This is a version of a Keynote speech I gave at the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia conference #JERAA17 in December 2017
I’ve just recently changed jobs. It’s a move across. I’ve gone from being a Senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Central Lancashire to being a Senior lecturer in journalism at Manchester Metropolitan University. In some ways, nothing much has changed. But starting in a new university, well, it feels a little bit like visiting Australia from the UK; we speak the same language but each place is, in it’s own ways, very different. So it goes with universities. Each has its own unique bureaucracy!
But apart from that dissonance of being in a new environment, one of the things that gave me pause for thought was the application process…well it would. But I realised that It was the first time in a long time (I was at my last post for nearly 20 years) I was essentially asked to seriously reflect on “why do you want this job?”.
Now, if I’d been looking at a big pile of papers to grade…”why do you do this?”might have become a more existential question… But, after nearly 20 years in journalism education, it was a reality check — “why do you want to still carry on doing this” and on the basis that, given my current pension pot, I’ve possibly got another 18 years doing it, ‘what are you signing up for?’
For those of you here who are recently from industry or still with a foot in the industry, I guess those are questions you may have considered too.
So I wanted to reflect a little on that today and think about the kind of direction those next 18years might take.
I started lecturing online journalism in 1999. UCLan had started the first MA online journalism in the UK (pretty much the world I think). My background is in media production, and amongst other things my career followed the increasing use of computers in production; through the use of sequencers and samplers in music production, none-linear video editing and on to the emergence of the web — that experience and the fact that I’m an unrepentant geek is what landed me at UCLan teaching HTML to journalists. Weeks of it! That’s how you got websites up and running in the days before content management systems; I sent students on work placement to mainstream media websites and they were using FTP/Dreamweaver to publish.
The course was pretty much self-contained. There was little or no cross-over with the other postgraduate courses. The broadcasters broadcast, the print people printed and on-liners, well, we on-lined…We all toiled in our corners. and so it was in industry. I’m sure many of you will remember that time. Somewhere in the corner of the newsroom or even on another floor where the geeks lived ….the ones doing, well, who knows what.
But over the next 5 years or so, what had been seen exclusively as an output medium, albeit with its own unique properties, on the edge of journalism, many began to creep into the mainstream. People began to pay attention not just to when and how their stories appeared online but also where those stories were coming from. Digital was starting to become as much a part of the input process of reporting as it was the output of the journalistic process.
Within industry the reaction wasn’t always positive. In newsrooms there were many tales of the divide between analogue and digital news — tales of audible gasps if a person crossed the room from print to the online ‘side’. It’s maybe that it was around that time that the issues of sustainability — money — kicked in with a vengeance…It comes to something when you can cite the first dot com bubble as influencing recruitment.
Its a problem that hasn’t gone away. But it’s perhaps telling of the state of things now that one of the most high profile philanthropic funders in journalism right now, especially in projects around Trustworthy Journalism is — Craig Newmark. The same Craig Newmark who, I’m pretty sure if he’d walked in to some of the executive meetings in newsrooms I was in around 2006, might not have been so welcome. His site Craigslist was the shorthand for the evil of digital disruption and diminishing economic returns.
Now, its digital we are told, is the ‘new normal’. In the print newsrooms that were the first to grapple with digital, there has been a flip. The desk in the corner, or more likely in another building (or state) is the print desk.And it was the print newsrooms that really grappled with this. Broadcasters, perhaps because of the prevalence of state funding, especially in the UK and Australia, seemed curiously absent from the early debates.
But digital has caught up with the expectations of quality and functionality broadcast journalists demand. The promised digital disruption of video that drove many local non- broadcast newsrooms to invest in video in the mid-noughties, is finally here thanks in no small part to the ubiquity of mobile. That initial reticence to engage with digital in broadcast means we are now revisiting debates from that time. Podcasts for example are now (at least the second time around or trying) seen as viable content both editorially and economically. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no podcasts before Serial!
What I find interesting here is that perhaps this explosion in multimedia is perhaps more fully formed and familiar to consumers than many in broadcast might feel comfortable with — a broadcast version of platform-dissonance print journalists have experienced. If you want to start a fight in a newsroom just hold your phone up in portrait not landscape — 90 degrees of professional separation. It’s a pithy but reliable example of a pervasive problem that describes the broad challenges we face in both industry and education — common practice, best practice and industry practice don’t always match.
Teaching the new normal
It’s inherent in the nature of journalism courses that they are vocational — they prepare people to work in journalism by reflecting industry practice. So it’s perhaps inevitable that the reality of how capable journalism has proved to be in responding to change and the new digital reality, is something we wrestle with more and more in academia. I look at student journalists, graduating this year and I know the industry priorities — what they demand from new hires — have radically changed in the three or four years they have studied.
