Supported content from News UK, the UK's leading family of media brands
September 5, 2022 (Updated )
Getting into journalism without a degree has become a rarity. According to the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ (NCTJ) latest research, almost 90 percent have a degree, compared to 48 percent of the population overall. “The majority of new entrants to journalism are graduates,” they say. “There are exceptions, but they are rare.”
Previously, it was quite common for reporters to apply for — and get — journalist jobs with a minimum of five GCSE passes or equivalent. Yet in recent years, we have seen journalism degrees become the most common path for up-and-coming journalists. Data suggests some 11,500 people a year enrol in a journalism course, with double that number studying media courses more broadly. But what happens if university isn’t part of your plans?
What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Journalist?
First things first, it’s important to stress you don’t need a degree to become a journalist — and it’s important we keep it that way. The NCTJ’s own research notes that “the continuing increase in the ‘graduatisation’ of journalism could be acting against attempts to increase some aspects of diversity”.
“Entrants to higher education are not themselves representative of the wider population,” they continue, adding that this means newsrooms will continue to recruit from a pool which is under-representative of some groups. But where can you turn if most jobs are expecting a degree?
“We want to create opportunities for people who aspire to work in the media from across every part of society.”
Mark Hudson, News UK
News UK, publishers of The Times, The Sun, and Times Radio, are just one of the media companies hoping to turn the tide, by offering young journalists the chance to learn their trade without a graduate degree.
Successful apprentices get a fully-funded NCTJ Diploma in Journalism, as well as on-the-job training, mentoring, and coaching with experienced staff — all while they’re paid to be there. “We want to create opportunities for people who aspire to work in the media from across every part of society,” says head of early talent Mark Hudson.
But, if you know you want to be a journalist, it’s never too early to start looking for opportunities — even if it’s too early for an apprenticeship.
At just 23 years old, Danny de Vaal is a full-time news reporter for The Irish Sun. Having known he wanted to be a journalist from an early age, de Vaal was always flicking through newspapers and making his own newsletters. At 15, he was encouraged by his high school teachers to attend a News Academy workshop, run by journalists from News UK, taking place near his home in Dublin’s Croke Park.
The event was designed for school groups, but de Vaal arrived on his own and befriended the journalists leading the event. “That was definitely the catalyst for the job I have today,” de Vaal tells Journo Resources. “It is all down to the people I came into contact through News Academy. As a result, I secured work placements at the Sunday Times and Irish Sun for later that year.”
What Does A News UK Apprenticeship Entail?
News UK offers a range of apprenticeships at a variety of their outlets from The Times and The Sun to talkRadio and TLS. In 2021, they took on 45 people.
Four days a week are spent in the classroom, learning the theory, and gaining your NCTJ diploma. Topics covered include writing a good story, shorthand, media law, court reporting, editing, and building portfolios. Meanwhile, one day is spent working in the newsroom at one of News UK’s London-based publications – such as The Times, Sunday Times or The Sun.
Once the six-month NCTJ course is successfully completed, a further six months of full-time work experience begins. Students tend to move between departments — from digital desks to print — drawing on experience across the various sectors (news, showbiz, sport).
de Vaal says: “I started off on the online news desk and then went onto print news. I spent a module as a sub-editor at the paper — which was a real eye opener and I think one of the most beneficial parts of my training. I even spent time at TalkSport radio.”
de Vaal was invited to apply for News UK’s Summer School the following year. He was 16 when he spent a week at News UK’s London headquarters, with fellow newspaper journalism students. “The then editor of the Irish Sun, Paul Clarkson, was overseeing the workshop and he was on hand to give advice,” says de Vaal.
“We formed teams and created a newspaper, covering sections from news and sport to showbiz and features. We even had conferences where we had to pitch newsworthy ideas. This was such an insight into the inner workings of a newspaper.”
After completing his A Level exams, News UK were in touch once again. This time, de Vaal was invited to apply for an apprenticeship programme with The Sun.
“Somebody told me very early on that journalism should be treated as a trade rather than an academic subject because you learn on the job. That has really stuck with me.”
Danny de Vaal, The Irish Sun
The Scheme meant completing an NCTJ course before working in-house at the newspaper. Following the programme, de Vaal stayed on as a news reporter at The Sun, before moving back to Ireland to work for the Irish Sun.
“Getting a degree was not part of my career path in becoming a reporter. In fact, somebody told me very early on that journalism should be treated as a trade rather than an academic subject because you learn on the job. That has really stuck with me.”
