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The journalism pipeline is dying… apprenticeships are the cure

Are we ready to admit it?, asks Mark Hudson. The journalism pipeline is broken. To fix it, News UK is investing heavily in its apprenticeship scheme, which has brought fresh and diverse new talent into the business.

By Mark Hudson

The journalism pipeline is dying… apprenticeships  are the cure
Top (L-R): Julia Atherley, senior reporter; Harry Goodwin, junior news reporter; Uma Gurav, trainee broadcast assistant apprentice. Bottom (L-R): Michelle Harris, features apprentice; Georgia Lambert, junior health reporter.

Universities are churning out tens of thousands of media students every year, saddled with lifelong debt, many incapable of pitching a story and unprepared for the demands of the modern newsroom. And it’s not the students’ fault. They did everything that was asked of them.

Many senior newsroom staff never went to university. And yet 96% of journalists hired over a three-year period to 2022 were graduates (largely with journalism and media degrees).

The demise of local journalism – which historically trained young journalists and created a path to national media for second jobbers – and a raft of other reasons has limited the breadth of talent that arrives in our newsrooms. Those without degrees or without experience have found it hard to get onto the first rung of the ladder, or have simply been put off journalism as a career.

According to the NCTJ’s Diversity in Journalism survey 2023, 37% of journalists are female, 12% are from ethnic minority backgrounds and just 14% come from the lower socio-economic classes. We also see levels of disabled and LGBTQ+ newsroom staff below where those communities are nationally, particularly those on permanent contracts.

But I’ve done five paragraphs of moaning now, so let’s skip to a big part of the solution: apprenticeships.

News UK is home to some of the best-known news and media brands in the UK. From The Times and The Sunday Times to The Sun, talkSPORT and TalkTV, we reach around 40 million people every month in the UK. And we know that to stay relevant to every part of the UK, we need talent in our newsrooms representing every part of the UK. A significant pillar in our diversity strategy has been developing apprenticeships as a core route into our workforce. It creates opportunity, brings new voices to our conversations, drives innovation… In other words, it’s good for business.

At News UK, we have invested significantly in creating 63 apprenticeships over the last two years with a further 25 starting this year.

More than two thirds of our new recruits are female, more than half come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and we have created apprenticeships specifically for disabled journalists. Every single one brings a unique diversity of thought and lived experience that has given our teams hope that the future of News UK is bright.

And our apprentices feel the same.

Apprentice feedback

Uma Gurav, trainee broadcast assistant apprentice at talkSPORT, shares her experience of a News UK apprenticeship: “On the very first day of this apprenticeship, I was given the opportunity to get involved with brainstorming talkSPORT’s International Women’s Day content: I think that gives you an idea of just how much I have been able to get involved with since I started here! Since then, I have worked on a World Cup final, had my work published on the talkSPORT website, interviewed an ex-Lioness, gone on the radio discussing all things from mental health in sports to diversity in women’s football, been shortlisted for a sports journalism award and so much more. It has been an absolute dream come true and I cannot wait to see where it takes me next.

“What I am most grateful for from my employers at News UK is the trust they have put in me to try new things, to make mistakes and to prove to them and to myself just what I am capable of. It has been the perfect environment to start what I hope will be a long and successful career in the world of journalism.”

Michelle Harris, features apprentice, The Sun, comments: “The opportunity to join the Sun’s apprenticeship scheme is a dream come true. Getting my foot in the door of the industry has at times proved to be difficult for disabled reporters like myself.

“They say talent just needs an opportunity and for someone to believe in them in order to be successful. My mentor makes me feel supported and celebrated for my achievements every step of the way.”

Harry Goodwin, junior news reporter, The Sun, says: “The Sun’s apprenticeship scheme has given me my start on Fleet Street, and all the training a budding hack could hope for. As a rookie reporter on Britain’s leading tabloid, you get interesting, fun and tricky work much earlier than you would at a broadsheet.

“The job is a demanding one; the support and counsel of my editors and the apprenticeship team has been invaluable. I am very proud of how far I have come since starting as a fairly clueless apprentice, and would strongly recommend the scheme to any ambitious and tough-minded young journalist.”

The result of this investment in apprenticeships has contributed to a significant shift in the makeup of our teams. Female representation has risen from 38% to 43% and ethnic minority representation has risen from 9% in 2021 to 12% in 2023. We still have a way to go to reach our target of 50/50 on gender and 20% EM representation, but progress is being made.

