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Introduction 2009 has been described as the worst year to graduate since the 80s, and for journalism students it is the worst ever. As we know, more than 1,000 journalists have been laid off since last summer, according to the NUJ. The industry is in an unprecedented state of flux – newspapers and magazines are going out of business, there is no one industry standard for doing the web, what tools or platforms to use, and there is as yet no business model for making it all pay. And there are serious questions being asked about whether journalism degrees are up to preparing students to enter the fray. Yet applications to journalism degrees are going up – rising by 24% this year. What are students thinking? We tracked comments on online forums – indeed, Josh set one up for European student journalists - and carried out a survey answered by around 150 students from 30 universities in the UK and abroad. We asked them how they saw their future careers, what they thought was important in journalism education, what they would like to see added to their current degree course, and what they would like to see dropped. In this presentation we’ll be looking at: • • • what students think is important to learn what employers are telling them they want what recent graduates are finding when they enter the industry
The survey Surprisingly, after that introduction, almost three quarters of those questioned said they were as keen or keener than ever to enter the profession since they started their course. This was a general optimism that showed itself in much of the feedback we received: “Because it's an innovative and exciting industry that is forever changing” “There are more opportunities for innovation in journalism than there ever was before, and as someone who lives ‘outside the box’ journalism is more appealing” “The new entrepreneurial spirit in journalism is exciting” “Greater opportunities for innovative thinking. Fast-developing new methods of storytelling” Despite the media commentary doom-mongering, the next generation of journalists is raring to go.
When asked how important certain skills were for a journalism student to learn, 91.5% of respondents said web-based skills were vital or important. They said they needed web skills to help them deal with the uncertainty in the industry, while some expressed frustration that they weren’t being properly prepared by universities and the NCTJ. “Journalism students need to be adept at both the old tricks of the trade (newswriting, subediting, law) and the new ones (web, social media, Twitter). We need to be qualified to create and publish content across all platforms until it is clearer what path our own careers will take” “Our school is very good at traditional media but lecturers are still afraid of going 2.0” “Some journalism departments some of the time are still in a mentality of preparing people for reporting jobs in local newspapers. The NCTJ, which has a tiny emphasis on the web let alone new media, encourages this” Further, 88.5% of respondents said learning audio and video reporting was vital or important, and 96.3% said sub-editing and design were vital or important. Around one-third of students felt their course didn’t put enough emphasis on these skills. But the biggest emphasis was still on the basics of news gathering and writing, which students did not want to lose in the mix. A warning note was sounded by a j-school student in the United States: “At the moment I'm spending so much time mastering ways of presenting information that I'm not spending anywhere near enough time understanding what story should be told. I'm learning to do slick presentations of slim stories. This can't be right” A debate within industry and academia alike is how deep into web-based skills new journalists need to go. We asked students whether they thought they should be learning web coding, like HTML and CSS, as part of their course. Just over half (52.1%) said yes, while 19% said no and a fairly hefty 28% said they weren’t sure. There seemed to be a general consensus that the web is only going to become more important, and so it follows that being adept at the language of the web and understanding how data can be presentedis preparation for the future. “That is where the present is and the future will be. Anyone who does not learn this skills will be left behind” “A good blog and SEO skills are vital. Mine are terrible and it is my biggest gripe with my course that they have not taught me properly”
“Because it would make it easier to be an all round writer/web designer and sub editor, which are skills that all journalists nowadays need to have” But, as the figures imply, there is deep-rooted unease about getting to grips with technology. Journalism educators often assume that young students are web-savvy and at ease with web tools – but a surprising number of students say they are intimidated by technology and went into journalism to write, not design web pages. “Oddly the students seem slower to adopt new media than the faculty. Multimedia was offered for the first time last semester, and no one signed up” “Not everyone is interested in that kind of stuff” We had the same experience at Sunderland. Although multimedia is embedded in our core modules, we offered a new, more advance module as an option . . . and just four students signed up. That’s why, although many respondents said web coding should just be an option, others said they wished they’d been made to take it. Web Journalism is not a compulsory part of the degree and as it's not a strong point of mine, I have deliberately avoided choosing Web modules. Perhaps if Web Journalism (which is becoming increasingly essential) were compulsory it would force people like me to give it a go!’ Finally, we asked students what they would like to see added to their course curriculum. The word ‘online’ featured prominently, as shown by this Wordle Even among those who were reluctant, there was an overwhelming acceptance that web skills were important. At the very least, they were acknowledged as skills that would make someone stand out from the competition in the hunt for a job. They didn’t see it as something they should be learning in their spare time, either. “More incorporation of online; a look at developing storytelling methods; a look at what the future of journalism might hold; how journalism makes money.” “I think more work with the online medium, blogging and similar skills are important ones that sort of get glossed over.” “If I’m learning my essential skills of online media on my own, then bravo to me and give me my money back!” As well as compulsory work placements, another prominent theme in the student wishlist was more specialization – column writing, science journalism, sport, international, war, music, fashion, reviews . . just the chance to be more creative. “Possibly a module in international or war journalism, something that might inspire rather than dampen the flames” “More variety. There is currently an extreme focus on news journalism, whilst perhaps 70% of the students on the course have no interest in pursuing a career in that field”
