what will be the most engaging format or business model are as likely to be taken by academics as C-suite executives,” Bell says. “Journalism schools have the funding, the brains and the time to enter creative partnerships with media businesses.”

As she notes, enrolment in journalism courses both in the UK and the US are at an all time high; and this presents many opportunities for experienced journalists.

Tim Luckhurst, former Editor of The Scotsman, set up the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism three years ago. Having hired every member of staff, he has a clear understanding of what it takes to make the transition.

First and foremost, Luckhurst looks for experience. “You need to have employed and trained lots of journalists and understand what you looked for in a junior journalist – that’s how we select our students.” His faculty is also diverse in composition, including journalists with extensive experience of broadcast, online, magazines and newspapers (it includes Ian Reeves, the former editor of Press Gazette). While new media skills are important in many areas, there are clearly roles for journalists from non-digital backgrounds at some institutions.

Image of newspapers

Image of newspapers courtesy of Birdfarm (Flickr)

Luckhurst and Bell both stress the importance of continuing to practise their trade; Bell insists she is “not giving up being a journalist” (she will continue to write for the Guardian), and Luckhurst says that he and his faculty continue “to write and broadcast as much as we can.” His philosophy is simple: “those that can, teach”.

The obvious question is whether there is a decent living to be made. Luckhurst says that pay scales have been raised over the last ten years, and his former colleagues would be “surprised” by the remuneration for senior lecturers. So perhaps it is time to take out your subscription to the TES; happy hunting.