I remember being at an academic conference in the mid noughties and being asked, in the face of all this new stuff, what goes? Implicit in the question was that there was so much new stuff to cover, what of traditional journalism goes to make room.
The new normal it turns out is difficult target to hit
I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a good deal of the last few years working with newsrooms making the digital transition. I’ve been with over 400 journalists of various levels of seniority — junior reporters to group editors — in a room looking at one aspect or another of the shift to digital and one of the questions I always asked in one form or another was ‘what would make your job easier?” Answers varied. In the early days it was always a variation on the theme of ‘can we turn off the internet’. But, I don’t want to make too light here. Commonly the two top answers were: time and resources.
What ‘resources’ means varies. Sometimes it’s as simple as a new mobile phone. But more often than not it means people. More people with the right skills to do what needed to be done…by association the people we as journalism educators provide.
But it was time that was the deal breaker. More time to do all the things that needed to be done and be able to develop expertise with the new ideas and tools that pop up, finding ways to make them work.
A shared brain for industry
As a journalism educator how do I read that? For me more broadly it speaks of an industry that it recognises and reacts to challenges but doesn’t have time or resources to learn from them. It’s an industry telling me that it doesn’t have the time to work out what to do with the people it knows it needs but doesn’t know what they will do!
Time is something that seems to be in short supply for everyone. We all function in an attention economy —but time is literally money to media organisation.
In comparison, time something that we are relatively rich in in academia — (I’ve made a note to myself to duck behind the podium at this point….)
I know. If I asked you that ‘what would make your job easier” question, you’d no doubt give me the same answer — time and resources. Who wouldn’t like a new mobile phone?
But experimenting with new tools and thinking about what journalists might do with them and the types of journalism they might produce is something has always been part of what I do — it has to be when the landscape changes so fast. Its rare that any of us can simply roll out the same lecture as we did last year.
Early on in my career I got into the habit of blogging my experiments and my thinking. You had to really. Those of us teaching online and digital journalism were few and far between so it was the only way to call on the collective community brain before social media came along. More than that though, it’s opened the door to working on new ideas and collaboration and addresses that resources question. It’s helped ground me in the huge range of contexts where journalism is done.
– as a side note, blog, it’s an amazing tool for sharing and organising thoughts. We don’t do it enough. Experiment with Medium or WordPress. In a world of tweets and updates saying what people are thinking and doing, it’s a wonderful and essential way to say ‘why’ we think and do things.
One of my most popular posts this year is on how to create socially shareable video — with captions etc. — using powerpoint. Why? Because I needed to teach a class socially shareable video and there wasn’t time or consistent access to resources to teach them adobe premiere or after effects. I get loads of feedback on that from journalists who use it as freelancers small newsrooms where time and IT resources are limited.
Methodological interlude — we are journalism academics after all — ‘should journalists code is a common question, so here’s my code development methodology…
Google It And Then Cut And Paste
I digress. By the end of the two days, it was up and running and on their site and it caused a bit of a stir — a bit of viral hit.
This basic code did the rounds of the newsgroup for a good long while, re-skinned as various things until eventually there was enough of a use case that a version of the functionality was made available in their content management system.
Now, the viral nature of this aside — and man do I wish I’d had a pound for every hit that thing generated — what I loved about this process (as with the PowerPoint example)was it showed open innovation can work. It made an impact not just as a piece of content but also on the way the organisation worked. In academic terms, that’s tangible knowledge exchange; Academia and industry working together, sharing knowledge in an open and informative way for mutual benefit.
In a world full of the known unknowns of that time vs resources equation, renting time with our collective brain, that’s something that the industry badly needs. We can be the pause before industry engages with the idea. If that means they become a little less reactive and more responsive to the digital churn. That benefits everyone. That target moves a little less.
But the impact of that collaboration is just as important for us as academics in a world where Knowledge exchange is not just an aspiration but a KPI.
Research and Knowledge exchange are the new normal
The balance of research and impact/KE we generate is increasingly being measured and assessed. If it doesn’t already, it will very likely define our contracts and workloads in the future. KE is sometimes a hard sell in arts and humanities but Journalism is such a unique blend of think and do, done in such close proximity to the industry, that it seems like an open goal right now.
That doesn’t mean ‘traditional’ research isn’t important. We aren’t just doers, we are critical thinkers and doers. It’s interesting that in Australia, the relationship between research and practice in J-schools seems closer than in the UK. There’s also often not a lot of love for the “ivory tower” in the industry- the idea that we don’t know what its like on the ground, is a frustratingly common throwback to a traditional view of traditional research.
