Bob Hoskins once got paid to tell us that it was good to talk. Networking is quite a big part of both journalism and education so there tends to be a lot of chatter I get to listen to. Not all of it makes sense or lights my fire, but every now and then you get to hear someone speak who makes points that you stop and think about.
I was fortunate enough to hear a presentation this week by New York University’s Professor Jay Rosen in London on the subject of ‘What should journalists be taught?’.
After hearing him talk prior to the Coventry Conversations event I spoke at earlier this year, I knew I’d probably spend much of his visit to London nodding enthusiastically, but nevertheless, it was interesting to hear his views on the subject of what journalism has become and the reasons why we should educate reporters in the first place.
It’s also quite nice when someone with such a reputation puts across arguments that support some of the points you’ve tried to raise in the past. One such example was the subject of platforms versus stories.
In an era where there is so much media format crossover, the suggestion from Prof Rosen was that his ultimate newly-designed course would focus the reporting of news rather than the reporting of it for any specific platform, made more than a bit of sense.
Speaking from personal experience, there’s definitely something in this argument, although to what extent is up for debate. While we still have radio and TV industries then there will always be a call for expertise in those areas and that is something which needs to be taught in depth. However, for the print/digital side of the profession where more opportunities exist for new forms of reporting, there is certainly some ground to ensure that we’re not stifling storytellers by bogging them down with an unnecessary skillset. My advice to students has long been ‘let the story be itself – don’t let the platform define it’.
Much of Prof Rosen’s suggestions on a platform-neutral education sprung from his belief that the bootcamp way of teaching journalism was at the root of many of the problems – but it was a fault that lay both with education and the wider journalism industry. For too long, he suggested, news organisations had wanted to offset training costs by calling on universities to supply reporters ready to slot into the production machine. However, he correctly pointed out that this machine was now being taken apart. To get what he was saying, think about going into business selling spare parts for the Model T Ford!
Instead, he argued, what the industry now needed was innovators and creative thinkers. The only problem with this? The insatiable demand from journalism for cogs to slip into their machine meant the role of universities as places of research and development was so minor that they were not ready to ride to the rescue with solutions when the internet and social media came along.
All well and good, but the big question still had to be answered about how we develop these problem solving young reporters with creative minds to help sail the good ship journalism through choppy waters? Prof Rosen’s solution took a lead from studio-based teaching in the arts. It also involved ending the bootcamp method of instruction. He pointed to his Studio 20 programme as a way of returning the focus to creative ways of developing journalism and reporting, by working on products in the ‘studio environment’.
His suggestion was that the basics of reporting and necessary technical skills, supported by problem-based learning in a practical environment, would be the answer. By focusing students on real world problems (identified through partnerships with news organisations) rather than a pre-defined skillset, we would see them discovering and solving some of the challenges our industry is now facing.
The point was supported by the fact that those asking about certain skills in an interview will not have them in their own professional locker. Which left the question of whether we should be teaching to replicate or to innovate?
There’s no doubting that some of Prof Rosen’s ideas are founded in real merit. His views on the need to face journalistic issues and challenges in the real world are to be applauded and are something we try to do at Staffordshire on a smaller scale through our StaffsLive output.
It was also interesting to see the New York academic discussing journalism education centres as publishing businesses who should be facing outwards. It’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of the little site our students work to fill with content and news and I think they feel the value in it too. Not only does it showcase what we do but it allows them to deal with challenges in a way that simply can’t be replicated in a classroom environment.
One area that wasn’t tackled in this whole revolution was the role the NCTJ play in UK journalism. By providing the set of standard skills that journalists must achieve to break into the industry, the training body do – rightly or wrongly – possess a real stranglehold on many aspects of professional journalism in this country. As a result, universities face a timescale challenge to blend bohemian ideals, such as those suggested by Prof Rosen, with the bootcamp formalities of getting students through the various exams they need to get a foot in the door at many of the media outlets in this country.
So what is the solution? That is the million dollar question and one which wasn’t going to be answered in a two-hour Q&A session. But the real key, for me, will lie with the very people we’re designing journalism education for – the students and the industry. Do young journalists want to be cogs in the established machine and does that machine still want new parts? Or is there a desire to throw off the shackles and risk dropping tried and tested methods in favour of more varied – and uncertain – paths?
Students and editors, it’s over to you.