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Training Matters: The perils and perks of a “live” platform

This week’s blogger Pete Leydon is course leader for the NCTJ-accredited BA and MA journalism courses at Staffordshire University. He is also the founder of Staffs Live, a student-run website featuring news, sport and entertainment headlines from across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire.

The journalism landscape is a very different place compared to 20 years ago. And let’s be honest, it had no choice but to change – technology has forced its hand. With it, journalism training – and trainers – have had to evolve, too.

It doesn’t seem that long ago when we trained using typewriters, notebooks and our feet to pound the streets looking for stories.

We fought over a handful of expensive but cumbersome Macs used by hundreds of eager students at an FE college in the middle of nowhere, just so we could make some attempt to lay our stories out and add barely relevant and comical clip art.

Fast-forward two decades, and technology has added weaponry to the trainee journalist’s armoury in virtually every way – news gathering, interviewing, researching, imagery, video, audio, and much more.

But it is a double-edged sword. Some say it has also prompted laziness, complacency, almost apathy in modern journalists – a “one click fits all” approach.

One advantage to technology, though, is the ease with which student journalists can now reach a “real” audience. Creating a “live” platform on which students can publish has revolutionised the approach to practical journalism teaching.

But it comes at a price, one I know all too well.

StaffsLive was born five years ago. We were one of the first, if not the first, to go “live” with a news website run by journalism students.

We spotted a gap. Students were publishing in-house, gaining good training in online skills, SEO, WordPress, blogging and so on. But still without that feel of publishing to the big, wide world.

So we took the plunge and made a brave (some would say foolhardy) move to go “live”.

And it’s like a tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon – once you set off, there’s no turning back.

Five years on, it’s fair to say we would not want to. Tutors have learned as much from using a “live” site as the students have.

The site has evolved, grown. The audience is now large (tens of thousands), the social media channels have built up a huge following, organisations and clubs flood us with requests, releases, invites.

We have created an expectation – and this is a great learning curve for students.

They have a better awareness of a journalist’s responsibility to the reader, the demand to supply up-to-date content, to be accurate, interesting and entertaining, to have a dialogue with their readers and communities, and the need to be ethically and legally aware at all times.

Yes, it also provides perks – access and invitations to people, places, events – just like any other media outlet.

In terms of professionalising students and preparing them for industry, there is nothing better – because it is industry.

But alongside the perks and positives, come the challenges. Allowing 70-plus students to publish content “live” is risky at best – more like a recipe for disaster.

They have passed 100wpm shorthand, and they may have a C grade in essential law and court reporting. This does not make them editors.

The perils of allowing students to publish direct to 25,000 unique users are obvious.

So tutors have to be prepared to play the role of news editor. And if, like me, you’ve been a news editor in a previous life, you know exactly what pressures that brings.

But if your team buys in to the idea, and sees the positives of a “live” site for existing students as well as in recruiting new ones, then the extra workload could be worth it.

StaffsLive is a simple WordPress site. It has a clean theme, good user levels built-in, useful plug-ins to run video, audio, image slideshows, social media, blogs, comments, and to provide direct feedback to users to help them produce publishable content.

But we cannot stand still. Such is the audience, we are now attracting advertising and sponsorship opportunities. And this almost brings a smile to the faces of university bean-counters on the top floor!

It will mean more work, for staff and students. But hard work never killed anyone – did it?

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  • June 5, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    On my old paper even juniors stuck copy direct to web without a check. Mind you, their copy was lucky to get one check before it hit the paper.
    Fings ain’t what they used t’be. It will cost dear sometime.

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