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Motivating Students in the Face of the Media Maelstrom

Philip J Cowan, Senior Tutor in Journalism, Harlow College

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Key words
Anxiety, motivation, student engagement, intern, work experience, in-depth interviews, qualitative research.

The sudden decline in employment opportunities for new graduates — particularly those who have chosen the media industries as their sector of choice for a career, has been extensively publicised.  Inevitably, this has created anxiety, self-doubt and loss of motivation in students. But what are the roles and responsibilities of their tutors in this time of upheaval and poor employment prospects?

Through a series of in-depth interviews, graduates from the BA Journalism course at Harlow College are given a voice in how we should respond. Work experience was clearly identified by graduates as the route towards employment in their chosen career.

The current economic climate for the media industries is one of the worst it has faced in living memory. Newspapers(1), magazines, television and radio are all struggling with the collapse in advertising revenue. Only internet advertising, which is eating into the audience of the traditional media, is growing quickly(2)  enough to create many new career opportunities.

It is into these dark storms that our graduates venture when they leave the safe harbour of university and college. Armed with their degree certificate and whatever knowledge they have acquired from their studies, they make their way from the graduation hall to the world of work.

But they do not step out blithely. They, more than anyone perhaps, are pertinently aware of the obstacles that they have to overcome. The media itself has reported extensively on the difficulty graduates are having in finding work and the likelihood of a prolonged recession, which will inflate unemployment for years to come(3) .

For those of us who are responsible for the education of students on undergraduate programmes aimed at equipping them with the learning necessary to succeed in the media industries, there is the important question of how we should respond in this threatening climate.

We could regard such external factors as beyond our control and not a matter for our concern. However, students are more than aware of what is waiting for them outside the lecture theatre and will undoubtedly be anxious as to how to tackle this worry. That anxiety is ever-present and something of an ‘elephant’ in the tutorial room. Surely we have a responsibility to grasp the nettle, no matter how uncomfortable the experience may be?

Furthermore, the anxiety of students may translate itself into behaviour, which could have a significantly negative impact on their studies, and this is, without doubt, an issue of our concern.

Only a little thought and research would suggest that the economic climate could significantly damage student learning.  If a student perceives that what they are doing is unlikely to lead to a positive outcome (that is, to gain a job in their chosen field) then their motivation and engagement could be severely impaired(4).

On a rational level, students may be disinclined to engage in their studies at a time of perceived economic downturn simply because the effort would be a lost cost; an investment in an activity which will not bear fruit.

Students will undoubtedly vary in their response to a reduced opportunity to succeed in the job market. Some will seek to gain an advantage over others in the competitive market by becoming even more engaged. However others, particularly those with lower self-esteem, will be inclined to disengage so as to protect their fragile self-regard. Having not made an effort can be held to be the reason for not succeeding rather than the more disconcerting belief that they are not competent.

It is essential then that our education programmes — which rely so heavily on the positive participation of our students — tackle these anxieties head on and counteract them in such a fashion as to give students the self-confidence that they will succeed as well as lending genuine strategies which will enable them to achieve in the job market.

As former participants in the media industries we can, of course, offer advice, based on our own experiences. However, this can seem dated and tales of our own battles may well be irrelevant unless they are very recent. The media is undergoing one of its biggest upheavals ever(5) . From the student’s perspective, this invalidates much of the experience we may have to pass on.

Where then can we turn to for advice that will lend motivation and coping strategies to students for their careers ahead?

Industry is one possibility. The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), funded by Skillset (the Sector Skills Council for Creative Media) and supported by the Society of Editors, the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and the Periodicals Training Council, conducted research into the skills required by employers(6) . This produced some interesting results, but an extended reading of the report by students could generate more anxiety than it quells. The range of skills and personal attributes employers require is exhaustive. Few graduates will feel they are fully up to speed in both traditional and new skills.

In his foreword to the report, the Chairman of the NCTJ wrote:
In terms of traditional skills, our respondents worried about the ability of young reporters to find their own stories, their use of language, their knowledge of media law and — vital as ever — their ability to write shorthand.
The new skills that many found lacking, were video, writing for search engine optimisation, writing for multi platforms, assembling news bulletins and audio or video packages and using the Freedom of Information Act.
What emerged strongly was that these were not areas of compromise. There was no question of old or new: employers were clear that they wanted both.

This is useful, but discouraging for students who may be on the verge of losing their will to engage in the learning process. To encourage these learners, I turned to a group whose voice would provide positive advice for those looking at the raging vortex of the new media and wondering how to, like Marshall McLuhan’s mariner, survive the maelstrom: former students who were currently making their way through this mean season.

Interview Research
With this in mind, I conducted a series of in-depth, structured interviews with twenty former students. Nine had graduated in 2008 and the other eleven had completed their studies the following year, handing in their final projects in May 2009.

Most (nineteen) of the former students had successfully completed their studies; one had left after the second year.

Each were asked the same questions but were encouraged to explore avenues of their own concern.  All of their participation was voluntary and without payment. They had all received their degree classification and there was no overt motive to be decidedly negative or positive in their responses.

