Barnie Choudhury, David Baines

We are the champions: Mentors ease newcomers into the net

This chapter examines the initial stages of a mentoring project established between third-year journalism undergraduates and early-career media workers. Using concepts of social capital (Coleman 1988, Putnam 2000) and of the strength of weak ties (Lin 1988, Granovetter 2005) it explores the possibility of mentors 'championing' mentees to extend workforce diversity by developing in groups hitherto excluded from the field social capital necessary to gain access. The chapter also interrogates notions of obligation and risk that are inherent in 'mentoring as championing' and considers how these factors may be taken into account in developing best practice.

Keywords: journalism undergraduates, media workers, mentoring, obligation, risk


In 2011, Press Gazette, British journalism’s trade paper, invited student journalists to take a discounted subscription with the slogan: ‘Nearly as good as having an uncle who works at The Times.’ The text continues: ‘Unless your name’s Coren[1] you’re going to need some help getting into the newspaper industry. And by subscribing to Press Gazette you will ensure you are getting insider insight, tips and advice from the best in the business.’

The advertisement thus asserts the value of strong personal connections in accessing news industry employment. It suggests that one of the benefits of such networks is access to ‘insider’ knowledge, and offers an alternative source of such knowledge for those lack insider connections: a subscription to Press Gazette. But it is also an acknowledgment that access to ‘insider’ knowledge is not as good as ‘having an uncle who works at The Times’.

Such connections or networks constitute a form of social capital (Coleman 1988; Putnam 2000; Granovetter 2005). James Coleman holds (1988: 98) that, like physical capital, social capital provides a resource for individuals which makes possible the ‘achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible’: in this instance, a job in journalism. (Though to say categorically that this would not otherwise be possible would be to overstate our case: rather, it would be more difficult to achieve and, in some instances, impossible.) But unlike financial or human capital, social capital inheres ‘in the structure of relations between actors and among actors’ (ibid). Michael Aguilera (2002: 84) found social capital in such networks to be important in terms of both accessing labour markets and job quality once in them.

While Press Gazette’s ‘insights, tips and advice’ can help to build knowledge and inform behaviour, workplace experience and association with others in the workplace have been shown to be invaluable in gaining a news industry job (Reeders 2000: 206; Crebert 1995). But competition for such placements is intense as the number of students on journalism courses grows (Hanna and Sanders 2007: 404) and students find that in order to gain a paid job, they often have to work for free for long periods. So they need access to well-placed networks (social capital) which extend into the industry to gain work placements, and family resources (in terms of financial or physical capital) to support them through the unpaid placements which could lead to a (paid) job.

Research in 2002 by the Journalism Training Forum found that 96 per cent of journalists were white, only 3 per cent of new entrants came from families headed by someone in a semi or unskilled job. This suggests, unsurprisingly, that those groups who are most likely to possess critical forms of capital necessary for access are predominantly white and from the middle and upper class. Those least likely are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) and working class. No more recent data is available that is directly comparable, although Peter Wilby argued (2008) that ‘the social exclusivity of journalism seems certain to become still more common’. And training supporter Skillset found in 2010 that across the UK economy’s creative sector, which includes journalism, ‘diversity remains a concern … with just 5 per cent of the workforce coming from a Black and Minority Ethnic background (compared with 9 per cent across the UK economy)’ (Skillset 2010: 13).

However, Nan Lin’s research (1988) suggests that an ‘uncle on The Times’ as a personal champion might not be necessary after all: ‘weak ties’ (acquaintances), rather than strong links (family bonds and close friendships) were instrumental in achieving occupational mobility and Granovetter (2005: 34) found weak ties to be ‘much more likely than strong ones to play the role of transmitting unique and non-redundant information across otherwise largely disconnected segments of social networks’. This suggests that, especially in the context of employment, weak ties form potent forms of social capital. So a strategy to widen the diversity of the news industry workforce might lie in establishing and supporting ‘weak ties’ which connect poorly represented groups to insider networks.

