Journalism schools are failing at technology

By Russell Merryman on December 19th, 2011

Times were that journalism was not a career path discussed in schools; it was often something that just happened to young people who could write, but were not quite academic enough to make it to university – or to those who had made a successful career elsewhere and then wanted to write.

Those who started young, forged solid careers in newspapers and magazines, with many transferring across to radio and television as those media grew in the twentieth century. But the concept of journalism as a career path is one that has only recently become the provenance of the university. With polytechnics becoming universities and the push for more students in higher education in the nineties, so universities began to expand their portfolios by teaching a subject that had previously been the remit of the technical colleges, or of apprenticeships.

When I went for my exit interview with the careers service at my university in the late eighties, I was asked the inevitable opening question by the careers advisor there: “So Mr Merryman, you’ve studied Biology; any idea what you would like to do when you graduate later this year?”

I ummed and ahhed for a few seconds. I mentioned I might want to do a Master’s degree or a PhD, and that I had already managed to get some potential courses and research possibilities lined up, which received a nod and a look of approval, and we lapsed into a “well, that’s OK then, so what are we going to talk about now we have 20 minutes to kill” kind of silence.

“But to be honest,” I piped up, in a desperate bid to break the deadlock, “I was more interested in seeing whether I could get into radio or television.”

“Oh,” was all the hapless careers advisor could muster, not realising that every waking moment of mine at university that wasn’t spent in a lab or lecture theatre – or, yes, a bar – had been spent in the student union radio station, University Radio Hull, where, over the course of three years, I had been a presenter, a sound engineer and eventually, the station’s manager.

The advisor looked at me as if I had suddenly turned purple and started speaking in a minor dialect of Swahili. His eyebrows moved, arched and eventually shot across his forehead where they merged into a frown, before a penny landed with a resounding thud and he smiled a very forced smile at me that made him look like he was trying to swallow a particularly spiny jam sandwich. “Well,” he muttered, “I have absolutely no idea what you’d need to do to achieve that, but if you do manage it, could you come back and tell us, because we don’t know and we do get asked about it quite often.” And with that, we agreed the interview was over and I walked away, definitely older, but sadly none the wiser.

That was the Eighties, and even then the route to a career in the media was still considered by the establishment to be obscure and mysterious, secreted away with career paths such as becoming a First Division footballer or platinum-selling pop star. That careers advisor had really managed to get under my skin, though, and after such a pathetic performance, there was no way I was going to be deterred. I went away and started applying for jobs and sending demo tapes to radio stations.

As a result of one of these, I ended up getting better advice from a radio news editor, who listened to one of my tapes and told me that I had a great voice for news and that I should consider applying for a postgraduate diploma in radio or broadcast journalism, which I duly did. Before the course was finished, I had started work as a full-time reporter for the BBC.

And yes, five years later, I returned to my alma mater and told them how I had done it. I opened my presentation with the story of my careers interview, and watched as the head of the university’s careers service buried his face in his hands as he stood off stage. He later apologised, very graciously, and informed me that the advisor in question “no longer worked for this company”.

[midk]

Fast forward twenty-five years, and the picture is very different. Today, students coming to university have dozens of media courses to apply for, from Film and Television to Journalism to Publishing; more courses than you can shake a Heidelberg printer at. Fuelled by user-friendly technology and the massive growth in the creative media industries over the last two decades, universities are now cashing in with a whole range of degrees aimed at producing the next generation of writers, journalists and directors.

Gone are the days when the cub reporter was dispatched with a notepad and a pencil to find out who attended the latest funeral, breaking their teeth on tedious but necessary local journalism that was the mainstay of the newspaper industry for decades, while going to the local night school to learn shorthand and typing. Today, a student can go to university immediately after competing their A-levels and embark on a three-year course that gives them all the tools to practice journalism on any platform, be it newspapers, websites, radio or television.

These days, they learn everything from ethics to editing, audio to video, libel to layout, shorthand to social media. Some go on to specialise, in radio or documentary-making at postgraduate level, while others join the army of bloggers and writers now filling the growing plethora of news sites around the world.

As the demand for journalists has grown, so has the supply chain, but as that has happened, could the universities’ rush to supply that growing demand somehow have thrown the baby out with the bath water – or at least, some of the baby’s toys? Comparing the students who pass through my “industry standard, converged multimedia newsroom” at the London College of Communication, I see a mass of young people who will make very competent and, in many cases, talented journalists, but I do not see many who will immediately make their mark in specialist journalism.

When I tell them that I left university with a degree in Biology, they throw me a mixture of looks, ranging from incredulity to sympathy, and maybe utter a platitude along the lines of “I suppose that was how they did it back then,” in the tone you might hear if you told them you had to use an outside toilet or a tin bath in front of the fire.

In many respects, they are right: it was how things were done back in the day. But it also means that as well as being a fully trained and qualified journalist, I had a degree in something else, another subject which I could always use to underpin my journalistic credentials, and until the internet came along and dragged me off into developing new media services for the corporation, I had long harboured an ambition to become one of the BBC’s environment or science correspondents, using my Biology degree as evidence of my suitability for the post.

And here’s the problem. While we are producing plenty of young journalists, we are only producing journalists who have a background — and a degree — in journalism, and nothing else.

[midk]

Twenty years ago, I was called upon to attend careers evenings at schools in the county where I worked for the BBC, and, at these events, I would advise fresh-faced prospective undergraduate students that they should do a degree in a subject that they enjoyed, and then do as I had done, and take a postgraduate course in broadcast journalism to secure themselves the job in the media they craved. As the 1990s progressed and the first undergraduate degrees in journalism appeared, I suggested that, as a news editor, I would be more interested in students who had a range of subject knowledge, not just journalism, and, yes, that extended experience could include a gap year.

