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Career Advice from a Mentor

The following account has been written by Anthony Westell, a veteran journalist who got his start as an apprentice in England in 1941. This will give you a good idea of how the world of journalism has changed and the different ways that journalists prepare for their careers.

An Apprentice Journey
By Anthony Westell

I passed the national school leaving exam in Britain in 1941 a month before my16th birthday. There was no money to send me for further education, and so my father asked me what I wanted to do for a living. I said I thought I'd like to be a newspaper reporter. I can't now remember why I chose reporting, but probably I had seen a movie in which a reporter was the hero, or read a book about the excitement of life in London's Fleet Street where all the national dailies were published. Anyway, my father said he would talk to the publisher of the local daily — The Express and Echo, in Exeter, Devon — and see if he could arrange an apprenticeship.

In those times in Britain, apprenticeships were one way into journalism, which was regarded as a trade or craft rather than as a profession. Some youngsters went to work as copy or messenger boys and managed to catch they eye of an editor and be given a chance as a reporter. The major papers sometimes hired directly from universities. But many of us started as apprentices. The father of the apprentice signed an agreement assigning his son ( I never heard of girls becoming apprentices) to an employer for, usually, five years, and the employer agreed to teach the lad his skill. Sometimes the parent paid the employer to train his son, but usually the employer paid the apprentice what amounted to pocket money for his labor in my case, the equivalent of about a dollar week for the first year, and rising by small amounts each year.

If you look at early agreements, often called Indentures, you will find all sorts of terms and conditions intended to ensure the apprentice led a moral life when he left home. For example, apprentices were often forbidden to drink, go to the theater, fornicate, or even get married. That sort of agreement in which the employer assumed responsibility for upbringing of the apprentice had fallen out of use by the time I was indentured, but we were in the middle of WW2 anyway and everything was changing. Most of the senior reporters had joined the armed forces and nobody was left to teach the youngsters like me the trade. We learnt by reading the papers to see how news was reported, and by experience when we were pitched in with little preparation to cover major local news. We were supposed to go to night school to learn shorthand and typing, but that didn't work well because we were also assigned to cover events several nights a week.

Occasionally, the aged chief reporter would call one of us in and dictate the leading editorial from The Times which we had to take down in shorthand and read back to him. I was poor at shorthand at the best of times, and survived by memorizing every day the Times editorial, or at least enough of the key phrases to prompt my memory when my shorthand failed.

So we were not getting the training we were supposed to receive, and things got even more chaotic when, a few months after I started work, Exeter was severely bombed by the Germans and the paper's presses were put out of commission. Editing and printing were shifted to a sister paper 20 miles away, and all our stories had to be dictated over the phone.

By now you are probably wondering what all this has to do with you in a different country and almost in a different century.

The answer is that context is important in all stories -- the "why" of those famous Five Ws. I'm offering the context in which you can evaluate what I'm going to say about how journalists are educated and/or trained in Canada today. I'm an old geezer (73) who started in the business in a different country in an era long gone.

Bear with me, however, for a bit more context. After serving in the Royal Navy 1943-46, I returned to the paper to take up my apprenticeship for another two- and-a-half years. If you were editing this copy would you have noticed that I didn't complete my five year apprenticeship, and checked the dates? In fact, I got itchy feet before the five years were up and moved to a livelier paper in a bigger city. I must have been ambitious because I stayed there less than two years (long enough to meet another reporter to whom I have been married for 50 years) and moved on to Fleet Street - the Street of Adventure as it was called in a romantic book by Phillip Gibbs. I did well in Fleet Street, becoming a political and diplomatic correspondent, but my feet must still have been itchy because in 1956 I emigrated to Canada to join The Globe and Mail, dragging along a wife and, by now, two small children (one of whom is now a business reporter). Starting again, as it were, as a general, city-side reporter, I became in succession bureau chief at City Hall, a member of the Editorial Board writing editorials, Assistant to the Editor and Chief Editorial Writer, and, in 1964, Ottawa bureau chief. In 1969, I moved to the Toronto Star as national affairs columnist.

I was conscious of the fact that I had to cover news events such as constitutional conferences but had never studied Canadian history. Neither had many of my Canadian colleagues, and I think that I become more knowledgeable than most when I attempted to educate myself by reading numerous books. The fact remained I had no post-secondary education in a country in which a degree was becoming the norm for journalists. When I discovered that there was a School of Journalism at Carleton University with a program for graduate students, it seemed to me that a trade-off might work: the students wanted to learn about journalism and I figured I knew some of that ( I had won three National Newspaper Awards), and I wanted to know what they had learnt about political science, economics, literature or whatever they had studied. So I became a sessional lecturer teaching one course. I soon discovered that I was not going to learn much from the students. But on the other hand I was not a great success as a teacher; students said I was intimidating. I'm happy to say that did not prevent many becoming successful journalists.

However, I enjoyed the company of academics and life on the campus, and gradually I changed from being a journalist who taught part-time into a teacher who wrote a column part-time. Eventually, I became Director of the J-school, and it was then I suppose that I had to think seriously about the place of J-schools in the industry. Not a few prominent journalists — for example, Allan Fotheringham, the columnist who is himself a celebrity, and John Fraser, former editor of Saturday Night and now Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto — have dismissed the very idea of J-schools. Journalism, they say, is a talent; either you have it you don't, and it can't be taught. Given the way I entered journalism, I could easily agree with them, and up to a point I do. (That phrase "up to a point" reminds me that one of the most amusing and satirical books about journalism is Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. One of the characters is Lord Copper, a newspaper owner given to making outrageous misstatements. Rather than correct him, his flunky says, "Up to a point, Lord Copper.") Now back to the discussion.

If all you mean by journalism is straight news reporting, the best way to learn is probably by going to work in a newsroom, or possibly by going to a community college which emphasizes training.

In my view, it is not the business of a university to teach a trade or even a craft. I know all J-schools do that to a certain extent. They have simulated newsrooms, radio and TV studios, and experienced journalists teach the basics of the business. In effect, the students are like apprentices paying to be taught skills they could better be taught by employers. Such courses are inevitable because students demand them and it's convenient for employers to be able to recruit half-trained reporters. It's also true that hands-on courses give students the opportunity to find out if they really like reporting. You would be surprised at the number of J-students who never go into journalism.

But in my view the less J-schools have to run training courses the better. Their role should be to educate students for a career in journalism. That means building a program of studies in the arts and social sciences (history, political science, economics, a language,etc) around a core of media studies (the history of journalism, the role of journalism in democratic society, media law, some communications theory etc).There should be also, in my view, a focus on basic writing skills. Standards of spelling and syntax in the press are deplorable.

Can you see what's wrong with this lead to a typical news story: "James Smith pleaded guilty to murdering his wife in court today ?." What's wrong of course is that Smith did not murder his wife in court today. The sentence should read, "James Smith pleaded guilty in court today to murdering his wife." You can find mistakes like that in the papers every day. Shocking! says the geezer.

To sum up, if you plan to enter journalism you should go to university. If you choose to take a degree in a subject other than journalism, it would be wise to work on the student paper. You'll find out if you really like the nitty gritty of reporting, and you'll indicate to a future employer that you have some experience and are serious about the business. Or you can go on from an undergraduate degree to take a graduate program in journalism. If you decide to take a BJ or a BA in journalism, look for a program that is strong on educating students for a career in media, rather than just journalism. If you can learn how to gather information, place it in context with other information, tease out the significance and communicate that to others, there will be lots of jobs other than journalism open to you.

Good luck.

Anthony Westell


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