But you know as well as I do that everything you’re talking about in this conference over the next few days is what the industry is talking about. Journalism research is a very much a live and relevant.
Research can be a painful process for people coming into education. It is for me. Its frustrating for those used to the speed of journalism. But if we can make clearer paths between research and knowledge exchange through things like phds by practice and more collaboration and pressure to recognise none traditional research outputs, then we are beginning to move beyond an perception of research as some process of generating esoteric ephemera no one sees.
That’s important to industry too. We sit in a really useful place to be a critical friend to journalism and if we can do that in an open and accountable way, through research and communicating what we do, that better places us to be honest brokers for journalism in broader policy discussions. We can turn that passion we have for the profession into advocacy with impact.
I don’t think there has ever been a time when that is more relevant and vital than now. As much as I hate the term, and I really do hate the term, it’s one of the most poisonous, critically empty phrases in use at the moment ,fake news has proved common cause for journalism and academia. Unlike broad contexts like digital which simply feels like a debate on disruption, the new world order of Trump and the increasingly partisan media landscape, feels like an existential threat we can get behind philosophically and professionally. It goes beyond genres and practice right to heart of what we think journalism is for, doesn’t it.
And in that context, I guess this is when I put my critical friend hat on.
The gaps in representation
It almost goes without saying that journalism is in very a difficult place to be right now. The bite seems harder and more vicious than ever before. Restructuring, layoffs, newsroom closures. Perhaps it feels all the more vicious right now, when we know good journalism remains vitally important . Now more than ever, we need to double down on living up to the ideological link between journalism and democracy — core ideas of keeping people reasonably and fairly informed about what is going on around them and holding those who seek to get in the way of that accountable.
But we know that the bites are leaving the biggest holes away from the world stage of TweetStorms and Trump. Journalism is not happening at a local level as it should.
Closures and consolidation in local and regional media have left gaps. People talk about the democratic deficit caused by a shrinking local media. Some go as far as to talk about news deserts. But these are not new problems to wrestle with.
In the past, the response to these issues has been a patchy mix of newsroom driven collaboration and a bottom-up community driven responses. The former often struggles by inheriting the systemic problems of sustainability from its parent. The latter often rendered invisible to the mainstream thanks to a deep seated institutional lack of diversity. But there’s movement in the right direction,
It’s interesting, for example, to see demands in Australia to offer tax exemptions for community media. In the UK, the Welsh government announced it has budgeted nearly 200k over 2 years to support the development of community and local news services. In 2012 the House of Lords even suggested that investigative journalism should be eligible for ‘charitable status’. Accountability, especially at a local level has reached the level of soft state intervention.
In the UK, as part of the licence fee settlement, the BBC has set up a local democracy reporters scheme — paying to put reporters into regional newsrooms to cover what UK journos would call ‘court and council’ — civic reporting. The material they create is shared in a common hub which other media organisations, including community and hyperlocal media can get access too.
That project has not been met with universal acclaim. Many in journalism seem pre-programmed to resist intervention in journalism in any form, including other journalism organisations. But it does show that outside of the punch and judy of populist politics and industry debate, there is a broad recognition and concern for the sustainability of ‘accountability journalism’.
But perhaps the most promising but challenging response to the issue is a rise in third sector organisations entering the space. Non-profits doing accountability journalism and in one form or another, giving their content away.
As a model it isn’t new. It gave us Propublica. But more recently, driven by investment from organisations like Google, Facebook’s Newsroom project or Craig Newmark’s foundation, there is a growing, influential and relatively cash rich ‘3rd and 4th sector’ of accountability journalism spinning up. Whats positive is that we are also seeing a growing presence of universities and academics in the mix. There’s the News Integrity Initiative in the US for example.
I know the issue of the ‘duopoly’ of Facebook and Google is a common windmill for us to tip at here. But whatever motivation you ascribe to the funders, the money and support is there and that’s shifted the focus back to the viability of model for philanthropic funding journalism.
I know it’s a model that’s of interest to you here in Oz. The Public Interest Journalism Foundation for example is asking questions of sustainability and, like others, looking to philanthropy and recognition of non-profit media organisations I mentioned earlier.
New models for the local journalism army
What’s good to see is that is starting to filter down to a local level.
In the UK for example, Google have funded the not-for-profit media organisation The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to set up The Bureau Local, which uses a community model to build up investigations, often data driven, into stories with national significance but built for local use and impact — they share the content for anyone to use.
Effectively uncoupled from the economic model of traditional journalism, locally focussed accountability journalism organisations take on a bridging role. They see themselves actively stepping into the gaps left behind by journalism but retaining a close proximity to the identity of journalism — it’s about connecting community with journalism.
