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First rung on the ladder

A successful career in journalism needs a start point, and that is why Richard Tait tells his students to focus on securing that all-important first job. Assuming they have the right skills and attitude, opportunities will flow from there.

By Ray Snoddy

First rung on the ladder
Richard Tait: “I was unsure whether I wanted to be a journalist or an academic.”

By any standards, Richard Tait has had a distinguished career in journalism, and latterly, the teaching and training of journalists, a career spanning over more than 50 years.

He has edited the BBC’s Money Programme, Newsnight, Channel 4 News and was editor-in-chief of ITN and Governor and Trustee of the BBC before becoming Director of the Institute of Journalism at Cardiff University. He is still a journalism professor at Cardiff.

But if you were to distil all his experience and knowledge into a single sentence to guide young people seeking to be journalists in either print or broadcasting, it would read something like this.

You simply have to get that first job, that first opportunity; otherwise, it simply won’t happen.

The irony is that for Richard Tait, it very nearly didn’t happen.

Everything was going well for Tait after an Oxford history degree, when he was offered a job on a markets desk at the Financial Times by Sir Gordon Newton, the legendary FT editor.

The FT had a dispensation to bring in the occasional young specialist who did not have the normal journalistic training.

The FT’s NUJ chapel decided that Tait was an historian and had no specialist knowledge of markets or subjects such as accountancy and said they would black his copy.

The job offer was withdrawn, although because of an FT link with Michael Heseltine’s Haymarket, he became an editorial assistant on Personnel, the industrial relations and personnel management magazine.

Later after a stint on McGraw Hill’s International Management magazine Tait had three years in business journalism under his belt and could have then gone for a serious job in business journalism – perhaps even at the FT.

The lure of academia

And then, instead, he decided to spend four years on a history doctorate.

“I took a huge risk but I was unsure whether I wanted to be a journalist or an academic. I knew I was only going to get one chance to do a doctorate,” Tait recalls.

So, Tait turned his back on the relentless march of news to head towards the quietness of libraries to research the French wars of religion, and associated popular uprisings all over south-west France, between 1580 and 1610.

That really could have been the end of the Tait journalistic career but after the doctorate, he managed to get a job as a junior researcher – “the lowest form of animal life” – on the Money Programme.

Then it was on to Nationwide, the popular daily news and current affairs TV programme, which really did mix serious coverage on steel strikes with items on skate-boarding ducks.

As we now know, it all turned out rather well for Richard Tait, but what about the current cadre of would-be journalists facing much more challenging times?

In particular, there is the apparent paradox that just as jobs are being lost and incomes squeezed by unprecedented financial pressure on the established media industry, there is no shortage of applicants for the schools of journalism.

Are young people being lured, at considerable cost, with the false implication that if they do this or that university course, they will get jobs in journalism just like the old days?

Tait firmly disagrees.

You have to distinguish, he argues, between different types of courses. One group of courses teach practical journalism skills of the sort on offer at Cardiff, City of London, Sheffield or Leicester and are accredited to the training councils such as the National Council for the Training of Journalists and the Broadcast Journalism Training Council.

Many of the other courses available cover media studies, communication and cultural issues. These, Tait believes, are social science courses and may, or may not, lead to a career in journalism.

On vocational courses such as at Cardiff, where the university maintains close link with the media industry, Tait says that most of their students do manage to get that crucial first job.

“It may not be exactly the job that they want to spend the rest of their lives doing, but in the main, they are journalistic jobs,” says Tait. He notes that at the beginning of his career on Personnel under the late Rex Winsbury, he was only writing 200 word stories about health and safety.

“But by God I learned to write it well and you had to get the story right and it had to fit the page,” says the former editor-in-chief of ITN.

Improving diversity

One of the important trends in training, Tait believes, results from a drive towards greater diversity in journalism, including top management and senior jobs.

Because of the need to reach out to minority groups, Tait notes media employers are setting up interesting training schemes taking people after a first degree or even after A levels – rather like it used to be when more people from less privileged backgrounds had greater access to jobs in journalism.