We are the champions

We suggest that networks of just such weak ties can be features of mentoring systems which give a mentee access not only to a mentor’s knowledge and advice but opportunities to access a mentor’s networks and thus enhance the mentee’s social capital in the field. A large body of research into mentoring has found it to bring benefits such as increased job satisfaction, higher pay and more promotions (see for example Allen, Eby et al 2008; Underhill 2006). But research in this field has focused predominantly on mentoring projects and relationships established within an organisation or workplace (Haggard et al 2010: 291; Forbes 2009).

Such a context is no longer typical of the media field, where careers are increasingly characteristic of the ‘liquid lives’ portrayed by Zygmunt Bauman (2005): that is project-based, freelance, outsourced and located beyond those traditional institutional structures which do survive (Baines and Kennedy 2010: 97, Deuze 2007). Indeed, the precarious nature of media work is increasingly reflected in the lives of people in every economic sector (Beck 2000, Greenbaum 2004). So the development of successful models of mentoring which are not confined within a classic modern organisation and recognise the greater liquidity of working lives should offer the prospect of extending social capital, and developing more diverse human capital in a wider setting than the field of media work.

The project on which this chapter reports reflects and has grown out of that liquid media world which confronts journalism students today. It was established between current TV journalism students at the University of Lincoln and graduates taught by lecturer and former BBC correspondent Barnie Choudhury at Lincoln and Nottingham Trent universities and who were then working in the media. The project was informed by both Choudhury’s experience as a mentee in a BBC project established to advance the careers of ethnic minority and disabled staff and increase their presence in senior management grades, and by his experience as a mentor to 10 BAME journalism students. The immediate impetus for the current project was an ESRC-funded seminar series which brought together during 2010 and 2011 researchers, journalism educators, BAME communities and news industry practitioners and policy-makers to seek strategies to expand ethnic diversity in the news industry. The mentoring project was set up as a pilot to:

a) explore the feasibility of running a productive mentoring scheme which was not situated within a media organisation;

b) develop best practice;

c) enhance mentees’ social capital, and thereby access to media work, by asking mentors to act as ‘champions’ for them.

This latter element involved the mentors deliberately ‘championing’ mentees within their professional networks and pro-actively seeking opportunities for their mentees to gain experience and come into contact with people who were in a position to help them enter the journalism industry. This ‘championing’ role appears in a minority of descriptors of mentoring roles which emerge in the research. Haggard et al’s survey of the field (2010) found it in the following forms:

‘Someone in a position of power who … brings your accomplishments to the attention of other people’ (Fagenson 1989: 312).

‘An influential individual . who is committed to the enhancement and support of your career’ (Forret and de Janasz 2005: 484).

‘A mentor … is committed to providing upward mobility and support to your career.’ (Scandura and Williams 2001: 349, 2004: 455).

‘A mentor … brings your achievements to the attention of people who have power in the company.’ (Day and Allen 2004: 77).

Championing within this project is conceived of, crudely, as ‘pimping’ a mentee by opening doors and opportunities for them. It is the ‘talking up’ of a mentee and ‘selling’ their skills at appropriate opportunities – if mentors think the mentee is up to the task. After the mentor has found and opened those doors, it is up to the mentee to make the most of the opportunities. But whereas giving help, guidance and advice is relatively risk-free, championing entails risk. When mentors champion mentees they are staking their reputation on the ability of the mentee to live up to their billing.

If the mentee falls short of expectations generated among ‘people who have power in the company’ (Day and Allen 2004: 77), the mentor’s judgement is likely to be called into question, his or her reputation among peers and superiors diminished. Championing equally entails an obligation on the part of the mentee to justify the mentor’s confidence in them – and an equal assumption of risk that they might let their mentor down. Conversely, when a mentee’s performance does justify that confidence, both mentor’s and mentee’s reputations are enhanced among the mentor’s peers and ‘people of power’. Thus, the relationship between mentor and mentee has the potential to enhance the social capital of both parties. The establishment of a relationship of trust and obligation is a central characteristic of Coleman’s analysis of the nature of relationships in which social capital inheres (1988: 102) – but entering into a relationship of mutual obligation also entails the assumption of risk.


