There is currently a push to diversify the nation’s newsrooms, with a boom in schemes to employ students from ethnic minorities. But as Martina Booth and Hannah Hudson discover, would-be journalists may also be hindered by regional bias.
Forget a book of contacts, a nose for news or a penchant for the pen – your chance at journalistic success may depend more on your postcode than your portfolio. Data obtained by XCity under the Freedom of Information Act shows that applicants are far more likely to be accepted for a postgraduate journalism course at City if they come from the south of England rather than the north.
XCity found that for every 20 English students who are offered a place at City, 17 will be from the south.
Not only are northerners less likely to be accepted, they are overwhelmingly less likely to apply. For every 100 English applicants each year, only 20 will be from the north.
The definition of “north” and “south” has always been contentious, with the divide characterised by class, income and now – the figures suggest – journalistic success.
In a 2007 study, Danny Dorling, professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, marked a dividing line between the north and south of England based on factors including life expectancy, house prices and the way people vote. The line runs from east to west just above Lincoln, Leicester and Warwick, and below Nottingham, Coventry and Worcester.
Applying this definition of “north”and“south”, XCity found that if a student is from the south, their application to study postgraduate journalism at City has a 49 per cent chance of success. If they are from the north, this figure falls to 41 per cent.
However, the University says that it has no geographical bias when looking at applications. “We make no judgement on which part of the country a prospective student comes from,” says Barbara Rowlands, programme director, MA Magazine Journalism.
“It’s a level playing field. We’re looking for good degrees, great work experience and motivation,” she adds.
However, Rowlands acknowledges that it can be difficult for northerners to secure “great work experience” because the vast majority of media outlets are based in the south.
“It’s particularly true for the magazine course,” she says. “If you are from Manchester or Sunderland, it is difficult to come down and do work experience at publications like Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan or even B2Bs. But we do accept students who have done work experience on magazines in their local area.”
It is not just geography conspiring against northern students. Professor Dorling’s study also illustrated the north/south wealth divide, finding more “breadline-poor” households north of the line, and a higher concentration of wealthy households to the south.
It is an uncomfortable truth, perhaps, but northerners may be less able to do unpaid stints of work experience than southerners, which could weaken their applications.
Last summer, Salford University journalism student David Meller, 23, from Stockport, undertook a two-week placement at The Independent with four days lined-up at the Daily Mirror. Both publications are based in London.
“After a fortnight in London at The IndependentI just couldn’t afford to stay for the second placement,” he says.
Money is also the reason why many northern students choose not to apply to study at City. Helen Robertson, 23, studies journalism at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). She says: “UCLan’s fees were half the price of City’s. I didn’t want to study in a place where living costs are so expensive.”
Rosie Waterhouse, programme director of the Investigative Journalism MA, offers her own explanation for why northerners might be reluctant to study in the capital. A Lancaster girl who began her career at the Chester Chronicle, she waited ten years before moving down south. “I was afraid of moving to the Big Smoke,” she says. “I thought Londoners were unfriendly. It seemed a big, scary place.” Waterhouse is not surprised City attracts fewer northerners. “I think there’s prejudice on the side of the student who might feel intimidated by London.”
The Sunday Times, Waterhouse still felt apprehensive. “Along the way I’ve lost my northern accent and that must have been a conscious thing,” she says. “I suppose I wanted to throw off the cloth cap and whippet image.”
Psychologist Dr Berenice Mahoney, an expert on British identity and regional speech styles at the University of Worcester, agrees that something as seemingly minor as a regional accent might affect people’s decisions when choosing a university.“There are generic stereotypes based on speech,” she says. “A London accent can be seen as unapproachable and arrogant. People with accents from places like Leeds give the impression of being friendly, jokey and not too bright.”
“There is a reasonable link between someone’s accent and the way they feel about another place, based on how strongly they identify with where they originally come from.”
So why does this north/south divide matter to the media industry? “It’s worrying because we have a good reputation for placing students in major publications,” says Rowlands. “The consequence of this is a negative impact on diversity in the newsroom. We want people from all parts of the country to go into the industry, otherwise it gets very narrow.”
Media commentator and City professor Roy Greenslade agrees diversity should be encouraged. “We need a social mix in journalism. People are too often consumed by their own backgrounds, and this shapes what they believe journalism should be about,” he says. “If you don’t have people from working-class communities then you are not going to give them a voice.”
Chris Frost, head of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, agrees that postgraduate courses are more middle-class than undergraduate ones. For him, the reason for City’s southern bias is financial rather than geographical. “To go to London is fantastically expensive. However, you have a better chance of getting a high-flying job. Until the BBC moves to Salford, there isn’t the same opportunity,” he says.
Frost, who estimates that around two-thirds of his English journalism students are from the north, recommends that students establish a relationship with their local publication and do their work experience there.
While many UK journalism schools may provide students with excellent training, there are distinct advantages to studying journalism in London. “We now have a media industry largely populated within the M25, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” says Greenslade. Relocating to London is simply something that most postgraduate journalists will have to do for their career.
Kate Goodacre, 24, from Warrington, couldn’t afford City’s fees, and is studying journalism at the University of Salford. She now finds herself in a predicament which doesn’t affect London journalism students, many of whom can commute to college from their family homes. Her story illustrates the barriers facing some hopeful northern journalists. “I’m probably going to have to move to London to get on the job ladder, but before I secure a job I will have to do some work experience to get my foot in the door,” she says. “However, I took out a loan to fund my course, which I need to start paying back two months after my course, and I can’t do that unless I’m in a job that is earning me money.”
Despite the PTC recommending that employers pay work experience students for all published work, Goodacre says: “I read recently that students should expect to do a series of unpaid work placements, perhaps up to two years, to break into journalism. “At the risk of sounding proletarian – who can afford to do that? It drives a nail right through the whole attempt for journalism to be diverse.”
If talented, would-be journalists from northern parts are not coming through the City system, the newsrooms of the future will not reflect the regional diversity of the country. “We need to have university bursaries like they do at Columbia,” says Rowlands. “There, an MA costs $40,000. British students who apply to Columbia have more of a chance of getting a bursary from them than they do from City. We can’t compete on that score.”
“There are a lot of talented individuals who we’re not getting because they’re not applying. If we had bursaries, we’d get more students applying who think ‘yes, I can do that’. We just want the best talent – wherever it comes from.”