“They are saying – we will take you on, we will train you if you have got talent and pay a modest salary and we will teach you what you need to know to make an impact in the newsroom,” says Tait.

However, he insists there is still a big role for journalism students who come from Oxbridge and the other Russell Group top universities studying subjects such as science or economics.

“The profession needs them. We need smart well-educated people as journalists. Clearly there is a talent pool at these top universities therefore the traditional way of doing it still works,” Tait insists.

If aspiring journalists make it to that first job, then, because newsrooms are now very flat in terms of structure, responsibility can come very rapidly.

“I know people complain about that and the NUJ will tell you this is terrible, but it is the way it is and the upside is that good people get the chance to show they are good very quickly,” says the Cardiff professor.

Tait is very impressed by the quality and determination of the young people coming forward despite the debt they may have had to take on.

But they will have to be realistic that unless they are very successful, the pay may be lower than used to be the case in the past and many will have to freelance. The only guarantee is the likelihood of having an interesting life.

No gold watch for them

For most, working in the same media organisation until they are 60 and getting a gold watch is a thing of the past.

“They are going to have multiple employers, they are going to move between genres, they are going to have to be multi-platform. They need to know about freelance, about pensions, about independent production and running your own business, including podcasts,” Tait argues.

He believes young people can also carve out a living outside traditional newsrooms by developing specialisms and working for specialist websites.

In journalist training, apart from practical skills, there is now an increasing emphasis on “future-proofing” because the world is changing so fast and expectations are changing so fast – the sudden arrival of artificial intelligence is just the latest example.

“You have to make sure they are exactly what industry employers want right now, but you also need to give them the skills and an understanding of the overall intellectual framework of journalism to go on to be editors,” Tait says.

Students are obviously taught about law and compliance, broadcasting regulations and the editor’s code.

Rights and wrongs

“We also talk about ethics, as well as about doing the right thing and how you balance freedom of information against privacy and we look at these cases in some depth,” says Tait who runs a series of seminars at Cardiff devoted to particular topics and dilemmas.

The sort of things that Tait has looked at recently include: whether then Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis was right to conclude on air that Boris Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings had clearly broken lockdown rules, or Piers Morgan walking out of GMTV over controversial remarks about Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex.

“A lot of them are really excited by the subject and working with such fascinating dilemmas and problems,” says Tait who will doubtless soon be discussing the rights and wrongs of the row over top BBC news presenter Huw Edwards and the Sun exposé.

What does the former governor and later trustee of the BBC, who used to be in charge of the Corporation’s complaints procedures make of the row that dominated headlines in July?

On Edwards, Tait says, “the complaints process clearly made a mistake. It should not have allowed a complaint that was so serious to remain open but not being pursued.”

He adds: “I cannot imagine that someone making an allegation of such seriousness about one of your main presenters is not an issue that senior managers need to know about.”

The former governor who worked on editorial standards with BBC director-general Tim Davie, when he was director of radio, believes that Davie handled a difficult situation well – once he got to know about it.

“Davie managed the conflicting issues very skilfully and effectively – the public interest, the reputation of the BBC, duty of care to colleagues and other people caught up in this. He is a good manager and he won’t get any credit for it,” says Tait.

The BBC news division was determined to do something no newspaper would ever do, investigate itself – “a good tradition in British television”.

But was it really worth the lead day after day when there were other very important stories such as NATO’s close alignment with Ukraine in its war against Russia or former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s refusal to obey a court order and hand over his mobile phone to the Covid inquiry?

He believes that judgements should only be made on all the issues once all the facts are known.

Sounds like a good project for the journalism students of Cardiff University.

But on the future of journalism and the prospects for journalism students there is an acid test.

What would he say if his only daughter Rachael announced she wanted to become a journalist?

“I would say if that’s what you want to do, darling, do it. If you have the ability, you should back yourself and make a success of it,” replies Professor of Journalism Richard Tait.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.