Educating the competition out of journalism

Over the last month my department has had a number of accreditation visits. Two of the training councils that, in the UK at least, inspect, accredit and generally rubber stamp what we do, the BJTC and the NCTJ,  have both been in looking at our courses. Thanks to a lot of hard work by colleagues all of our courses get the seal of approval. Hurray!

Both visits included a lengthy session of questions for the course team around the why and how of what we do. For the most part, they are always useful and constructive; lots of things to reflect on and change to keep improving what we do. But sitting through the process raised a bit of a point to ponder for me.

Given the relative focus of each of the accrediting bodies (Broadcast for the BJTC and print for the NCTJ) it was interesting that both asked about the public facing provision and 24/7 nature of our output. The question really amounting to ‘do you have a 24/7 public facing news operation?’

Opportunity

Learning by doing is something that we pride ourselves (and something we are told to do more of) on but when we learn we make mistakes and mistakes in journalism, in public, can be a learning experience. It has real impact on people and, well let’s be frank, it can cost money – not one of the learning outcomes of our course the last time I looked! So we try to give as many public facing opportunities as we can but often keep what we do, though with no less of demand that the stories are real and newsworthy, internal.

Within the university world there are also opportunities for people to engage in other media – student newspapers and media have always been traditional stomping grounds for our students. But as a division, apart from the usual advice and support for those working on stories, we don’t have any involvement in the paper. It’s (rightly so in my view) a student union publication and independent from us.

More recently we have also come under pressure to make what we do more entrepreneurial. Making students aware of the opportunities of social media and how they can use things like blogs etc. to promote themselves and reach a niche is, I think part of that.  We’ve seen that work (and all credit to the students here) in things like blog preston, the preston messenger and more.  The burgeoning hyperlocal/local media market could and should be a rich vein for students to explore and develop their carrear chances.

Just because we can…

So when I hear the question about 24/7 news operations here is what I ponder – should we really be doing that?

  • Should we as a public funded body (unless the government really get the claws out) plonk ourselves in to that landscape and risk flattening or at the very least skewing the local media economy? Even a relatively small journalism school represents an effective staff far in excess of most local newsrooms.
  • If we make it self-sustaining and sell ads (and measure success in a business like way encouraging that business focus many say we lack) then don’t we simply add more weight to that flattening effect? If I added our marketing and business courses to the mix of numbers….

What I’m also pondering is why organisations that claim to represent the interests of media organisations are also advocating that education organisations do that. Yes, on the face of it students will gain experience (although I don’t see that it’s the only or best way to do it) but at what costs to the organisations or media landscape the students are looking to work in?

Having sat in many a room listening to regional and local news orgs bemoan the impact the BBC has on competition, it feels like a very strange day when I sit in a room and hear more than one regional news editor advocating the setting up of direct competition.

9 thoughts on “Educating the competition out of journalism”

  1. It’s a really good question, Andy. It’s a much bigger trend in the States but there’s plenty of it here. Generally, most people think it must be good because surely anything universities do is good? I still think it is a good idea if the interventions are innovative, target a gap and add value. In a situation where journalism resources are being depleted it can’t really hurt to add to the mix. But you’re right to question the impact.

    1. Thanks Charlie. I agree and maybe there is a tipping point where the gaps are bigger opportunities to fill than the employment gap in industry. I’m wary of the US comparrison in that Uni media is a well established business – perhaps student media has something to learn there. Again, I’d feel a little odd about possibly taking ad spend away from the SU! But there’s a lot of ifs buts and maybes in it – more thought.

  2. It’s interesting, there are a number of US universities that have journalistic units who produce regular content for other, external, journalistic entities, doing the type of reporting that is educational for the students, but not negatively impacting the media environment in their area.

    Then there are a number of university student newspapers (in the US) where they have long supplanted the local newspapers. Though that’s often because the local newspapers are/were terrible and now either on the edge of financial ruin or have collapsed.

    I think a number of student publications are being looked at as the solution to the local news problem (though, as you mentioned, this is more a problem in the US), in that hyper local news orgs are falling apart and so student media can pick up the slack and fill the gap. Student media in the US is often interested in the business side as well as the journalism side (we often *do* bring in marketing and biz students) and I think that’s valuable because news is a business and working in a situation where there is no consciousness of that on the student level is doing student journalists a disservice.

    I think the UK’s stronger local news environment (as I understand it) presents a different set of issues. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a space for student news orgs to do 24/7 reporting on campus, local and wider news as the lens for how those issues impact the campus or students.

    Student journalism’s entry into local news has, in the US, often been part of the push for profitability. Local coverage means an easier sell to advertisers than just campus coverage. However, that doesn’t take away the responsibility of most student news outlets to ground their stories in what makes them important to their university peers.