The interviews were conducted as qualitative research and the respondents were discouraged from giving answers, which would readily yield numerical analysis. The interviews were, by necessity, conducted on the telephone. They were not recorded but the respondents, all of whom were known to me as former students, were informed that I was taking extensive shorthand notes.
The eight questions asked were:

  • What have you been doing since you left your course?
  • Are you anxious about finding work?
  • Have you applied for work that is related to your degree? If so, how did you get on?
  • If you applied for work in Journalism, what qualities and qualifications was the employer looking for?
  • Has your course helped you find the sort of work you are looking for?
  • Which parts of the course have proven useful in finding work?
  • Which parts have not proven useful for finding work?
  • In the light of your experience of trying to find work, which parts of the course do you think could be improved?

Overall the former students were generally pleased with the course in Journalism at Harlow College and felt it had equipped them for the world of work. However, there were some major issues confronting them.

First was the lack of paid work available in the field of Journalism. Many, around half, were actively doing unpaid work in newspapers and magazines. Some were not even receiving travel expenses and others, who would like to have done work experience, were prevented from doing so due to the pressures of having to earn a living. Travelling to Inner London, where many of the newspaper and magazine offices are, was financially prohibitive for many.

Second was the need for further skills and qualifications, such as the NCTJ certificates in News Writing, Law and the requirement for shorthand. Experience of Online Journalism, particularly technical skills, was also prominent among the demands of employers. It was clear speaking to the graduates that competition for vacancies is so fierce any lapse in skill ruled them out.
Even many of those who had gone on to complete NCTJ post-graduate qualifications successfully, were finding that paid work was hard to come by.
As one of the interviewees put it:

There are just no paid jobs. I am working as an intern but I do everything that the paid staff do but when someone leaves, there isn’t a vacancy created, just another empty desk.

Around four-fifths of the respondents could be described as anxious about finding work. Even those in work wanted to move on in their career and were anxious about the lack of further opportunities.

One who was working in PR, although he would have liked to move into Journalism, said:
I can’t really afford to go on and do the NCTJ course at the moment, but even if the money wasn’t an issue, I don’t know. The newspapers I send stuff to seem absolutely desperate with hardly any staff. I send a press release full of PR for our company and it just goes straight in unedited. I know these guys, they are not lazy, they just have so much to do they haven’t got time to do their jobs properly. It is great for our company, but all kind of sad really.

Nevertheless, one strong message was repeated again and again from this group: the value of work experience. Although most of them had done some work experience while an undergraduate, nearly everyone alluded, or clearly stated, the value of work experience to building a credible case to future employers. Over and again, the internship module they completed while at college and opportunities to do ‘real life’ work came back as a central issue for them.

Another graduate, who was currently working two days a week as an intern at a consumer magazine said:
Yes, I get to work on photoshoots, but afterwards, I have to clean out the cupboard. It is like a really unglamorous episode of Ugly Betty. But the work experience is really important. I would even do work experience at places where I wouldn’t want to work, just to show that I have versatility. Everyone runs their business differently and if you visit different magazines you have a better chance of selling yourself at interview.

On reflection, it is perhaps not surprising that the demands of the workplace within the media industry are somewhat alien to students, until they have experienced them directly for themselves. No matter how well they are portrayed second-hand, the familiarity of being an active participant in the creation of a media product is a learning experience, which cannot be fully replicated in the classroom. The sense of urgency, the demand for high standards and the sheer thrill of producing something, which will be viewed by thousands of people is impossible to replicate.

Some have questioned the ethics of expecting young people, who have invested a tremendous amount of time and money in their education, to impart of their labour for no wage(7) , but the practice is so prevalent in the media industry that it seems difficult to counter. Even many of those who do question the ethics of unpaid internship readily admit it is a route into their chosen career(8) . Discouraging students from unpaid work may be doing them a serious disservice, leaving the field open to others who can and will undertake unpaid work.

There is also the grave concern that those unable to do unpaid work will be disadvantaged, and a number of participants in my own research questioned how much, if any, work experience they could do, as working unpaid meant foregoing paid work.

Nevertheless, for the anxious undergraduate seeking a constructive strategy and the tutor seeking ongoing participation, advising and helping students to find work experience is a positive way forward. It can offer an antidote to despair and inaction. What is more, it is the clear signal of former students that this is their best route through the maelstrom that has hit the media industry. If there is a beacon of hope for our students, it is surely better to offer some guidance, even while we question an industry that relies so heavily  on unpaid interns.


1.  Author unknown, 2009 Half of local papers could fold, media experts warn [internet] 16 June.  Available at: [Accessed 2 November 2009]

2.  Sweeney, M., 2008. UK web ad spend ‘to exceed TV in 2009’. [internet]3 January. Available at:[Accessed 31 October 2009

3.  Williams, R., 2009. Graduate unemployment increases 44% in one year.,  [internet] 2 November. Available at: [Accessed 30 October 2009]

4.  Wigfield, A. & Eccles, J. (2002). The development of achievement motivation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press

5.  Heng, S. (2006). Media industry facing biggest upheaval since Gutenberg: Media consumers morphing into media makers. Deutsche Bank Research

6.  Fletcher, K. et al. (2008) Journalism Skills Survey, National Council for the Training of Journalists

7.  Interns Anonymous, 2009. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 27 October 2009

8.  Interns Anonymous, 2009. [Online]. Sports Journalism: From the Guardian Careers discussion on Internships. Available at: [Accessed 27 October 2009]

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