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Training Matters: Creating successful magazine journalists

This week, University of Sunderland programme leader Alex Lockwood talks about what it takes to teach students how to be successful magazine journalists.

Alex is programme leader for the journalism MA programmes at the University of Sunderland. He has worked in magazines, radio, online and media training and development in southern Africa and the Balkans. His research explores the cultural field of mediated human-environmental relations. He is currently editing a special issue of Earthlines magazine on ‘Men and Nature’.


Ask my graduating MA Magazine Journalism students for the most important elements of their course and their top answers would be:

1. Quick, constructive feedback

2. Working ‘live’

3. Skills to work across all media platforms (including shorthand)

Each of these is grounded in a need to develop confidence. When assured, their talent flourishes.

Give them confidence in their tools, and you immediately have a cohort of skilled and independent students. So we teach a class leading to the NCTJ video journalism exam—taught not at first by a journalist but an expert camera-operator/filmmaker.

The speed at which this tutor gets the students operating advanced EX-1s and editing in I-Movie and Final Cut is phenomenal… after which they are able to express great story and publication ideas in video, and work with imagination rather than frustration.

As the educator Anton Ehrenzweig wrote in 1967, the most important task of the educator is to help the student develop a flexible personality. And there’s nothing better for seeing where students’ inflexible points are, and being able to focus on them, than working together under pressure on live projects.

From the beginning we have them pitch ideas to editors, as well as taking editorial responsibility for ‘On Campus’, a weekly page in the local Sunderland Echo. And in the second term the students get to produce a real magazine. They agree on an idea, research and develop the concept, and set out to launch a new brand, all in twelve weeks. The groundwork has been laid for this in a module structured around the NCTJ’s Business of Magazines syllabus, which for me, and for the students, in essential in grounding them in the vocabulary and practices of the industry.

This year it was a Slow Travel magazine for the North East. They launched a website (www.purposeofvisit.co.uk) to nugget out the issues developing a flat-plan, while chasing advertising and developing a KickStarter campaign, which tested their video skills as well as grounding them in the realities of financing a magazine start-up (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1487304648/side-street-magazine).

They used every skill the magazine journalist needs: building networks, whether that be supporters, advertisers, sponsors or champions; liaising with the publisher (me); building an audience through social media; editorial judgment, the ability to write, copy edit and fact check; compromise; hit deadlines; a flair for layout and knowing how to use images; not shirking on post-production or distribution, including a targeted mail-out. Not to mention having to make judgment calls on law and ethics- fundamental elements of their programme that flow from the NCTJ Diploma alongside which our modules are aligned.

As one student said: “Being taught practical elements such as InDesign and Photoshop and putting them to use creating a real, not hypothetical, magazine worked far better than it just being a classroom exercise.”

However, none of this works without knowing what a journalistic story is. So we begin with structure, how to produce excellent stories based on original source material- and give them weekly feedback in copy clinics. This feedback says something else to them: that they have real, regular contact with their tutors, and a real say in their education. And that, I’ve found, also breeds the assurance and flexibility they need to work in any field of a rapidly changing industry.

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