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

9 Replies to “Journalism Education: We lost ‘em before we got ‘em”

  1. I think you’re right about the NCTJ being part of the problem. It’s not necessarily that organisation itself, but the fixation on the holy trinity of shorthand, law and public affairs that it represents. These skills are are necessary (for many journalists) but clearly insufficient (for all journalists).

    Another problem is that journalism schools generally don’t teach media economics. The conservative student attitude reminds me of those newspaper types who were saying, a few years ago, “but Craigslist doesn’t have a Baghdad bureau, so it isn’t anything to worry about”.

    Students need to understand that the structural change in publishing is happening whether they like it or not, and that this is going to have consequences for what kind of jobs are going to be available for them in the future.

  2. Nice take on the reasons — good alternatives to look at. I’ve never gotten past the notion that mentors play a large role, but there is undoubtedly a lot of preconceived ideas that embed in young minds early, and mentors only reinforce or debunk — with not enough debunking.

    As for the last quote … journalists who have not taken the time and effort to really learn and absorb this medium really have no business writing commentary about it. I mean, free speech and all, but they embarrass themselves with the depth of their ignorance.

  3. Andy,

    I have to agree with a number of his comments about what you regard as the conservatism of journalism students in failing to embrace totally the new technology.You are right when you link some of the causes with the environment that we have to operate it and there is no doubt that job security breeds conservatism.

    I would go further Andy,because I think that the problem is not just in journalism but it is in education as a whole.

    Being able to look at the situation from the perspective of a mature student,

    It strikes me that students come to university now as merely the next stage in the production line of life,having been consistently battered by the continuous examination and testing that has dictated their lives to date.
    This ,coupled with the need to enter a society, that increasingly judges us on materialism,will breed a conservative outlook and a need to conform.

    It is up to people like you to ensure that after three years ,the course will produce free thinking journalism students who are willing to take risks and develop the industry further.

  4. Martin – I agree. The NCTJ as an organisation isn’t a problem, its how they use their influence and power both in education and in industry. I think they have been pretty poor at representing the reality in favour of holding a market position. They want to market their influence not use it for change.

    As for media economics – students just don’t see the relevance. We can tell them till we are blue in the face that things are changing but then in the next class we have to tell them that they need shorthand or some NCTJ wedded editor wont give them a job. When you need to commit so much time to something like shorthand then reading an economics book is low on the agenda.

    Howard – You are so right, mentors and evangelists are the key. We just need to get a few people from industry to take on those roles rather than the ‘I got here without all that stuff and it didn’t do me any harm’ idea that seems to hang over the industry like a bad smell.

    Nigel – I agree with you that students do find themselves on a production line of education. The expectation that you do school, do college, gap year maybe, university, gap year and then postgrad is one that is embedded in the way we do things.

    That is something that needs sorting out but I think it’s a bit unfair to expect that as the last ones in the chains Universities are the ones who have to do it. It’s almost like we are getting it from both ends. De-programme the students but don’t stray too far from what they expect – they are the customer you know – and industry won’t hire them.

    Maybe one of those we can deal with. That’s why I’m asking for industry to be a bit more responsible with the environment and expectations they create. Then we have one less set of preconceptions to work against.

  5. I think being a student today is very easy, but also more difficult than it has ever been. It’s definitely easier to become a student and get into university, but it’s no longer a direct route into a job and with journalism it’s incredibly competitive. Yet there is such a lot of apathy on, for example, our journalism course that it surprises you – especially considering the amount we’re paying.

    I don’t think students get value for money either, especially since the fee rise up to £3,000 for those who started this year.

    I think for the media industry it’s good to have all these ‘wannabe journalists’ coming through from media courses because you can plug holes in the newsroom with free work experience people – some of whom might actually have the skills you’re looking for.

    I think the NCTJ is an incredibly outdated institution and will eventually find itself cast out in the cold as universities choose not to affiliate and more and more students realise they don’t actually need the stuffy qualification. If you can ‘do’ journalism, then someone will always hire you.

  6. This is a bit of a tricky response for me because it’s a minor collision of my day job and my blogging, that while it is professional in no way represents the view of my employer – The Guardian. But I can’t just ignore that you’ve quoted a blog on Comment is Free. There is a creative tension on the Guardian blogs as various writers personally and professionally struggle with all of these changes. It’s pretty clear where I fall in all of this on my personal blog, Strange Attractor, which I write with my partner Suw Charman. That’s just disclosure, not my point.

    My point is, I can remember in 2003, when I stood in front of students and couldn’t really say much about a future online. The hangover from the dot.com crash still meant that if a journalism student wanted a job, they probably wouldn’t find one doing online journalism. I couldn’t lie to students and say that they could find a job online after school. There weren’t many. Most of my friends who did online journalism in the late 90s were in another line of business entirely.

    I also had to be realistic about what they would be doing if they found a job. They wouldn’t be creating content. They would be repackaging someone else’s content.

    In 1999, I remember going to the Webby’s with BBC News Online. Buzz, money and the future. By 2001, job losses, schadenfreude by old media types about the ‘internet fad’ and little future. In 2004, the internet, which never really went away, is back. By 2006, newspapers in the US are in meltdown: Job cuts and whole chains being sold and broken up.

    I always knew the future is digital, but the industry has been in turmoil since I started in the mid-90s. I second what Rob Curley said, and I quoted: Skillset is important, but mindset is more so. The old lines between print and broadcast are not relevant. Students need to be prepared to learn and change to land and keep a job.

    As for the fight for relevance by the mainstream media, all I will say is that I’ve always tried to ride the wave instead of hold back the tide.

  7. ” I second what Rob Curley said, and I quoted: Skillset is important, but mindset is more so. The old lines between print and broadcast are not relevant. Students need to be prepared to learn and change to land and keep a job.”

    Thanks, good advice

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