Maybe it was fortunate that my own career path took me off into new media and away from careers evenings, because by the time I stopped going to them, the higher education trend had been set, and the journalism degree was an indispensable part of many a university’s armoury. Today, I teach on one of those degree courses I criticised all those years ago. But I have to confess that while the course covers a wide range of subjects and contextual studies, from the Enlightenment right through to Climategate, we are still only producing journalists who study, and therefore know very little more than, journalism.

The result is an army of generalists arriving into the media jobs market every year; graduates who know a little about everything, and can write about whatever they are asked to, as long as they do not have to write more than 700 words and they have a good internet connection. They are supported by a vacuous news industry, whose paymasters, the advertising agencies, demand ever-more quantity over quality. So most of the media outlets that this army of know-something-alls are likely to be working for are forever dumbing down and chasing the lowest common denominators.

(Here I should also mention, perhaps in defence of journalism courses, how the news industry has almost completely abrogated its responsibility for journalism training by relying on the public sector, especially universities, to provide these degrees. That has allowed almost all newspaper owners and broadcasters to slash their training expenses. That cynical exploitation of the public sector by a profit-obsessed mainstream media is probably the subject of an entire essay in its own right.)

So, as the demand for high quality, specialist journalism has waned, so has the demand for high quality specialist journalists: it is a vicious circle of mediocrity that seems to typify the current state of the media in the UK, where celebrity gossip and fashion trivia are what passes for news, occasionally supplemented by a breathless daily health scare repeated almost verbatim and unquestioningly from a “big pharma” press release.

But away from the blinding glare of the mainstream media, there is a glimmer of hope.

It is being fuelled by new technology, both online and offline. Today there are more magazine titles than ever before, covering an ever widening range of subjects. The niche is the new business opportunity, and while the audience for these publications is smaller, so are the overheads.

And in broadcasting, the growth in video and audio on demand means that audiences can select their viewing and listening by genre, or by presenter, and with the internet and the semantic web linking these programmes and podcasts together, niche audiences are now being super-served with content.

The number of people watching live, linear-scheduled television is now entering the same free fall as the newspaper industry. Add to that the new generation of publishing tools and content management systems, which allow journalists to build a magazine for print and then export it as a website and a tablet edition automatically, and you have a hothouse for a new generation of specialist media. All of which will need suitable specialist content producers, otherwise known as journalists.

As ever, the Americans are already heading down that road, and the UK and Europe needs to follow.

But while the US is continuing to produce journalists with additional subject knowledge, through their focus on journalism in graduate schools and the continued use of major and minor subjects, the army of generalist hacks currently marching out of British and European universities do not have the same qualities and are therefore at a major disadvantage.

But journalism education has an opportunity to supply a new generation of journalists who can produce the specialist content these new audiences will demand.

I am not espousing the closure of all the general journalism courses. The mass media will always need a steady supply of well-trained, generalist journalists. The current crop of journalism degrees will continue to meet that. But the growing demand for specialist writers and researchers does suggest that we need a new approach to widen the pool of journalists who can meet the growing demand for subject-specific content.

[midk]

When I studied my post-graduate diploma, broadcast journalism itself was considered a specialism; but if you wanted to specialise still further, say into a specific subject area, you had absolutely no chance, or not at college anyway.

Studying broadcast journalism with me in Darlington was a very tall, handsome and talented prospective journalist called John Murray. His dream was very simple: he wanted to be a football commentator and correspondent, and he had already worked out that the best way to get there was to train as a broadcast journalist, then use that qualification to get a job with a broadcaster and once he was into the industry, he could eventually make the move across into sport.

He was absolutely right, and today John is doing his dream job as one of BBC Radio Five Live’s senior football correspondents.

So perhaps one part of the answer is to start providing a range of specialist courses, possibly at postgraduate level, catering for those journalists with an interest in a subject area, but who start by studying a general journalism degree.

Alongside the postgraduate diplomas in broadcast journalism, we could see new courses springing up in specialist journalism, covering subjects such as sport, technology, science, the environment, finance, fashion, health and specialist reporting areas such as investigative, documentary or even data journalism.

And there are still thousands of students every year studying specialist subjects. Like me, there will still be those students who are studying a subject they enjoy, but who are struggling to see how they can turn that into an enjoyable, well-paid job. And they know they will need one of those if they have any hope of paying off their student loans.

So here is a second idea: a postgraduate diploma in journalism that covers all the basics and gives those specialists the tools to join the content revolution, whether that be as full time professionals, or regular contributors alongside whatever other specialist job they manage to secure. The aim should be to give students a choice of routes into the industry, and allow them to keep their options open.

A third part would be for universities to provide specialist and general journalism training not just in a full-time academic manner, but as part-time and evening classes, in short, modular courses, aimed at existing students, new graduates, existing workers or even as corporate training, either on contract or in partnership with existing media organisations. These training centres should also be looking to make education as flexible as possible, with online and distance learning, even using virtual worlds as teaching platforms to widen participation in these disciplines.

And by adopting such flexible approaches for subjects like journalism, these techniques could be applied to a wide range of vocational courses, meeting the growing demand from students for courses that lead directly to employment and a career.

By growing the provision of journalism training out from its current, narrow and academically-defined remit, our existing crop of journalism schools can be ready for a revival in specialist journalism.

By embracing the concept of specialisms such as science and technology writing, we can put the UK and Europe back on track to compete with the growing specialist publishing sector in the US – and give readers the quality reporting they deserve.