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It’s time to hack newsroom learning

We learn best when we have to learn — but in newsrooms, most journalists end up training for the wrong things at the wrong time, when they are least determined to learn.

This autumn, working with Fathm, I’ve set out to hack the way working journalists learn.

Today’s newsrooms face a staggering number of challenges. Smart, effective training can go a long way to equip newsrooms to confront their challenges, leaving them better prepared to take on challenges of the future. For investments in training to make the deepest impact, they need to be seen as long term benefits, not just a quick fix.

We are reorienting newsroom learning around these problems. Instead of passively taking a series of seminars, we want to challenge teams of journalists to explore problems and then design real-world solutions.

Pain Points

Frequently, newsroom training takes a one-size-fits-all efficiency approach that rarely aligns with reporters’ immediate needs.

Courses take place when budgets and schedules allow. This means the opportunities for training are rarely planned out to coincide with periods when reporters need new skills the most, such as when they are embarking on a new task or project that demands new skills.

This matters because it affects a journalist’s motivation to learn. Frequently, they attend a course because they want to impress a manager who encourages — or, worse, forces — them to attend. Such motivation rarely creates the optimal conditions to learn, especially when the skills and knowledge the course delivers are not those the reporter most immediately needs in his or her role.

The reality is that most misaligned training goes to waste. Our brains quickly jettison information that we don’t use right away.

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus established a theory of learning in the late 19th Century which he called “The Forgetting Curve”. It describes the brain’s decreasing ability to retain information over time and found that if new information isn’t applied, we will forget about 75% of it in six days.

That means to ensure journalism training makes the greatest impact possible, it must disrupt the forgetting curve. We need to find ways to motivate — or even force — journalists to apply what they learn to the immediate challenges their jobs straight away.

No matter how important or worthy a course may be, if journalists are learning the wrong things for them at the wrong times for them, the training could lose its impact.

It’s not surprising that in 2019 ICFJ found that journalists are largely dissatisfied with the training on offer in their newsrooms. Journalists demand more intense, hands-on training on more advanced digital topics than newsroom managers often provide.

Problem-Based Learning

From engaging weary audiences on key issues like climate change to combating harmful misinformation to growing digital audiences, journalism has heaps of real problems that need solving.

The journalists we train are tasked with solving one of these real-world problems. That is the starting point for training.

The journalists work with an experienced facilitator to identify the skills and concepts they must learn in order to understand and design solutions to the problem. Each journalist in the team goes off to research a different aspect and then shares his or her findings with the team. The facilitator is there to ensure that all of the appropriate learning goals are covered and to fill any gaps.

Then, the team shifts into design-mode. The facilitator continues to guide the team as they apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired to build and implement a real solution to the problem they were tasked with.

A similar problem-based approach to learning has been in place at medical schools for decades. Teams of medical students work with a facilitator to solve real-world problems: diagnose and develop a plan to treat a sick patient.

It works so well because learners determine the set of skills and knowledge they must acquire and then apply them straight away, this approach to learning helps to avoid some of the pain points of more traditional approaches.

Journalists learn the right things at the right time for them.

If you are interested in discussing how Fathm could help create a training programme for your newsroom then we would love to hear from you. Please email hello@fathm.co



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Andrew Mills

Andrew Mills


Journalist | Founding Editor connectthegulf.co | Co-Founder JumplineJournalism.com | Past Northwestern Uni. Prof | The Middle East, intl. journalism, education