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Who takes the risk in changing journalism?

I’m spending the next few days in a research symposium about journalism. Lots of great people with interesting things to say about the changing face and challenges for journalism.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about what’s being discussed -that’s partly because a lot of it is related to ongoing research and the usual form, and often contractual obligation, is stuff doesn’t make it out until its been in a journal (I know, don’t get me started on that one).  But regardless of the topic one of consistent questions has been how we and students respond to this.

One example of this was a conversation around entrepreneurial journalism.

The idea that we as j-schools, should be encouraging more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking is not new.  A number of schools now have modules and courses exploring just that.  But how we ‘sell’ that has been and remains a tricky proposition when the demands of the industry we serve are set against an education market ‘disrupted’ by the same things.

Like most universities in the UK we are coming to the end of our ‘open days’. They are a chance for prospective students to see the campus, meet the staff. Well, I say students; a big part of open days is for parents.

I find that it’s often quite hard to talk to the prospective students as you’re answering questions from parents. How many modules? What’s your contact time? What are your employment statistics? I’m not being critical of this at all – who wouldn’t want to be  sure that they are getting the best. The best experience and the best value.  But I does feel like the questions that editors and accrediting bodies ask me – how many hours do they go to court? Can they do shorthand? Can they do facebook?

Under the idea of a service economy (serving students and industry) J-Education is not just being asked make a lot of commitments. We are being asked for guarantees!

I was pondering that during the presentations when we talked about entrepreneurship and innovation in journalism and it struck me how much I feel we are at (or very, very close to) an inflection point when it comes to the value proposition for developing journalism education.

The truth is entrepreneurship is about risk.  I have enough crappy motivational tweets appearing in my timeline about ‘daring to fail’ to know that.  But I’m across two industries  – education and journalism –  that don’t do risk well.

It’s clear that most of the journalism industry isn’t prepared to take that risk (with notable but not consistent exceptions) The model for the industry is for buy-innovation not nurturing it. Yes, there are some exceptions but lets not kid ourselves that they are the norm  (yet). That’s a culture that reaches across all aspects of an organisations work including training.

That’s why, in the same way media has shifted the responsibility (and risk) for training and skills to education, we now see the demands for a more innovative and entrepreneurial journalist are placed at educations door.

At the same time education is coming to terms with a market driven model - compare-the-market parents looking at our stats.  That culture doesn’t really suit risk.  I couldn’t sell a journalism course on the kind of failure stats we see in startups these days.

Theres the decision driving me to feeling close to the inflection point. Which of those ‘markets’ is the ball and chain?  Which one of those is going to drag me down past viable? As a J-school educator, how do I balance the demands of industry to deliver what they tell me they want with the demands of consumers for guarantees of a return on investment?

My gut reaction is that the response to industry is pretty simple – we are not going to take risks on your behalf unless you invest.   But that’s the easy bit. It leave us with more to  do in educating students to the idea of risk and the broader landscape of opportunity that digital offers.  Risk and opportunity – not easy terms.

I happen to think there is no better place to take a risk than university – independent thinking and challenge are what we are supposed to do.  I also believe that there is no better industry in which risk can pay off – innovation is really valued, even if (or perhaps because) it doesn’t really know what to do with it – everyone wants a pet unicorn even if they don’t know how to look after it!

But it does feel like we are getting to a point where, to really enable us to make good on that opportunity,  J-schools are going to have to make a  choice.  Journalism education is  already at a point where we are thinking about how we unhitch ourselves from many of the structure that some believe  makes them the de-facto suppliers of skilled workers for industry.  A position that I’ve always thought of as moving from  giving them what they want to what they need.

But that feels like the easy part.  When it comes to selling the alternative it’s easy marketing speak to say opportunities but it’s risk – plain and simple.

That feels like unchartered territory for all of us and I wonder if it should and why.

Image from Ben Sutherland  on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/6764509451/ 

6 thoughts on “Who takes the risk in changing journalism?”

  1. nice post. When students ask me about entrepreneurship/journalism I point out to them that j-school is the PERFECT opportunity to take the risks you describe without the mega-consequences. You screw up in j-school, a professor will tell you about it. You screw up in real life – there is more on the line.

  2. Hi Andy, good post as usual. Minor, minor tangential point: the idea that in academic research symposia/conferences “stuff doesn’t make it out until its been in a journal” is new to me — in the arts and humanities, the norm is members of the audience live tweeting conference presentations, blogging about them afterwards, speakers trying out ideas in a public debate, then firming them up in journal articles. No Chatham House rules here!

    1. Hi Andrew. I think that’s fair and maybe I didn’t express myself too well there. There is plenty of ‘open’ discussion around ideas and research. But the journal system isnt as open as it should be and it does put limits on the way people share ideas and research. The way I phrased it there conflates the two which is a little unfair.

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