Media traineeships, cadetships as they’re sometimes called, aren’t what they used to be. Traditionally a way for young bright things to get started in journalism, they’ve largely morphed into a way for established journalists to, after a gruelling process of elimination, enter the nation’s most prestigious newsrooms. In 2001, seven of eight trainees at The Age celebrated their 21st birthdays in their first year with Fairfax. Now, most trainees are 25 or 26, and have used the intervening years to get well and truly started in the industry.

“Over time, we’ve seen an inflation of experience among trainees,” said The Age‘s training editor Colin McKinnon. “I think that does reflect the fact that there are fewer opportunities for young journalists.”

Metropolitan newsrooms such as those at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald remain the dream for many young journalists. Hundreds of established journalists apply, despite cadetship pay hovering around $60,000 per annum in previous years.

At Fairfax’s major papers, traineeships haven’t always been available. They were cancelled in 2008, reinstated the following year, and were removed again last year, as 20% of newsroom staff were made redundant. “It wasn’t a great environment frankly to be bringing in new people,” Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden told Crikey.

There weren’t a whole lot of new openings for journalists in 2013. In Victoria, News Corp halted the equivalent of its traineeship program last year as it moved to a new national system, while the ABC hired internally and from previous applicants rather than going through an open cadetship process, in a bid to get more diverse candidates.

So when Fairfax announced in December that up to 10 positions at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald would be made available for trainees, there was a flood of talent. The applicants were, according to one Fairfax journalist, generally older, well-credentialed, and plentiful. “Certainly better credentialed than I was when I did my traineeship,” the not-so-old insider said.

Crikey spoke to a variety of sources to glean what we could of the application process. It was divided into three stages, with an extra round for those applying to the SMH. The first hurdle was the initial application and included a YouTube video, where would-be hacks had to face the camera and tell the committee why they should get the gig. “The video had two purposes,” Holden said. “One was to weed out those who couldn’t be bothered with it. And two, we wanted to see that [applicants] had what we assume is now pretty basic technical ability.” There were around 250 applicants at this stage.

Several dozen candidates progressed to round two: applicants sat a written test mixing news questions with some easy maths work. And then what’s been dubbed the “speed dating” round began — by all accounts a nerve-racking experience. Each applicant had five to 10 minutes to impress a senior Fairfax journalist or editor, who asked the usual questions about why they wanted the gig. Around 30 interviews could be conducted in the same half-hour slot, and there were several such sessions a day in Sydney and Melbourne.

Round three: those who remained earned a callback to the newsroom. They were split into two groups, with half completing a writing exercise while the others faced a 45-minute panel interview with some of Fairfax’s most senior editors. For the writing exercise, applicants were given a page-and-a-half of facts and told to hand in a short story using those facts. They had between 10 to 15 minutes to finish. There was also a personal reflection piece to complete. In Sydney, this round also included bringing in some story ideas across a range of topics.

For the lucky few who survived at The Age, that was it; Sydney Morning Herald hopefuls had one more hoop — asked to secure an interview with a significant figure who’d been in the news in the past week, to write a piece that, they were told, would not be published.

“There’s no point sitting on your hands waiting to be picked. No one can think like that any more.”

In the end, the SMH took in eight cadets — three of them filling maternity leave positions in the paper (Crikey asked Holden if this meant they’d be let go after a year — he said no trainee was assured of employment after a year, though the intention was to keep them). Another five went to The Age. The business media division (The Australian Financial Review and Business Day) is yet to finalise its offers, but is expected to take between five and seven additional trainees.

All of this year’s trainees are already journalists with varying levels of experience, although several “career change” applicants with experience in other industries also made it through to the final stages, Holden says.

A month of training awaits before they write their first piece; Fairfax can’t assume they all know everything they need to know, Holden says. Anyway, McKinnon adds, more experience can mean some trainees have developed bad habits and need to go back to basics. The training changes every year, but is expected to focus on Fairfax style, shorthand and media law.

Holden was sceptical about Crikey‘s central thesis: that gaining an entry-level position in a major newsroom these days is harder than ever. “I have a suspicion that the big papers have only taken those with experience for quite a few years,” he said. It’s rare to get work straight from uni on a major masthead, and so Holden said his advice to young graduates hasn’t changed: “If you can’t get work on a major masthead straight off … you need to get experience. That means suburban titles, that can mean going bush … There’s no point sitting on your hands waiting to be picked. No one can think like that any more.”

Holden also says young journalists should be looking for employment at digital media outlets, including the myriad startups.

Over at News Corp, successful applicants to the company’s graduate program (its equivalent of Fairfax’s traineeships) had an average age of 23 this year. It’s the first year News Corp has moved to a national graduate program, designed to allow each masthead to be flexible in how it manages its graduates while still ensuring all meet a common standard, which includes three formal development programs a year, work rotations through the other mastheads, and a formal mentoring system. The company took 14 graduates this year, the majority of whom had completed related degrees.

As for the ABC, last year the national broadcaster entirely revamped the process for its cadetship program (its equivalent) in order to recruit more diverse candidates. But Steven Alward, the ABC’s editor of policy, training and staff development, told Crikey his network intends to go back to the usual process for the 2015 intake. In previous years, it’s involved a written application, a notoriously fiendish news quiz, interviews and voice and screen testing. This year’s cadets range in age from 21 to 23; Alward says most are in their early 20s, and this hadn’t significantly changed in recent years.

Like all the major publishers, the ABC likes to see cadets who’ve done some journalism before. “This can include internships and paid or unpaid work,” Alward said. All the graduates in 2014 had some experience in the media.

Asked what the ABC likes to see in its cadets, Alward reeled off a passion for telling stories, an engagement with the world, broad interests, a commitment to truth, accuracy and fairness, and the ability to write and present well. “Resilience is important, and so are a little humility and a sense of humour,” he said. They’ll need to stand out, because competition is stiff: the handful of positions attract “hundreds” of applications every year.

Correction: A previous version of this article said cadets have been paid $51,000 in the past. The correct figure is closer to $60,000, according to the award – Crikey’s calculations were off. We’ve also added some details about the process we were alerted to after our deadline.

Peter Fray

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