Research and radical reinvention: universities' role in journalism

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Carnival of Journalism: It’s back, and this time it’s personalDavid Cohn has brought the journalism blog carnival back from its grave. For those who haven’t experienced blog carnivals in the past, they’re an excuse for a group of bloggers who specialise in the same subject to all post about the same topic once a month. This month’s topic is the role of universities.

Would you recommend that someone took a journalism course right now? In Britain, course fees are going up while the number of journalism jobs is going down. You’re likely to rack up debt while you head towards an uncertain job market. Could you put your hand on your heart and say that it’s the right decision?

For the past few years, the poor students of the Cardiff University post-graduate journalism course have had to endure my ramblings for an hour of their lives. (I’ve heard rumours that Glynn has to lock the doors to keep them there, but I discount this on the basis of pure ego.) And every year, I’ve told them the same thing: I’m jealous of them. They’ve got a year to experiment and learn, before launching themselves into the most exciting period of journalism since the first newspapers were born in the coffee shops of London. Everything is in flux, the formats are changing, as are the business models. They are the generation who will start to pin down some of the answers, and recreate the world of reporting in the digital era. I’m an aging old hack, with aspirations to a coastal home, with kids and mortgage to match. My room for risk is smaller than theirs is, and should be.

These bright young things need to come out of university with a set of skills, both those taught and those self-acquired, that will give them an edge in this new digital environment. They might use those skills to launch their own sites, or to join traditional publishers and help them reinvent themselves. And that does feel pretty damn cool, if you have an inherent passion for publishing.

But there’s a caveat here:*** it’s only worth it if the course is training you with the skills you need to thrive in the real world of 2011, and not the journalism environment of 1991. ***

Largely, I would suggest, that means teaching journalism students the core skills of journalism, and detaching them as much as possible from the skills of expression. To me, the core streams that Jomec offers – broadcast, magazine and newspaper – seem meaningless in the second decade of the 21st century. While all these streams still exist – at least for now – no a single one of them thrives in isolation any more. TV journalists blog and connect with their audiences on Twitter. Newspaper journalists may spend more time writing for the web than for the dead tree edition. Magazine journalists may be doing more audio (for podcasts) and video than their notionally broadcast colleagues.

And some of those students might well be looking for “none of the above”, for a career in purely online reporting. And those careers exists, both in personal journalism startups, and in businesses like RBI, where we now have titles that exist online-only. And I tell you what, when we recruit for those roles we look for both core traditional skills, as well as experience and awareness of everything from data journalism to content promotion and audience engagement through social media.

So, is it worth doing that course? If you use that time as a rapid learning experience, where tutors skilled in the digital era give you core traditional skills, and the mindset needed to innovate in a rapidly-changing environment, then yes. Damn straight it is. You’ll rarely get so good a chance to experiment, find your own strengths and weaknesses and build a set of skills to impress an employer or launch your own journalism enterprise.

And, dammit, universities should be able to offer this. Despite the recent efforts of governments of all stripes, universities have always been as much research institutions as teaching ones. Any university which fails to poke at the changes of journalism with a sharp, academic stick is failing in its duty, And the news that people like Judith Townend are now doing good, phd research into the future of our profession is heartening. We need more solid research into the changes in this industry. Too much is anecdote, evangelism and guesswork right now. The more hard facts and evidence we have to shape the publishing choices we make, the better.

So, if you ignore research, choose to just be a passive sponge instead of an active experimenter, and join a course that’s still focused on the traditional models of publication, then congratulations. You’ve just racked up a huge debt for the sake of nostalgia.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.