We have adopted a case study approach which allows us to identify outcomes and explore explanatory factors which might emerge from the mentor-mentee relationships (Bryman 2012: 70). The relationships between 10 mentors and 14 mentees are being tracked for five years, or until they decay, should that occur earlier, as mentees complete their studies, graduate, and embark upon their careers. Mentors and mentees are asked to keep reflexive diaries which provide rich qualitative data on their experience and the development of connections and evidence of championing and work experience. Mentors and mentees are also invited to periodic, semi-structured in-depth interviews to explore their experiences in greater depth.

The data will be subject to frame analysis (for example, Fisher 1997), to identify such outcomes as do emerge and determine explanatory factors in terms of the development of the mentoring relationship. The outcomes which we expect to discover consist of opportunities for mentees to take up work experience; development of ‘insider’ knowledge and behaviour norms and conventions; developmental benefits such as increasing confidence in their journalistic skills and abilities – and a growth in social capital.

Of the 10 mentors, some are in traditional BBC and Independent TV newsrooms, others in programme making or independent production. Choudhury asked past students working in the field if they would mentor his cohort of 14 current final year television journalism students for up to five years. Out of 20 approached, only 10 felt they could commit at that stage in their career. That meant four of the 10 mentors had two mentees attached to them. Eight of the 10 mentors were male, two female. In the light of Choudhury’s previous experience as mentor and mentee, mentors were matched with mentees who wished to work in a similar area: those who wanted to work in news were paired with mentors in newsrooms; those who wanted to make long-form films, with those in current affairs or magazine-style outlets. The researchers’ aims in setting up the pilot project were made clear to mentors and mentees, their informed agreement to participate gained and their anonymity in subsequent publications assured.

Terms of engagement

In 2008, the BBC launched its Mentoring and Development Programme (MDP) to address the under-representation of Black, ethnic minority and disabled staff at senior management level. Choudhury, who was one of the MDP mentees, is evaluating the project[2] At the same time as the launch of the MDP, Choudhury began informally mentoring 10 journalism graduates from Nottingham Trent and Birmingham City universities.

His experiences of and reflection on these endeavours informed the development of the ‘championing’ project in three key ways:

  1. no more than two students were paired with a single mentor;
  2. the key criterion adopted for matching mentors to mentees was a shared area of interest in the kind of work the mentee aspired to and in which the mentor was engaged.
  3. a memo of understanding[3] was drawn up by the tutor to make clear what each should expect of the other but with flexibility to allow mentor and mentee to vary the terms.

Student engagement and disengagement

The project was presented to students at the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year and they welcomed the idea, particularly the prospect that mentors might be able to help them gain work experience. But in three cases the initial enthusiasm did not persist when it came time to commit to the project. Several weeks after the launch, three of the 14 had not yet contacted their mentors. One who had initially been enthusiastic said later:

After three years of studying journalism I realised I didn’t want to be a journalist … I want to go into teaching and I thought that if the mentor is aimed at journalism, and would help me succeed in getting a job in a newsroom, then I didn’t want that. It would be a waste of the mentor’s time and mine.

Rather than simply not contacting the mentor it would have been better to discuss this issue with them: journalists’ networks are far-ranging and might still have provided a valuable resource. Furthermore, journalists’ skills and professional knowledge in the field of research and communication are transferable to other fields and, indeed, this student had decided to apply his three year journalism programme to a career in teaching.

In another case, the student said some colleagues had had disappointing encounters with mentors:

To be perfectly honest, I’ve heard from other colleagues that they’ve been in touch with their mentor but they never got a reply so I was in that mindset. … It didn’t make me stop but I just didn’t see the benefits in wanting to do it. Of course other people’s experiences are important but it does depend on how committed the mentor is in helping you.

The reactions underline the importance of pro-activity on the part of the mentee and of early management of expectations, but also highlight the necessity of the tutor managing initial contacts between mentor and mentee. Another student questioned its relevance before graduation:

As a student, I’m not sure what help they could give me in terms of studying. Obviously in terms of television, they can help but I think it’d be more beneficial when you’re not a student but beginning a job. I don’t think it’s a waste of time but so much is going on, it’s difficult to place that as a priority.

