AddThis SmartLayers

Alan Geere: Is journalism training losing sight of ‘traditional skills’?

Alan GeereFormer Essex Chronicle editor and Northcliffe South East editorial director Alan Geere, left, examines the past, present and future of journalism training.

An interesting contribution from The Guardian to the ongoing debate about where journalism education could or should be heading argued that ‘video and data skills have changed the face of journalism’ and universities must keep pace.

In a piece headlined ‘Media reboot: the real story is the rise of data’, Paul Bradshaw, who heads up the postgrad courses in data journalism and multiplatform and mobile journalism at Birmingham City University was quoted: “We struggle to meet demand from employers wanting students who can analyse data. All news organisations are expanding in this area.”

Paul, a long-time standard bearer for teaching the latest technological innovations, cites a Birmingham story about a planned rise in police patrols and stop and search after a spate of knife crime incidents. Journalists used data to determine which areas of the city were most subjected to stop and search. They then supplemented this with traditional reporting, by speaking to the communities affected, to give context, the Guardian reported.

Hurrah for Paul and especially his last observation – speaking to the communities affected – which should also capture the attention of both academics and industry. My doctoral research into the changing nature of editorial leadership tells a different story about the impact of data journalism in UK regional and weekly paper newsrooms.

Conscientious yet uncontentious

In my 25 years teaching journalism I’ve found students to be a conscientious yet uncontentious bunch, happiest copying a quote from an online handout rather that actually having to speak to someone, either on the phone or, God forbid, in person. Hacking around on a computer for stories is just up their street.

New recruits are technically fantastic, one editorial director told me for my PhD research. “But I’m often disappointed they don’t have that innate love of breaking a news story; they don’t get that excitement from something breaking. They can craft it for you, they can give you a lovely edited video package, but do they have the love?”

Another reflected: “I see sometimes where people are jumping up and down because they’ve done a bit of 360-degree video and it’s like yeah okay but…you’ve spelled somebody’s name wrong in the intro. Don’t lose sight of the basics and don’t let the technology dictate the story, let the story dictate how you use technology.”

Perhaps the universities are trying a bit too hard. “One of the things you get at university is usually state of the art equipment. Sometimes people come to us and they finish up working in an office which has still got an outside toilet and old equipment, and you can see the shock in their faces,” said another editor.

“Sometimes they are not fully prepared for the commercial realities and I don’t think they are necessarily prepared for the workload either because we do demand a lot from people these days.”

Passion and hunger

And key skills when recruiting? “We’ve met people who are really good at social media but are terrified to pick up the phone,” said another editorial director who has responsibility for hundreds of journalists. “Verbal communication is a core skill as well so as being able to use all these digital skills, so I look for passion and a hunger and then excitement about why they want to come in the job. I think the rest we can just about teach.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love it that uni course directors are continually updating their offer. And I know that a job in the regional press is not what everyone is aiming for. But I desperately hope we do not lose sight of those traditional skills of finding people who have something worthwhile to say and getting them to talk about it.

Perhaps last word should go to Simon Hinde, programme director of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication, who is also quoted in The Guardian, saying: “The key thing is to allow students to develop their own authentic voice. Nobody knows what jobs today’s postgraduates will be doing in 10 years’ time.”

2029? Bring it on…

This piece was originally published on Alan’s personal blog, which can be found here.


You can follow all replies to this entry through the comments feed.
  • January 28, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    Technology offers some interesting possibilities for regional media and I don’t think that new ways of presenting stories should ever be dismissed as fads. But at the same time, they can’t come at the expense of the skills that form the very foundation of journalism.

    The trouble is that, if you’re going to start doing video reportage or data-based stories (for example), you need to either jump in with both feet or not bother at all. Doing it half-heartedly will sap resources that could be better deployed elsewhere while yielding underwhelming and ultimately pointless results.

    For example, over the past decade all of the major publishers have – at some point – equipped their reporters with smartphones or camcorders then proudly boasted to readers that “look, the Anytown Bugle is now doing video! Are we terribly Web 2.0?”

    However, without training or even enough hands working the pump to do it justice, those “multimedia reporters” end up hitting their quotas with videos of bored police officers guarding the scene of an incident hours after it happened. Nothing produced of any real value, but still time that would have been better spent on other things.

    Likewise with data journalism – okay, so you’ve submitted an FoI request and got back some numbers that show hospital waiting times going up, crime detection rates going down or whatever. Great. But if you haven’t the time to find case studies and interview people to illustrate the human impact, you’re left with a very boring story about percentage margins. Followed, if you’re lucky, with the standard “this is disgraceful” quote from a councillor or MP of the local opposition party.

    I suppose the main draw for any news story is the human side of it, and if reporters don’t have the time, resources or the nous (or a combination of these) to go out and just chat with people then the quality is always going to suffer.

    I’m certainly shocked at the number of young people we accept on work experience at my paper who insist that yes, they definitely want to be journalists and always have, but “please don’t ask me to use the phone because it makes me nervous”.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(15)
  • January 28, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Jimbledon. you summed it up perfectly. Too much modern reporting is shallow, however technically gifted some kids might be. But newspapers are not alone. How many clips do we have to endure of TV reporters standing outside a closed court or cop shop late at night and tell us nothing new? Presentation before quality.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(10)
  • January 28, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    Skills like English?
    “The Leicester Western Bypass is shut heading south this morning due to reports of several collisions.”

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(10)
  • January 28, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    Paperboy cuts through all the waffle to prove the major flaw with most ‘modernised’ journalism training. Young reporters can Facetweet, Instapost and embed other people’s shaky phone video into their stories, all with just their thumbs, with ease. Ask them to string an intelligible English sentence together or do some proper fact-checking, however, and they are flummoxed.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(7)
  • January 29, 2019 at 9:44 am

    All subbed out. Makes me wonder if anyone checks this rubbish before it goes into print or online. Or is there no-one left with the ability to check it?

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(3)
  • January 29, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    Many of us have those traditional skills and love nothing more than getting on the phone and going to interview people, yet we don’t get taken on, I speak as someone who was interviewed for a job by Alan nearly 10 years ago and tried him again later, only to be told “The answer is still No.” So, I have to take this article with a pinch of salt.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(1)