You don't need to go to journalism college to be a journalist


PRESENT TENSE: Hot Pressis putting its name to a diploma in music journalism. Its sessions will include “music and society”, “music and popular culture” and “popular culture and music in Ireland since independence”.

Leaping Lester Bangs!

I suppose you’ve got to find a way to fill one night a week for 12 weeks at a cost of €895. Nevertheless, here’s lesson one from the Present Tense correspondence course in music journalism (free with this newspaper): if you have a burning ambition to be a music journalist, then you will already have done your course in “music and society”.

And you would have paid that cash already in downloads and CDs and gigs and magazines and maybe even the odd copy of Hot Press. It was called your youth. You earned a master’s in it.

Actually, Hot Press’s course already has a rival: a free course in music journalism, over just four weeks, announced this week by the Sunday Tribune’s Una Mullally during a Phantom radio chat with Hot Press’s Stuart Clark.

The rival course is called Dancing About Architecture. The name says it all: immediately self-deprecating and knowing. Because, of all areas of writing (with the notable exception of the linguistic torture chamber that is the world of visual arts), music journalism has already been summed up quite perfectly by Miles Davis/Elvis Costello/Frank Zappa/Whoever, when they quipped: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

The Irish Timeswriter and blogger Jim Carroll – also involved in the free course – explained it on his blog: “Dancing About Architecture is about showing that you don’t have to pay €900 and get a diploma to be a music hack. All you have to do is start writing. Heck, you don’t even have to go to a course like Dancing About Architecture but, if you have questions to ask and you’re curious about the trade, it may be a good place to start. And, like we said, it’s free.”

The 50 places were booked up almost immediately.

Which brings us to lesson two: you don’t need to go to journalism college to be a journalist. You don’t need a three-year degree or a 12-week course. Certainly not to be a music or features journalist.

The truth is that over a decade or more during which journalism courses have spread like an Asian flu, from the perspective of editors one thing is clear: you could scoop any six journalists at random off the street, ask them to pitch and write and do it to length and on time, and you would still not be able to tell which ones had a bit of paper saying they’re a journalist.

It is not to suggest that courses are pointless. They are no doubt helpful for learning elements of libel law, shorthand and subediting. They may well be good for the more technical aspects of radio and television. They are definitely good for getting work placements – and that can be a crucial opportunity for those who get it. But if that is the chief benefit some graduates get from their courses, their colleges are little but expensive recruitment companies.

When it comes to writing – or even knowing how to pitch an idea – many college courses appear to have delivered little that a bit of life experience, talent and self-motivation won’t already give a person.

And that is lesson three: those are the key qualities for a freelance life, when there are many graduates, but jobs are few and far between.

If your ambition is to be a music writer, you’re probably either able to do it already or you’re not. You can either put the words together in the right order, with some flair and insight, and the chutzpah needed to explain a medium that defeats language, or you can’t.

Those who are decent and reliable at it would always have been, and were probably identified by their tutors within a week of their courses beginning.

In my experience, some of the best journalists are those who have avoided that path, whose writing, eye, curiosity and personality were developed through experience, whose tutors were the writers they read.

Which brings us to the fourth and final lesson: always write to the word length, or else the editor may have to cut your