City University’s Tom Felle on future-proofing journalism students for the newsroom

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of people working as journalists in the UK increased within the space of a year from 64,000 to 84,000 in 2016. Given how much we read about the layoffs and cutbacks across various newsrooms, this increase is noteworthy.

At universities we’re certainly seeing a good deal more innovation that matches this fervor. Tom Felle, a former journalist and now lecturer in digital journalism at London’s City University, shared his thoughts about the state of the industry and how universities should be preparing their journalism graduate for careers in the field.

“There’s so much noise out there that the fundamental role of journalists as sense-makers and fact checkers has never been so important”

How is journalism viewed from an academic perspective in 2017?

I think, for a long time, newsrooms were afraid of change and I think universities were part of the problem in that journalism programs weren’t reacting quickly enough to change elsewhere. I think the only constant in journalism now is change — we’re starting to see some of the key fundamentals now for what that means in terms of digital journalism and in terms of future-proofing skills.

Traditional journalism hasn’t changed fundamentally. Sense-making, fact verification, truth telling are still the linchpins of the profession, and accountability journalism and public-service journalism in particular are as important as ever — perhaps more so. Really, it doesn’t matter if you’re working with microphones or a notebook and a pen, or with a mobile app — those are only tools. What matters is the storytelling.

There’s certainly a different news landscape though, isn’t there? As social media has exploded, hasn’t that altered the journalism industry in some way?

Well, I think the ‘Fake News’ debacle in part answers that question. There’s so much noise out there that the fundamental role of journalists as sense-makers and fact checkers has never been so important. Fake news is just one of the worrying trends, but it’s part of a broader problem which is the apparent inability of members of the public to be able to differentiate between obviously blatant nonsense and verified views. So, when at an audience level, that’s an issue that’s concerning and further reinforces the point that there’s never been such an important time to champion fundamental journalism values.

Given that there are so many ways to consume the news, what do you think is the best way to measure success of articles on the digital platform?

Editorial analytics are stranded in another era. It’s time to take them seriously

There are very crude measures for success based around hits and views, and ways to measure engagement through likes, shares, retweets, re-grams and comments on platforms. If I’m being honest, they’re measures that digital newsrooms have become obsessed with.

The widely held view is that if we’re producing content that isn’t being read widely then we’re wasting our time because people are reading the competitors’ content instead. This is a massive problem because it means that important stories — and I mean stories which are important to tell — don’t necessarily drive enormous engagement, or trend or go viral.

Certainly the danger is that those stories are told less and stories that are primed for viral get told more. The quandary of that is that we might need a few of those kind of stories because we need to be in the space where the audience is, but once they get into the site they’ll hopefully stay around and read other things. But it’s a balance issue, and I feel we’re losing that balance.

Hasn’t that always been the case, though? A newspaper has never just offered up stories which are deemed important, have they?

No, and I think it’s the same argument that newspapers have always made as to why there’s a page three — and I don’t just mean the infamous Page 3 from The Sun, but a page where it’s lighter and more entertaining and in some way different to the rest of the paper.

“In the chase to find the audience and make this pay, there’s a danger that we lose focus on the product, on the journalism”

Whilst I accept the argument, I’m still very worried that really important stories are more likely to get lost in the digital landscape. Investigative journalism, for example, is expensive to produce and it doesn’t play particularly well digitally, if — and this is absolutely key — you’re only measuring success with those crude measures.

Is there a way — in an ideal world — to stop the kind of behavior we’re seeing in newsrooms where newsrooms are publishing articles on subjects that get them the most likes?

I see there being two problems here. The first is that there has always been a tension between giving the public what they’re interested in and public interest journalism, which is something entirely different. The goalposts haven’t quite been fixed when it comes to digital journalism just yet: we’re still feeling it out.

Analytics vs editorial gut instinct: which should we trust?

The second problem is that newsrooms operating in the digital landscape are really strapped for cash. There’s a real financial imperative to make digital a success and part of the way to do that is by chasing audiences, because the larger the audience, the more you can monetize them. There’s nothing new about that in journalism but historically there was at least more money around and there was an expectation that you produced quality journalism first, and I think we haven’t really seen that in the same way in digital. For many, the key problem is that you need to make it pay at all costs, and the concern that I would have — and one that is shared by many commentators — is that in the chase to find the audience and make this pay, there’s a danger that we lose focus on the product, on the journalism. So yeah, that’s a concern and it’s a big one.

Are there any publications which are embracing digital and its potential more successfully than others?

Sure. The obvious example in the UK is The Financial Times, and I think their success is down in large part to the fact that they’re producing something their audience needs. They’re not competing for the scraps, because their market is clearly defined. I think, in the longer term, the FT will probably move almost entirely away from print, but the key point is that they’re not doing anything fundamentally different in terms of the journalism they produced in print. Sure, I imagine there are issues around deadlines, the 24 hour news cycle and the different kinds of stories digital allows them to tell, but by and large it’s business journalism for a business audience.

“The danger is that… newspapers forget their core values of journalism and resort to choosing their audience in any way that they can”

At the other end of the spectrum are the papers at number two, three or four, where they’re competing for the same audience as the market leader, but with less money. The Mirror, Express, Star [UK Tabloids] are all going to struggle because they’re not doing anything fundamentally different to the Mail — it’s celebrity, showbiz and sport and they might make the argument that the products are different, but by and large they’re not sufficiently so.

Audiences have changed. They’re not putting their hands in their pockets now and taking out a pound and making a conscious decision to pay for that newspaper. The danger is that in doing whatever they can to stay afloat, these newspapers forget their core values of journalism and resort to choosing their audience in any way that they can. Doing thus is only going to hasten their demise and, simply put, those that stay true to their core values are the ones that are probably going to be successful.

So you’re saying that specialist papers naturally find more faithful audiences?

Absolutely. In Ireland, where I’m from, one of the most successful products by market share — not necessarily by overall audience — is a very small newspaper called The Farmers Journal. It’s a weekly newspaper for farmers, but it has something like 70,000 sales a week, which is a huge audience for them, but also outsells many of the big regional newspapers in the UK. It’s doing really well because it’s able to write for a specific audience. So yes, the more niche you are, the better chance you have of having some protection.

Everyone’s chasing real-time analytics, but what are they learning, and what is it doing to journalism?

So how is all of that feeding into how things are being taught at City University at the moment? Has there been a shift in the way you approach the subject?

There has and there hasn’t. I think any shift that we’ve been seeing has been to do with thinking about the new storytelling mediums and platforms, rather than the fundamentals of good journalistic practice. Being able to tell a story succinctly, to write well, to fact check and to understand how journalism operates with the ethical and moral implications of a story — these are all of great importance.

As to how its impacting on the way we teach, I think the changes we’ve seen are in how we tell the stories. The idea of doing a ‘print’ journalism course now is largely an anathema — you need to have a multimedia skill set. The students who are graduating now have 45 or 50 years of career ahead of them and they’re likely to work in a number of different jobs, across a number of different platforms and it’s going to be in a constant state of change.

Every year we look at our courses now and see if we’re meeting the needs of our students and the industry — we’re looking four or five years into the future to see where the industry is going. We need to be training students for 2021, not for 2017: that’s our key focus.

Originally published at on February 28, 2017.