FEATURE 

Do we still need proper journalists?

With the seemingly remorseless rise of citizen journalists and UGC, do we still need the real thing? Shouldn’t we just hand out camera phones to all and sundry and wait for the exclusives to flood in? And, assuming we do need them, how should we be training them? Martin Cloake ponders this and takes soundings from students, course tutors and others.

By Martin Cloake

It’s hard to know where to start when addressing the subject of how to train and develop journalists. What we do is not a profession – there is no one formal qualification which makes some people journalists and others not. We carry out a trade, and the future shape of that trade is the subject of intense debate as technology changes the way people produce and consume media.

There used to be very few journalism courses taught at university, now nearly every institution has a media course. And yet, despite this, there is still a strong view that journalism is best learned on the job. As lecturer and journalist Gary Horne, my colleague at the London College of Communication, says, “Journalism has never been treated seriously in academia as a discipline worthy of study in its own right. And industry barely tolerates journalism education outside the narrow confines of practical skills.” Even practical training in the trade all but disappeared as companies cut costs well before the current downturn.

It’s impossible to write definitively on the subject, so what follows is a series of observations based on my own learning curve as a visiting tutor at a journalism college after twenty years as a staff journalist.

Journalism is different

In an age in which mass access to the means of communications production can make publishers of us all, there’s a view that journalism is an outdated, elitist concept. But there’s a certain irony in the fact that many of the predictions of journalism’s doom come from established figures, while many younger and student journalists are looking to marry traditional practice with new technology. In their rush to demonstrate how hip with new media they are, some established journalists have lost sight of what it is they do.

Dave Molloy (davemolloy.net) who edits the student paper at Trinity College, Dublin, argued recently on his blog: “In discussing how new technologies such as Twitter and blogging and user-generated-content can make journalism better, it’s far too easy to (erroneously) jump to the conclusion that they are making journalism better.” And Josh Halliday (www.joshhalliday.com), a 20-year-old studying journalism at the University of Sunderland, says: “The need for a journalist to be able to communicate the ‘why’ and put data and breaking news events into some meaningful context might never have been more important.” LCC tutor Gary Horne says he sees journalism’s defining characteristics as: “gathering, refining, verifying and authenticating information in the public sphere” and worries that “the urge to comment has replaced the need to verify.”

Journalists, prospective or otherwise, should examine all available means of communication to do their job. But there needs to be a balance between what are loosely termed ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media skills in order to make the trade better. If it’s fundamental to understand that journalists have to go to where readers are rather than wait for the readers to come to them, it’s just as fundamental to understand that we need to deliver something worth coming to.

To say that there’s more to journalism than simply communicating does not mean that, for example, what’s published on a major media brand’s website is necessarily ‘better’ than something published on a personal blog. But the two are different, and can serve different purposes. At the root of any journalism education or training there has to be an understanding of that.

It’s not just about news and newspapers

Much of journalism education is still rooted in the idea that ‘proper’ journalism is about news and newspapers. But there are other types of journalism and other platforms. I have sat in frequently on discussions about the power of the fourth estate and the responsibility to hold power to account, concepts which I feel strongly about. But most of my twenty years at work have been on titles such as What’s on TV, Heat and Take a Break. Some would argue that makes me less of a journalist. I say it just makes me a different journalist – and there are many students and prospective students for whom the idea of journalism is similarly different.

In fact, the techniques and the debates that students experience at journalism school can be applied much more widely in the media trade and beyond than the narrow definition above allows. It may even be a mistake to think that journalism can be ‘taught’ at undergraduate level at all. City University’s outgoing head of journalism, Adrian Monck, told me, “I am against the idea that undergraduate degrees prepare people for work,” which leads rather nicely to the next point…

Education is not training, training is not education

Few media companies offer proper training, because training is seen as a cost that can be cut rather than as an investment. So employers look to the education sector to provide the skills they need, and the marketisation of education means that colleges respond by increasing the vocational element at the expense of more rounded education. That marketisation also makes it very difficult for colleges to acknowledge that there are far more journalism students than jobs.

