Fewer young dinosaurs please: How journalism schools can help their students, and regional news

By David Higgerson, digital editorial strategy director, Reach PLC

On a (very) warm, sunny day at the end of June, I found myself in Canterbury, a guest of the Association of Journalism Educators at their summer conference.

My brief: To talk about what where local journalism is heading, and what the industry needs from the next generation of trainees coming out of journalism schools.

(Of course, you will still find people who argue the best journalists are the ones who haven’t been through a journalism school at all, but that would have rather lost the audience early on. And, if it’s the right journalism school, it’s not true in my opinion)

If I was to sum up what I was trying to say in just one of the many slides I showed, it would be by using this one:

Oddly, it was my last slide. It’s a job ad for interns from the Washington Post. It includes this brilliant line: “Everyone, regardless of position, must be a leader. With ideas and initiative. It used to be, in companies like ours, that we hired people who could learn from us. Now we aim to hire people who can teach us what we need to know.”

The days of people arriving raw, and being moulded into a journalist to a formula are long gone. The stars of today are those who brought something new to the newsroom, and showed it was a new worth having. How do we spot that new, and how do we make the space for it to shine?

Journalism has always been about discovering the new new. Our challenge is to blend what makes journalism great, with new skills which put the audience at the heart of what we do. This isn’t optional, it’s what our readers expect.

So how do we get to this place? Hopefully by those practising journalism day in, day out, working more closely with those teaching it.

It can be easy to get lost in the world of journalism academia. But if journalism schools wish to remain relevant — and by that, I mean making the students paying £9k a year to be taught journalism as employable as possible in the sector (local journalism) which still recruits more journalists than any other — there are two areas to focus on:

A journalist in a regional newsroom in 2018 is expected to be:

  1. Safe. We have to be able to trust their work and they way they sourced the story.

2. Social. In other words, capable of bringing an audience to their story, be that through the way they tell it, or the way they promote it.

Journalism schools are generally pretty good at delivering on the first point. Far too many trainees fail on the second. ‘I have a Twitter account’ is a sure-fire way to not get a job in 2018.

Each and every story has to stand or fall by its own merits, and that has profound implications for journalism, and the skills we need journalists to be entering the industry with if we are to survive, then grow, together.

Why? Because with audience comes conversation, from conversation comes reaction. Back in 2000, I could get away with hiding a bog-standard council story as a midbook page lead on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. In our newsrooms now, every journalist is expected to look at a story, and ask themselves who the target readers are, and how to get the story to them.

Put simply, it’s not enough to say something is important, therefore we write it. The job isn’t done when we press publish.

I also mentioned revenue on the slide above. In all honesty, that’s more of a by-product of recent changes to the industry. The headlines are doom and gloom, but the silver lining is that revenue is now linked to a newsroom’s ability to create a meaningful relationship with local audiences more than ever before.

An indifference at revenue decline in decades gone by has been replaced by a determination to do what they can to help make money for the business.

Pretty much every journalism student I meet can tell me about the decline of newspaper revenue. Very few can tell me how digital journalism is funded now. And that strikes me as odd, because in local news at least, the correlation between readers and revenue has never been closer.

It’s why we confidently launched Belfast Live, a profitable news website, and have done the same in Glasgow, Dublin and now Leeds, with more on the way.

The very art of writing a story which people want to read determines the revenue a newsroom can expect to make. In many ways, it’s empowering … but obviously, also fraught with risk.

So when I see editors defending charges of clickbait, more often than not what I see is an editor acutely aware of their ability to drive revenue to sustain journalism, and making daily judgement calls on what is and isn’t suitable for his or her brand, and learning from data.

What’s that got to do with journalism schools, other than a plea for a reduction in hot air from some institutions? Well, it plays a part in making sure journalism students becoming trainee journalists are well equipped for the future.

Here’s my list.

Data savvy

They need to be data savvy. Too often we still hear about ‘hits’. Journalists need to show they not only understand analytics, but also know what to do with them. Analytics should inspire, not dictate journalism.

Audience builders

Journalists also need to show how they can build an audience around their work. Our social media editors always complain that they find themselves being lobbied by reporters wanting their work on the brand’s Facebook page. This is great — it shows the reporter knows the value of the brand Facebook page. But equally, the most impressive journalists are the ones who can show they bring their own audience too.

Master of…

I always feel a little sorry for journalists who have spent a fortune on a journalism degree to learn a little of everything. They know video, sort of. They know audio, maybe. They can layout a front page on Indesign, randomly. The ones who stand out are the ones who excel in maybe one area or two.

Safe, in a 21st-century way

I mentioned before the importance of a safe journalist. The ones who not only know their Section 39 from their Section 40, but who also know how to stay safe too. When do you pull out your iphone to grab footage and when do you duck down or avoid the riot turning on you? When is it safe to post a story to Facebook, and when is it best to avoid being in contempt of court.