There appears to be a disassociation between studying in a vocational discipline such as journalism and the progression to a career. Many educators will have come across students who see the completion of assignments and the passing of modules as ends in themselves, and other activities as ‘extra work’ rather than opportunities to develop skills and knowledge and build resources which will support that transition to a career.

But these disengagements might also be rooted in an awareness of the obligation they undertake in embarking on the relationship and the risk that involves. This indicates that mentee engagement cannot be taken for granted and the reasons for a lack of engagement need further interrogation. However, 11 of the 14 mentees did engage and were prepared to make the commitment. Typical of the responses was the following:

I see it as another person to help me: basically. It’s great to have someone who’s made a success of their career and give their experience and advice to me and be an example of what I could be as well. For example, I wouldn’t have known law was so important but my mentor said if I didn’t know the law then I shouldn’t apply for a job because they’ll put you on the spot in interviews and say: ‘You need to know the law.’

Mentees were prepared to take ownership of the relationship – and explicitly accepted the obligation:

I don’t want to waste their time with things that aren’t important just because I want to keep in touch with them. So when I email them the next time I’ll say: “I’ve done this and this and this, it’s going well, maybe we should meet so you can see what I’ve done and I’d value your opinion.’ There has to be a reason for contacting your mentor. I’m sure they’re busy and I don’t want to waste their time.

Although the memorandum of understanding between mentors and mentees explained what we meant by ‘championing’3, mentees reflected further on the concept and in some cases reworked it. When asked later how they understood the term, this was a typical response:

In the beginning I thought it was about selling me on to others. But I guess it’s about my mentor being my PR manager. But in the end it’s about helping to realise your potential – and it’s not just about the good parts but helping you realise your weaknesses as well. ‘Championing’ to me is someone coaching you and getting the best out of you.

Choudhury and Baines had conceptualised championing as ‘selling’– in terms of a salesman highlighting the qualities of an offering, rather than trading ownership. So the student’s simile of the ‘PR manager’ is a good one. The response also suggests that the mentee recognising a process of building competence – and trust in that competence.

The mentors in this project embraced the idea of championing and the risk that goes with it. The following response indicates that the mentor has reflected on the kind of experience which will bring the mentee the most benefits:

I think it would be a good idea to ‘champion’ our mentees and that is something I would be happy to do. There shouldn’t be any issues with my mentee getting work experience with us; it would just require finding the right project for them to work on. My business tends to do several types of projects that can sometimes take months to complete, so it would be good for my mentee to contribute to a project where they see the process from start to finish.

Education programmes which specifically address vocational subjects have a long history of featuring workplace experience and this is seen as valuable by educators, students, governments and industry. Reeders (2000: 206) says students find value in work experience because it allows them to test their learning against real world problems and they produce something to be used by others. In Britain, the Dearing report, which strongly influenced government higher education policy, proposed that workplace experience should be extended to all courses (NCIHE 1997). On journalism programmes specifically, work experience is considered desirable by the British accreditation body, the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ)[4], and essential by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC)[5]. Students on the championing project embraced the idea:

I don’t think anyone can underestimate the importance of work experience in this industry. I’ve got a fair amount but nothing in this field so the fact I know I have work experience in June is brilliant. It’s going to boost my CV and something I haven’t been able to do in the last three years. So to have somebody already in the industry giving you a hand is great and will set you apart from other candidates when you apply for a job.

And they recognised the risk the mentor was taking and the obligation to justify their mentor’s trust:

When you say your name in a CV or interview, it means nothing unless you’re someone. So getting your name through someone else, you’ve got your foot in the door. It’s about 75 per cent us and 25 per cent them. If you don’t make the effort, why should they help you? They can’t drag you across the finish line, can they? And if you’re not up to scratch you’re damaging their reputation, aren’t you?

