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22 August 2018updated 28 Jan 2019 5:15pm

A combined journalism and PR degree just shows how bad things are for journalists

PR is already winning.

By Suchandrika Chakrabarti

From next month, the University of Salford will offer a degree that combines journalism and public relations – a move that will only hurt the news industry.

It’s going to be incredibly tough for a graduate with that degree to get a job in news. Make no mistake, someone with this degree will be a PR, and that’s it. Journalists aim to find out the truth; PRs aim to convey their client’s version of the truth. The two agendas clearly don’t go together, and journalists are incredibly wary of PRs. No newsroom door will be held open for these graduates. So who is this course for?

Explaining the decision, Paul Broster, director of journalism, politics and contemporary history at the University of Salford, declares: “The nature of journalism has changed.” He goes on to add: “Many of our journalism graduates now go on to work in public relations.”

While it’s true that the infiltration of the internet into every area of our lives has pretty much demolished the traditional news business model – mostly for newspapers, but broadcasters are feeling it too – it hasn’t fundamentally changed “the nature of journalism.”

Grasping what journalism is and isn’t for is more important than ever, in an era where a 2am tweet from the US President can both set the news agenda, and also bend out of shape anything we previously held to be true.

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He’s the guy who popularised the term ‘fake news’, the albatross around the necks of journalists that actually points to problems with how social platforms like Facebook and Twitter present news alongside other kinds of content. The public urgently needs education on understanding where digital content comes from, and what it means to share content.

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Unfortunately, in the relationship between news and digital platforms, the latter holds all the power. Journalists and editors, for the first time, aren’t in control of how their output will be consumed. This is a huge problem for news, and for the public’s trust in news.

Onto Broster’s second justification – the journalism graduates going into PR. This 2016 survey shows that there were 83,000 PRs versus 64,000 journalists in the UK then. The numbers have most likely gone even further towards PR since then. Why?

Again, it’s that business model problem. No one really knows how to make money from the media in a digital age, but PRs can always rely on their clients’ money. Every month, countless journalists look at their payslips, at career paths shrouded in mystery, and at their publications’ shrinking revenues. Then they make the decision move over to PR.

Imagine giving up the thrills of journalism, as outlined in the trailer for the BBC’s new series, Press? Sadly, it doesn’t look as though the show is going to cover some of the staples of 21st century journalism careers: losing perhaps 30 percent, maybe even 50 per cent of your colleagues in one fell swoop of redundancy; maintaining your livelihood when it’s so easy for someone to copy and sell on your work; getting pipped to that dream promotion by a Tory politician, or to that plum assignment by another Tory politician, and his dad.

There are journalism graduates who never even make it into a newsroom. Maybe they’ve taken a look at entry-level reporter salaries, balanced them against their student loans, rent and need to eat. The sums don’t add up without significant financial support from another source – and not everyone has rich parents based within London’s six zones.

What happens to the reporters and editors left behind in these shrinking newsrooms? Unlike analogue media, websites need to have a flow of news 24/7 to stay commercially viable. This means that everyone has more work, and less time to do it in.

The result? Fewer press releases will get challenged and fewer calls will be placed to check facts, because the story needs to be up in 20 minutes to beat the competition. More social sells will be fudged to make the story seem more exciting and clickable.

PR is already winning. What we really need is more well-trained journalists, and we need to find ways to keep them in the industry. If only someone could invent a degree to figure that out.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti is a freelance journalist and media trainer.