To attract students, colleges must convince students they will teach the skills that enable them to get jobs. The more skills taught, the more commercially attractive the course – and the time in which students should be examining not just the ‘how’ but the ‘why’ Josh Halliday highlights is squeezed out. Without a balance between teaching practical skills and encouraging thought and experimentation in the way those skills are applied, an argument vital to the future of the trade will be lost. And that is the argument that, in an age of mass access to sophisticated communication platforms, journalism must be about more than simply communicating.

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that, at undergraduate level, promoting a general literacy in how to use and consume media in various formats is what we should be aiming for. This could then be built upon at post-graduate level, especially if forward-thinking employers and colleges discuss how to pool resources to provide more applied training. This would solve a problem and present journalism schools with an opportunity.

The problem is that, as Adrian Monck points out, “there is no one standard” across the industry. Every media organisation has its own way of doing things, but training people with a general education can yield better results than having to get new recruits to unlearn what have falsely been promoted as standard practices.

The opportunity is that, in a media-savvy age, it’s more than just journalists who are looking for the chance to hone their communication skills. Adrian Monck spoke of giving people “skills that they are going to use doing other tasks,” so tapping into a far larger pool of potential students. The field of journalism is much wider, and the demand to learn media and communication skills greater still, than many journalism schools seem to acknowledge.

Basically, it’s about the basics

So much for just a selection of views from students and educators – what about those working in a changing trade? I contacted Sam Shepherd, the digital projects co-ordinator at the Bournemouth Daily Echo, whose Subbed Out blog (subbedout.wordpress.com) is a valuable source of information and debate on a changing media world, and asked what skills she thought journalists needed to learn as they entered the trade. “The basics are still the key,” she said. “How to build contacts, how to construct a good story without resorting to lazy journalistic clichés and so on. Thinking about methods of storytelling that aren’t just about words is also important. More journalists should think visually. We’re not just writers any more, it’s about story telling in whatever form is most appropriate.”

She says that, “You’d want a new recruit to be able to go out on any job you needed them to, but you don’t expect them to be perfect at everything,” something which I’d argue backs the view that college journalism courses would be right to focus on a general grounding. Her response to my question about the difference between what college courses offer and what employers should be providing as training was also interesting. “That assumes that employers are interested in journalism as a product, not news as a business.”

Mind your own business

As we’ve mentioned it, a brief word on business. The need to include specific “entrepreneurial skills” or “business” elements on journalism courses is frequently mentioned. I think this is wrong. Including a business skills class on a journalism course assumes that journalists have never had to understand the commercial realities of the market – which is simply not the case. Understanding the economics of the business of journalism would be relevant, but there are some perfectly good business courses available without diluting journalism courses with business classes that could be just as relevantly applied to any course from nuclear physics to psychology. If anyone thinks that’s a dismissal of the necessity to understand economic reality, read what I’ve written again.

There is a future, and it could be bright

Much of what passes for commentary on the media industry is really a series of obituaries. Overwhelmed by the scale of change, many established figures are retreating into sterile arguments about the relative worth of ‘new’ and ‘old’ media and the practices that go with each – a false divide in an argument that leads nowhere. The cause for optimism comes from the many more people from many different backgrounds who are happy to admit they don’t have all the answers, but are eager to experiment. They are the people quoted in this article and many more besides, people such as Birmingham University’s Paul Bradshaw (onlinejournalismblog.com), Reed’s Martin Couzins (www.itsdevelopmental.com) and others at the firm who have introduced a promising new development session into the workspace for journalists to discuss how to work in new ways with new technologies, former online editorial editor at MEN Media Sarah Hartley (sarahhartley.wordpress.com)…

There is a wealth of debate, and of ideas, and a willingness to try and to fail that can only be healthy. Predictions of journalism’s demise have been premature.

And finally ...

On 31 July, after fifteen years, the Newspaper Education Trust closed due to lack of funding...