“More specialist subjects should be available eg. music journalism, fashion journalism. I think that many students have a clear idea of what they want to do when they graduate” When asked ‘What would you like to see dropped from your journalism course curriculum?’ you’ll see from the Wordle that ‘shorthand’ is frequently mentioned. I should add though, that this was more often than not followed by ‘I know it’s important but. . .’ Also featuring prominently in the feedback were ‘public administration’, ‘media studies’, ‘academic’, ‘ethics’ and ‘theory’ - non-vocational teaching basically. These comments are representative of many: “For me, I don't enjoy the more academic modules on the course and don't see how they will be relevant to my future career.” “Media Studies modules that have an extremely tenuous link to practical journalism, and over theorise the concept behind news outlets. Just gets frustrating.” “There should be fewer lectures and more hands-on sessions. I might even say the approach of this course is a little too intellectual.” What employers say they want In the survey, students have put most emphasis on vocational teaching that will help them find a job. They are desperate to know what employers are looking for in graduates, but are getting mixed messages as the industry struggles to envisage the future. A salutary warning here - the managing director of a regional media group urged our university to set up additional courses on sub-editing. “The employability of bright subs is pretty high and we’d be able to help with workshops, seminars, etc,” he wrote. That was less than two years ago. Had we rushed to set up a sub-editing degree, the students would be looking at a very bleak future now before they’d even graduated. Industry priorities can change pretty quickly. Even in the here and now, it’s confused. At the NCTJ student council in February, a newspaper deputy editor said: “I’m not bothered about a degree. I’m bothered about NCTJ qualifications. In terms of currency in the industry, I need to know someone’s got 100 words per minute shorthand, that they know what a section 39 is.” Yet the digital editor of our local newspaper the Sunderland Echo, Lee Hall, is tearing his hair out. While traditional journalism skills are important, he says: “It’s vital that you are given the opportunity to try out web 2.0type story-telling techniques. I would want to see journalism students being required to maintain and develop a blog/website with an emphasis on trying out new story-telling, crowdsourcing, marketing and interactive mechanisms.” Needless to say, he doesn’t sit on interview panels for new trainees . . yet. Mostly, the news industry is covering its options by asking for EVERYTHING. This can be seen in the contract for trainee reporters at a Trinity Mirror regional. On the left-hand column
is the role profile up until January (a succinct paragraph about working for the main evening paper). The group reorganized in January, called all its reporters multi-media journalists and merged the staff of three of its newspapers. The new role profile is on the right-hand column . . and here . . . and here. It covers writing for all three papers, taking photographs, shooting and editing video and audio, sub-editing their own work, uploading content to the web, and social networking. What’s actually happening That’s what employers want from graduates. A skills survey published by the NCTJ in December reported that more than 70% of employers complained about skills gaps in graduates, and found that there was “little willingness” on the part of editors to compromise But is this what is really happening in newsrooms? We spoke to several recent graduates who have got jobs in journalism about how they’re putting their cutting-edge skills to use. One, a multi-media journalist at one of the big newspaper groups, was given a Nokia N-96 phone two months ago, along with a two-day training course on how to shoot and send video on it. She has not used it a single time since then. “It adds a couple of hours onto a job to take video, and most of the time the newsdesk just forget about it anyway,” she says. “We’re supposed to be a web-first organisation now, but the emphasis is still on getting everything done for print. Basically it’s about getting the paper out, then thinking about the web. “When the news editors come round to ask what you’re doing, you have to say lots of stories for the paper. They wouldn’t be impressed if you just said you were doing a video. “We supposed to be active in social networking and maintain a blog, though most of us don’t – it’s extra c*** for no extra money.” Another graduate, Dan Gregory, landed his dream job as sports sub/writer at a Northcliffe publication, the Western Daily Press. He produced a video on his second day there, and got involved with the web as much as he could. Seven months later, he was made redundant, along with 45 other members of staff. However, they, and other graduates we spoke to, stressed that learning practical, web-based skills would give current students a stronger chance of survival in an uncertain future – not least because the industry’s own training was hit-and-miss, and because they felt they simply didn’t have time or support to familiarise themselves with the skills on the job.
Conclusion There are clearly a lot of issues that industry and academia are grappling with and where students want to be involved.
– Should journalism degrees introduce students to a broad education or vocational skills? Some might insist on the former (Adrian Monck, “I am against the idea that undergraduate degrees prepare people for work”), but students overwhelmingly wanted practical skills and experience that will best equip them for jobs. Not all have the time or the money to gain a leisurely, traditional first degree followed by a journalism MA. – How can journalism degrees be at the cutting edge, when technological tools and formats change all the time? (Neil MacDonald, Liverpool Post, asked: “Why would an aspiring journalist now do a journalism degree? The industry will have been transformed by the time you graduate.”) Students argued that the basic principles behind formats were easily applied to others, and, crucially, that they needed to adopt the right mindset. As New York professor Jeff Jarvis says, “The most important skill we need to teach is change. And we can’t teach it fast enough.” – Should we obsess over format, or rather concentrate on the core skills of news gathering and writing? “F*** new media” and focus on the story, one Columbia professor told a class, sparking a furore in the blogosphere. Students in forums and in our survey saw it as two sides of the same coin – they had to be able to tell a story the best way possible. – And finally, what’s the point of a journalism degree? Some local editors might not yet “get it”, and students might say they prefer vocational to academic modules, but they did appreciate their degrees as a place to experiment, and wished universities were more at the forefront of the debate over the future of journalism. (“Two skills that were not on your list but should be is "willingness to change" and "creative thinking." Journalists need to learn how to think like Fine Arts types and push the boundaries to find out where journalism can and should go”) Josh - From my own perspective, and correlating with our survey results, I’d like to see web-based and multimedia vocational skills given the space to be a compulsory part of all journalism curricula now - without doubt, that’s the likely destination of an increasing amount of journalism graduates for the foreseeable future. Journalism graduates are, by and large, the ones that will inherit the profession, the industry and, importantly, the internet is the future. To have a bunch of graduates unable to utilise the web or visualise data-presentation ideas in practice would be to the detriment of journalism.
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