How we recruit

We have achieved this by changing the way we recruit – using a strengths-based approach. We review applications blindly, removing names and CVs, and instead score applicants on three questions linked to the strengths associated with each role. So, for example, a journalist may need to be creative, passionate about the industry and hardworking, so the questions allow people to display their abilities in those areas.

We then do a round of strengths-based telephone interviews before a final assessment centre containing interviews, a group exercise and an individual task. The candidate with the best scores throughout the day is offered the apprenticeship. By assessing this way, 66% of our apprentices hired have been female and half are from ethnic minority backgrounds, yet each one knows they aren’t a “diversity hire”. They were the best candidate and deserve the opportunity.

News UK has also created and worked with a number of diversity recruitment partnerships which we advertise all roles through, as well as creating outreach and work experience opportunities for youths from those communities. Groups include We Are Black Journos, the Black Collective of Media in Sport, the Aziz Foundation, Journo Resources, the Raheem Sterling Foundation, Talent Tap, the Media Trust, the Disability Journalism Forum and Scope as well as advertising through traditional channels such as LinkedIn and Indeed.

This work has led to a 40% increase in applicants from diverse backgrounds. We are now looking at how we invest in more partnerships to help develop the journalists from diverse backgrounds.

While this process may seem a bit “extra” (as our young recruits might say), it works. It works for editorial roles and corporate ones. Because the recruits we bring through are some of the best in the industry.

I could rattle off some of our success stories. Julia Atherley who has started news editing for The Sun on Sunday and is one of their senior reporters. Our growing group of female sports reporters includes Isabelle Barker, Sandra Brobbey and Millie Hawkins at The Sun, Mya Graham, Uma Gurav and Natasha Everitt at talkSPORT.

Georgia Lambert, junior health reporter at The Times, has been a key member of the Health Commission team which will present its findings to Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in February. Or I could talk about Sam Tait, Louise Smallbone, Sameer Merali and Sharin Hussain who created networks for Gen Z and Muslim staff during their apprenticeship and continue to chair those. We have developed new sales talent in our offices across London, Glasgow and Dublin through our Sales Academy initiative. Other teams have benefited too from Marketing, Data, our print sites and HR.

How we budget

So how does an apprenticeship work? It’s an opportunity for someone to earn while they learn. An apprentice needs to spend 20% of their time studying towards a qualification related to their job role.

The cost of paying for these courses is free, kind of. Every company with a salary bill over £3m pays a tax of 0.5% on their total wage bill that goes into a pot called the Government Levy. Colleges can access this pot to pay for courses. To find out more about getting your account set up, look up the ‘Digital Apprenticeship Service’.

The salary and headcount for apprentices still needs to come from the business. We fund those from a central pot and their respective team get the extra headcount and salary for the duration of their two-year contract. At the end of their contract, it is the team’s responsibility to fund their permanent contract either through reducing casual spend, replacing a leaver or making a business case that the apprentice is supporting with a revenue-driving area.

The system has worked as we’ve retained over 80% of our apprentices versus the national retention rate of 62%. Many of the apprentices who left were poached by other big media companies. And it’s cheaper in the long-term to develop talent in-house than hire externally.

But it’s not as simple as hiring and hoping they stay. At News UK, we have invested a huge amount of time, resource and energy over the last two years in creating an inclusive and equitable working environment. We have grown 13 employee networks, invested in training for managers and staff and this year are embarking on one of the most expansive disability inclusion programmes Fleet Street has ever seen. We want to create an environment where people can succeed at News UK no matter their background.

There is lots more to do but the apprenticeships programme is something all staff are incredibly excited about. As we near our targets, we can start to experiment with apprenticeships to help bring us new business opportunities.

Several months ago, The Sun partnered with the creators of the MOBO Awards to create two apprenticeships focused on music and culture of Black origin, an area their famous showbiz section is keen to authentically expand into.

The Times has created two new apprenticeships specifically for school leavers to complement their successful graduate scheme.

We will also continue to invest in six-month internships to give diverse talent that vital paid work experience they need to boost their confidence and employability. It was a scheme we created under the government’s Kickstart programme, and have continued to fund with more than 60% of our interns finding full-time work with us upon completion.

There is so much more to be done. But we’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far. It’s work that is happening all across News UK, benefiting our new talent, our newsrooms, our culture, our audiences and our business.

The future at News UK is looking bright.

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.