Is print focus a dangerous distraction for young journalists?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Newspaper distribution point outside a station
I suppose I shouldn’t be by now, but I’m always surprised by how many journalism students are obsessed with print. I don’t mean in love with print – I still love some printed products – but actually still see print or online as a binary choice: you work on one or the other. That’s pretty much a completely false dichotomy now. The vast majority of traditional printed newspapers and magazines have some form of online expression, and the majority of journalists work across both.

People sometimes use reports like the recent one in the Times [£], based on Neil Thurman’s research at City University (where I’m a visiting lecturer) to justify a print-centric viewpoint:

Reports of the death of printed newspapers have been greatly exaggerated, according to a study which suggests that people spend far more time reading the paper versions of the 12 national titles than browsing their websites.

The second half of that statement is borne out by the research. The first, well, not so much. Sales of the national newspapers are all in year-on-year decline. People who read print newspapers may spend longer on them than digital equivalents – but there are fewer of them every year. Neil’s research suggests the scale of the challenge to digital journalists to capture more of their readers’ attention, rather than acting as a balm to the trouble souls of those in print alone.

It’s in this context that I find Natasha Clark’s piece for Wannabe Hacks where she ruminates on the choice between sticking with the Newspaper MA or switching to the Interactive MA (both of which I teach on, and both of which are excellent courses) an interesting read:

A raging battle persists among journalists old and new in all areas of the field. Digital cameras, or SLRs? Shorthand, or social media? I have always advocated a healthy mix of both, beautifully demonstrated by my history and politics degree. Alas, I can only complete one MA course – newspaper journalism, or interactive journalism.

First of, kudos to Natasha for considering the switch. That says a lot for her thoughtfulness and awareness – as does her involvement with Wannabe Hacks. Some of the conflicts she sets up have been solved – digital SLRs have won, with a back-up of cleverly used smartphones. However, I find her final reason for sticking with Newspaper to be curious:

Perhaps though, the reason I have defended print so valiantly, and why I have always leant more towards print than digital, is because I enjoy it more, and would prefer to work there after I graduate. It is where I see myself working in five years time which is swaying my decision towards where I first began the search… newspaper. Is this the right decision?

There are a handful of print specialist jobs out there. A handful. If you, as a newly-qualified young journalist want one of those jobs, bear in mind that you’ll be competing with an ever-larger pool of experienced print journalists who have a depth of practical skills that can make a print product really fly – and who won’t be that much more expensive than you. Most other jobs are a blend of print and digital.

In essence, the choice she’s making – beyond the one between two MAs – is to target a diminishing field, with increasing competition for the jobs that do exist. That’s a brave choice. And that might just be “brave” in the civil service sense…

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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.