Restricted experience

The number of students on journalism programmes is growing. In Australia, Austin and Cokley (2006: 79) found industry recruiters introducing ways to manage work experience places. In Britain, Hanna and Sanders (2007: 404) reported that in 1994/95 the equivalent of 415 British full-time students had joined (journalism) programmes – in 2004/5 it was 2,035. In 2011, Britain’s BBC was forced to ration the number of placements it made available to students on ‘nearly 70’ BJTC-accredited programmes. Our mentors in major media organisations found arranging work experience was not easy:

Championing needs to be subtle. I’m happy to find out contacts for them to approach. I’m happy to email editors and producers and suggest that my mentee is a good person to take a chance on. I won’t get them work experience in my newsroom because the BBC has banned that sort of thing.

One ITV mentor said that it had been pretty straightforward to get someone into the newsroom, but no longer:

It [championing] is a good idea. New policies here at ITV regarding work experience might make this more difficult than it would have been in the past, with people needing to apply and things being more centralised. If my mentee pushes for this though I will see what I can do.

However, increasing demand is not the only reason for a centralised approach – such organisations found that work experience arranged locally was one of the drivers in decreasing diversity in the industry by excluding applicants who did not already have the contacts, networks, social capital of connections inside the organisation. The system was blocking those from poorer or BAME backgrounds.

However, a mentoring programme does offer a longer-term engagement with a mentor within the industry and a greater degree of flexibility and accommodation than traditional work-experience placements or internships. Mentors, even in big organisations, are generally able to allow their mentees to shadow them on one day a week or on particular assignments. The idea of placements aside, what we are interrogating is the very notion of mentoring and the effect championing on increasing the social capital of often excluded groups.


We have initiated a mentoring programme which is not confined to an organisation and which accommodates the liquid life and work not only of media industries today, but has implications for the wider world of work and the professions. The project is in its early stages, but there are indications that such a programme has the capacity to increase opportunities to enter the field of journalism by increasing participants’ social capital through extending their ‘weak links’ within networks in the field - in line with Aguilera’s (2002) findings on social capital and labour force entry. It can offer enhanced work-experience opportunities and mitigations for restrictions on these. It can enhance the social capital of mentees and mentors.

But for this to occur, both mentors and mentees must recognise obligations inherent in the relationship, which Coleman identifies as critical to the ability of social relationships to develop social capital. And to be prepared to assume such obligations, they must recognise the risks that go with them. Such risks might not inhere in a traditional media organisation because a senior colleague directed to take on a mentee, would not be held culpable should the mentee’s performance disappoint others. So an important indicative finding of good practice is that the necessity, and risk, of undertaking such obligations across organisational boundaries, across the currents of media work, must be made explicit to mentors and mentees. Care must be taken in making those matches. And space allowed for both parties to decide to engage – or not to.


[1] Giles Coren is a well-known writer for The Times of London.

[2] Choudhury Barnie (2012, forthcoming ) Still hideously white? Recruitment, retention and promotion of Black Minority Ethnics in BBC News, MRes.submission, University of Lincoln

[3] Part of the Memo of Understanding states: ‘There needs to be an element of championing in this relationship.
a. ‘Every month your mentor will identify and set you one goal. The goal needs to be challenging but achievable. It needs to be something you’ve both agreed. You need to be able to satisfy your mentor that you have fulfilled your task. This is important because they’re giving up their time for free and they need to know and feel that their contribution is making a difference. So an achievable goal would be something as simple as: you show your mentor your best package that month or you show you how you’ve produced a piece of original or investigative journalism or how you’ve shown leadership qualities.
b. ‘The carrot: I’ve always believed that that mentoring has to be proactive. I talk them up at every opportunity. I actively find jobs for them to apply. To that end, I have asked your mentors to arrange one week’s placement/internship at their place during this six month pilot when they feel you’re ready’

[4] NCTJ course accreditation performance indicator: ‘Students are encouraged to gain work experience and there is sufficient time allowed for this.’ See, accessed on 12 June 2012.

[5] BJTC Guidelines for accreditation and requirements (Section 3.8). Available online at, accessed on 12 June 2012


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