Erm, people

And finally, and perhaps most important of all, we want our journalists to be people. Too often, we train our journalists to take off their human coat at the front door and become a reporter inside the newsroom. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it also separates us from our readers unnecessarily, and I would argue helps to exaggerate the lack of trust in journalism so many people take about.

What does this mean for journalism schools? Here are the challenges I presented to the AJE, and I must stress it’s not a summary of the whole industry, but common challenges which come up:

Wrong debates

The first is the amount of time we spend debating whether plcs and big business are part of the problem of the regional press. For me, there are three parts to this. The first is that it’s a bit like arguing that the heat of the sun is killing the crops. There’s no point just staring at the sun and tutting.

The second part is that I actually think within a profit-driven organisation is the safest place for local journalism, as the demise of the low-margin smaller publishers is demonstrating. But we also live in a world where journalism is under attack like never before. Even in local journalism, deep pockets can be required to protect us from those who would prey on us for a quick buck through the courts, or those who would seek to use their advertising spend to nullify our content. Stripping profit out of journalism doesn’t save journalism, it puts it in peril.

But that’s just a view. What if instead of debating the merits of something we fundamentally can’t change we actually worked together on the biggest challenges we can influence: The lack of information being provided by police, ambulance, fire, NHS, councils and government compared to years gone by?

The information deficit is what we all need to work on, as an industry and individuals, to make sure everyone, not least those who hold the future in their hands, those who you create in your classrooms.

In my day

If I may be blunt, there’s still far too much ‘in my day’ when I speak to people teaching the journalists of tomorrow. I’m all for reflecting over a pint, but it doesn’t do students any favours when they arrive seeking work. All too often, work experience placements end with comments like ‘my journalism lecturer told me local newsrooms are dead, but I loved it.’

I did a talk earlier this year to a group of third years, and one of the lecturers asked a whole bunch of questions about digital revenue, saying a local editor had said there was no money in digital. This editor had indeed said this — several years ago. This editor is the proud editor of a newsroom which is profitable in its own right now. Yet the old thinking, often based on a chat over a pint, is dangerous.

Digital snobbery

This is still a thing in some quarters. I love it when I encounter a course which puts content, not platform, at the heart of its course, but still too often it seems to about teaching skills from newsrooms of a bygone era. Digital news is our future, lets not breed a snobbery about it.

Perhaps the most contentious point here is a phrase a colleague coined a while ago — that of the young dinosaur.

Young dinosaurs

Three years in j school and they arrive with us fired up to get a front page lead, which is great, but have no interest in online, which is not.

Honestly, it’s still common. “I didn’t come here to write listicles,” or “It’s not my job to get an audience” and so on. If you believe in journalism, you surely believe in the importance of deploying any trick in the book to get it an audience honestly.

So what do we change, and how do we work better together?

Come and see our newsrooms

Spend time in them. Regularly. We’ll happily have you, show you want we do, and why we do it. The vast majority of our staff are proud of what they do, and believe in where we are going.

That’s got to be much better as an exercise in keeping in touch than just catching up over a pint.

Ask questions

If something doesn’t look right, as us why we did it. Many people are familiar with the story of the Cheltenham Chip.

A reporter saw a KFC meal dumped in the street on his way to work. The reporter turned it into a few pars online, a kind of talking point article, which, once picked up by social media, ‘went viral.’

It’s become the stuff of folk-lore, a case-study for some in the debasing of regional journalism in the quest for clicks. But there’s more to the story than most people know.

The chap whose KFC it was came forward, said sorry — and was fined by the council, who in turn used it to make a point about littering. What started off as a piece of talking point content actually became a piece of civic journalism because — shock — it got people talking.

The Cheltenham Chip story ended up in academic studies criticising the regional press, but the author never sought to find out why it had been written. He’s far from alone on that score. Very few journalists will say no to explaining their workings out when it comes to local journalism — you just need to ask.

Working together on trends

Spotting trends and what comes next is a perennial challenge, and one which is hard to get right given the speed of change and the cycles you guys work in. But there must be a way we can respond to things faster, together. Most courses, I hope, factor SEO in somewhere, but what are courses doing about the fact 20% of search is now audio-led?

The biggest revolution may yet be upon us. Are we ready as an industry? Are you, as the guardians of our future leaders?

And finally…

In many ways, journalism is lucky to have so many in academia looking at it, and, in their own way, trying to look after it. It’s taken me a long time to realise this.

But there’s a disconnect between what is being taught in classrooms and what is needed once journalists get into the wild. And, indeed, all too often not enough time spent on accurately reflecting on what ‘the wild’ looks like now.

If we don’t find a way of working more closely together, everyone loses. Journalism students, university courses, local newsrooms and, above all, the thing which unites us: local journalism