Fourteen years ago two students of mine started a hyperlocal blog called Blog Preston. That now runs as a CIC ( a form of company registration under uk law designed for social enterprises) with an aim to strengthen Preston as a community. That blog is now arguably as visible, if not more so than the local paper — it allows it to experiment with innovative ideas like a print edition which pushed over 10,000 copies into the city (the local daily newspaper in Preston has a certified circulation of 9,874). It’s made them visible and vocal advocates for their city and the community has responded in support.
We are also seeing experiments with new models of ownership and accountability within the organisations— cooperatives like community newspaper The West Highland Free Press. It serves a geographical area of over 250 square miles with a readership of 8,000 covering the islands of Skye, Lewis and Harris. The newspaper has been worker-owned since 2009 and also has a flourishing website. There is also The Bristol Cable which operates as a coop both financially and editorially.
As part of their commitment to community and as part of their business model, these organisations also offer training and support for journalists looking to learn new skills -especially data journalism — but theres a reading of who is a journalists here that might sit uncomfortably with some traditionalists. If citizen journalism gave you existential shivers then you’re in for a rocky ride. Many of these organisations are also vocal in their criticism of traditional journalism- they are there because traditional journalism has failed.
Now I’m not sure I would agree with that. But for whatever reason — there’s whole conferences in that — there are gaps and they are being filled by people who have affinity with journalism but aren’t the mainstream. They are in but not of journalism.
It’s a really positive development. But issues of sustainability still loom. There aren’t enough of these organisations and there certainly aren’t enough at local level.
It’s time for universities to step up to the local gap
So to end with here’s a little thought experiment and chance for me to be a bit provocative.
The best journalism education is hands-on. We create working journalists by having them work as journalists.
Industry demands that of us and it’s our commitment to the student — “we’ll give you the skills you need”.
I think it’s right that the stories our students tell in learning those skills are about real people, real events. I don’t want simulations or classroom exercises to feed the gallery of newsrooms hacks who question the experience our students have
We go to great lengths to create learning experiences and even media platforms in the service of that process – course websites; Papers and magazines; Broadcast output
But let me ask you a question. Who is your competition?
Is there anyone else publishing news where your uni is based? What about the local newspaper? Is there one? How do you rate it? How does the community rate it?
Chances are they well respected. All of the studies I’ve read show the level of trust and confidence in local media is still high. People value their local media outlets.
But let flip that question a bit. How confident are you in the current media climate it’s that it will be able to keep going?
Lets put some numbers in play here.
UCLan has a student cohort in journalism of over 150 students. At MMU its nearer 200. Being conservative, that’s 20–30 ‘reporters’ who at various times of the year will be out in the local community looking for stories to tell. Be it basic reporting or more in depth investigations.
So given the resources, time and a relative level of financial security universities have what’s stopping journalism courses filling that accountability gap?
- Why not start a Blog Preston or a bureau local from within the university?
- Why not go out and build a coop like the Bristol cable?
- Why not buy the local newspaper or radio station?
There is an opportunity right now in journalism education, even if it’s just a thought experiment, for us to flip the model of how we work.
At the moment our feet are firmly planted in industry and in academia. But in the current media climate, we are at risk of simply delivering students with the prescribed skills and critical underpinning into an industry that, through attrition will take them further away from those communities where they learnt their trade. We need to think about how we can plant our feet firmly in the community around us — ground ourselves there and reach out to the industry. We can’t hope that journalism finally sorts itself out and reaches back.
In shifting that perspective, we don’t lose anything. We can still service the need to provide students trained with the skills industry needs, and we do that experimentation and thinking that industry can’t do. But we can also do what journalism is supposed to do, a role the industry is increasingly struggling to service , and that’s to make sure that our communities are represented.
So I worry about the next 18 years. In part because yes, some things will stay the same. Yes students won’t turn up to lectures sometimes; University bureaucracy won’t go away. That can get boring. But where I think it really matters, things are really going to change. They already have. The industries of journalism and academia I found myself over 20 years ago have changed radically, often despite their best efforts. We need to think about how we respond to that.
The what and the how are just going to be the moving target they always were. What is more important is that we hold on to the why we do what we do and vital that we think more deeply about who benefits. Because people do really do benefit.
So as much as I worry, I don’t really see myself doing anything else.
It’s a lot of work. But why wouldn’t you want to do this stuff…
As journalism academics we not only have the chance to influence the influencers. We create the influencers. We are the influencers! (i’ve got a note to myself here to not try and laugh like a power crazed maniac at this point)
How powerful and empowering is that?