‘Pain Is So Difficult To Convey, But I Did My Best’
Georgia Lambert (L) and Yasmin Choudhury (R)
At 27 years old, Georgia Lambert is just launching her career as a journalist on the Property Desk at The Times and Sunday Times. However, her story is much more complicated than most. Having been diagnosed with two rare neurological conditions, Chiari malformation and syringomyelia at the age of 17, she was forced to drop out of university after just one year.
“My brain was permeating out of the skull, causing a small hole at the base,” Lambert tells us. “The small hole then enabled my cerebral fluid to leak into the spinal cord – damaging the main systems in my body. At just 17-years-old, I lost my balance and ability to think and speak properly — and developed chronic pain, back issues, and I would choke constantly.”
Despite having to give up her dream of joining the army, Lambert chose to go to university. She knew, she says, the decision wasn’t right for her. She returned home disheartened but decided to document her journey in a blog.
“Pain is so difficult to convey, but I did my best,” she smiles. “Somehow, the blog got picked up by a print magazine within my community and it hired me as a community journalist. I worked there for two years.”
Lambert’s reporter role gave her valuable experience in interviewing many people. At the same time, she continued her treatment, with the magazine remaining flexible to her needs.
“I knew then that journalism was for me. So, I set up a LinkedIn page and other profiles. I even applied for a marketing assistant role in Ghana and spent six months working there at a garment factory writing business copy.
On her return, she signed up for an NCTJ course through Press Association. As the cost of the course was too expensive, Lambert applied to the Journalism Diversity Fund for help. “I went through a rigorous interview process, including talking to a panel of editors from various newspapers. It was there that I met Mark Hudson, the Head of Early Talent from News UK.”
What If My Degree Isn't In Journalism?
Yasmin Choudhury did complete her degree – but it wasn’t in journalism. After leaving uni, she found herself looking for graduate schemes, but most were postponed thanks to the pandemic lockdown. Applying for junior-level jobs didn’t work either, as they still required some experience.
“I decided to sign up for Universal Credit – which then led me to the government’s Kickstart Scheme,” explains Choudhury. “There, I found internships with a few different media companies, including News UK. I applied for an internship at The Sun’s showbiz desk and was accepted.”
“First I focused on engagement, making polls and seeing how readers interacted with our online content. This evolved into writing for the TV and showbiz sections. I was writing several stories a day, which I think was great for gaining experience.”
Towards the end of Choudhury’s six month internship, she was encouraged to apply for the newly launched News UK Apprenticeship Scheme. She chose the Times and Sunday Times and now works on the Money desk.
“For most people, becoming a journalist is a daunting and quite intimidating prospect, especially if you don’t come from a family who have a media background – which many people don’t,” says Choudhury. “The Kickstart Scheme gave me entry into the journalism world and enough training to know this is the career I want to pursue.”
“Once my NCTJ course was over, I was hired by Reach Plc, and worked remotely for their video team across regional titles, such as Liverpool Echo and Bristol Life and then The Mirror.”
Then, News UK got in touch again to invite Lambert to apply for their Apprenticeship Scheme. She chose to go with The Times and Sunday Times, as she had already achieved her NCTJ. The apprenticeship led to the role she holds today.
Can Anyone Become A Journalist?
In short, there’s no right or wrong way to enter the journalism industry – but whichever route you choose, you’ll need to show passion and determination. If you know that journalism is for you, seek out opportunities early, reach out to fellow journalists for advice, and start building your portfolio.
“If you’re struggling to find work experience, even just self-publishing an article is a really good idea,” suggests Hudson. “Mix up the formats; do a review, but also do a news story and a much longer feature. Do a vox pop and an interview, just to show that you have a variety of different written skills.” He also recommends volunteering with local charities to help bolster your applications.
So, yes. Anyone can become a journalist – and it’s vital that the industry reflects society as a whole.
Additional reporting by Fern McErlane
This content was produced by Journo Resources’ editorial team, with the support of News UK to make it possible. News UK are one of the UK’s leading publishers, with a portfolio spanning The Times and The Sun, alongside talkRADIO, talkTV and Times Radio.
They offer a range of industry-leading opportunities for entry-level journalists from all backgrounds, including apprenticeships, graduate schemes and freelance opportunities.
Karen is a freelance editor and writer, specialising in travel, lifestyle and entertainment. She has been writing for national publications for nearly 20 years, and freelancing for over 10 years. She joined the Journo Resources team in mid-2021 as Senior Journalist.
As our senior writer, Karen focuses on practical, advice-led pieces on various sectors across the industry – feel free to get in touch with her if you have suggestions on what we should cover!