    1. Hi Aram. Thanks for stopping by it’s interesting to get the US perspective.

      As you say the local landscape is a little different here but I think some of that is scale rather than anything else. I think the challenge in some of this is about creating a balance between an environment that encourages students to develop employable journalism skills and what impact they have on the broader environment.

      The vast majority of our assignments require students NOT to do a university story – there is the SU paper for that – unless it had a wider impact in the community. We demand all their pieces are valid news stories so maybe we are contributing to a momentum that’s taking us to an inevitable conclusion – with all that material we almost have to be a media entity.

      A lot of commentator would have it that the traditional media have all but abandoned some areas and offer no coverage or coverage of negligible value so why not fill the gap – serve democracy and create a great educational offering. But, putting aside my more iconoclastic tendencies, I do wonder how much we might be exploiting that shift and how much might end up contributing to it.

  3. Andy, have you also thought about the fact that by setting up the competition, you inadvertently strengthen what is there?
    Some regional and local media outlets coast through precisely because of a lack of competition, as some have been responsible for killing off rivals in the first place.
    A vibrant, hungry, student-led operation, with all its associated enthusiasm and freshness, may just reinvigorate the sector, not depress it further.
    There will always be a commercial sector for media players. Who occupies it will largely, and should, be dictated by those who produce the most interesting content. After all that’s what the media big boys advocate publicly, unless they’re complaining about the BBC’s reach and power.
    As long as universities don’t artificially resucitate the student enterprises that don’t pay for themselves, what’s the problem?
    The students would learn about media business, reaching an audience and, more importantly, standards required. All things they need to be savvy with if they work for the big boys anyway.

    1. Hi Jez

      I don’t disagree at all with the competition thing – although I would wonder what your reaction would be if I set up a 400 strong news operation that sold ads in Rhyl! Good bad or indifferent the economies of scale would be an issue :-)

      Really, I’m just pondering what might happen if the market is not as strong and how things like subsided media (I agree with you that any endeavour should be able to wash its own face) should not be aloud.

      The issue is that this needs thought and there seems to be a good deal of doing without thinking – that low barrier to entry the web creates – and a fundamental shift in the way j-schools operate.

      Putting yourself in competition with the industry that’s traditionally hired your graduates might be seen as a bad business move. Even if that’s the transition we have to make.

      It’s the double-identity thing. Are we in the business of making local media or are we in the business of training and creating employable graduates. The two are not separate as some people seem to suggest. Yes, a sustainable hyperlocal is a great learning environment but it puts you of fundamentally different footing with the large orgs – a big shift.

      I get the argument about the quality of provision for the punter – plurality of news and all that- but being honest, apart from at the core of practical journalism ethic when students report, the business of education is not about serving the public in that way – thanks to years of commercialising education it’s serving the customer and that’s – as i am told every day – employers and students .

      So I’m not anti the idea (actually Im secretly quite iconoclastic about it) but I’m just a limit surprised by the apparent willingness to grab this thing without thought.

      But hey, when it comes to the media industry (including the educationnpart) embracing new technologies its plus ce la change

  4. You could make the opposite argument that you are skewing the market by working *with* established media orgs.

    You also have to ask: are we supporting journalism, or supporting publishing? Getting students to uncritically ape what is being done in existing newsrooms might well be serving neither party best: the student doesn’t get an opportunity to innovate with better ways of doing things; and the industry doesn’t get the pressure to do so either (because it’s benefiting from free labour that competitors don’t have access to).

    But equally, running a class-wide project which is actually aimed at boosting the reputation of the university might also not be serving the students best.

    Supporting students to explore industry problems and solving them either with industry (if that’s where they want to go, or who they need to speak to), or independently if they see their future there, seems to be a decent middle road. (I wrote about this a while back here: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2012/04/26/telling-wannabe-journos-dont-work-for-free-doesnt-help/ )

    In this way you could argue that the university is acting as an incubator – which I think is fine, and no different to other parts of the public sector – or as a research centre – which again is a widely accepted role. Both can further journalism by finding ways to do it better, or to support it financially.

    1. Hi Paul

      “You could make the opposite argument that you are skewing the market by working *with* established media orgs.”

      That’s true and, regardless of which way round you look at this, part of the issue that j-schools are going to have to deal with as we move from serving one output (employability) to shift in to opening up the options of the diverse opportunities the shifting media landscape offers.

      In that sense I think your incubator position is the best of all worlds and maybe after a while the industry will suffer the general impact of market economics. If they don’t put up interesting and rewarding opportunities, the talent goes elsewhere.

      As a thought experiment it’s a much more positive and optimistic outcome than my compounded logic :-)

      But I think the part of your comment that resonated most with me, one that sums up the general thrust of what I was feeling, was “uncritically ape”

      We are right to be wary of simply building mini-media orgs in which to train cannon fodder. But I think uncritically aping the alternative models that are appearing – like hyperlocal – could be just as problematic as much for the things we ape as it is for the process of aping.

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