Journalism Education: We lost ‘em before we got ‘em

A few post have crossed my feed reader in the last day or two which I am itching to blog about. That and the comment discussion I have been having with Howard which resulted in him nailing his video articles to his blog door. (I’m already a convert but they still sound good to me)

But one post I read kicked a little closer to home so I thought I would go with that one first.

It’s the latest round in the discussion about the conservatism of J-students. This time the issue was picked up by Martin Stabe, prompted by Mindy McAdams post advising students to get out there and take part . Martin picks up on why J-students are conservative -in return giving Mindy opportunity to open some interesting thoughts on story.

To be fair to many students, there is a general assumption that because they are young, they are all keyed in to new technology in very direct ways. It’s a surprise to us they don’t make some of the conceptual connections between the mobile in their pocket and the journalism they learn. But in some way’s the familiarity they have with technology is the very thing that may hold them back.

Those with a bit more experience of this stuff (by that I mean us older folks) have got it by learning as we go. We are open to new uses of technology because we had to try and work out how to use it. To many students a phone is a phone. It works as a phone. End of story.

But Martin’s question is why they just don’t see the reality of the situation.

It could have something to do with the fact that many journalism courses still force their students to choose between a “print” and an “broadcast” pathway, leading them to identify with one medium rather than thinking about identifying the best one for any particular message.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view but I think there are some factors and attitudes within education to consider as well.

Old school mentality – Most educators in J-schools are working journalists. Many, I hesitate to say a majority, have ‘retired’ from journalism to move in to education. They bring with them – some, not all – some very old-school views.

Lack of training – The industry, and print in particular, has created a demand for a very specific style of student. Like many other areas of education, especially those with a vocational element, the expectation from industry employers is that we should produce fully trained, work ready students. The cynic in me increasingly feels this is ‘someone we can employ but don’t have to train’.

The measure of that employability is, for print and in the UK at least, the NCTJ. (US readers can think of them as the crusty attitude of an old-school editor moulded in to a qualification). The NCTJ, have never, even in the light of recent announcements, ‘got’ online. They didn’t need to.

Take the ‘you train them’ attitude of industry and the ‘we define the training based on what industry tell us they need’ view of the NCTJ and you have got a pretty effective stranglehold on the development of J courses for the last few years.

Perceived lack of job security – Students want surety, a guarantee that some of the huge debt that they are in will get paid off. You can’t deny that the uncertainty of the digital environment – well, okay, the uncertainty of the MSM’s reaction to it – makes a straight reporting job on a local newspaper look like a guarantee of a job you cant pass up.

I can almost see the old-school people putting their arms around students and leading them away from online whispering ‘ I know it’s bright and shiny and the money looks good but you cant trust it can you. It’s doomed to fail. Look here’s a nice desk at a newspaper. Its safe and warm here with us. There is no risk’

Print = Journalism – Take the attitudes above and you create a perfect environment for the ‘print is proper journalism’ view. I get this everyday from students. It’s the kind of statement often comes with the follow up ‘If you can do print then you can do the web’. It’s a view of such staggering ignorance it drives me nuts. Not because print skills aren’t valuable, transfer well and maybe are advantages – if only the reasoning was so subtle and informed – but because it shows they just don’t get online.

Defining Journalism – A lot of students come in to journalism with very little idea of the reality of the world they will go in to. They consume limited styles of journalism – sport, celebrity – and are attracted to that. Of course that’s a very small and restricted part of the journalism world and they suss pretty soon that its all a bit more mundane than that.

We have, on average, three years to educate students not just in the practicalities journalism but just what journalism actually is, where it came from and why it is important. I’ll be honest with you they don’t get that and industry tends not to appreciate us doing it.

Now, I put the headings for those issues in bold because I bet that if you worked in the journalism industry rather than journalism education, you could identify with each of those as problems just as much as I do.

I can’t support what Martin says strongly enough. There is a share of the responsibility to be had by academia for not stamping some authority on the way Journalism should be taught – without medium specific definitions. But in one way we simply reflect industry, in it’s strengths and weaknesses. We are a function of the industry we serve.

What both parties need to do is be a lot more vocal and honest about our industry so students know exactly what it is they are getting in to.

Post’s like Martins and Mindy’s are a great start, as is they debate across all the Jblogs. But we don’t come close to the weight and influence of the MSM journalist and commentator, and those are the people who bring students to the industry. We need them to change their tune a bit as well.

I’ll end this post with a prime example of this from Simon Jenkins at the Guardians Comment is Free*

I trust certain writers, directors, composers, artists, even newspapers, to widen my horizons without revolting me. Between their transmitting and my receiving is a zone of faith. That is why, however worldwide the web, there will never be a “blog-standard” newspaper. I need to trust a news-gatherer to adhere to known standards of veracity and taste, or my own judgment will go haywire. Those with no one to trust are not to be trusted.

There is no substitute for a disciplined, rule-bound, edited news-gatherer any more than there is for a formal theatre, movie-maker or publisher. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” will not find its apotheosis in the internet. The message transcends the medium and always will. The fact that a reader’s taste can sometimes be shocked shows the power of the trust on which it is normally based.

See, what I mean.
*Of course he doesnt engage with the comments