Friday, 15 January 2010

Journalists as entrepreneurs - easier said than done

What are the most useful things we can teach our journalism students? According to publishing entrepreneur and fomer Telegraph writer Jack Roberts, editor of Bad Idea, the list should include: how to come up with a new idea and draw up a business plan, how to do cash flow projections and how to market and advertise themselves and their product. (Which of course is "hyperlocal", the buzzword of the moment, and done on a shoestring).

All good stuff. This is what 2010's going to be about. There's no way anyone's going to get their foot in the door in this industry as it is now unless they put themselves about and come up with new ideas. But I don't mind betting that I wasn't the only one at the Association for Journalism Educators' workshop on journalists as entrepreneurs today who has never had anything to do with business plans or cash flows. Yes, most of us have been freelance at some stage in our careers but planning didn't go much further than the next story pitch or commission. More hand to mouth than five year cash flow projection.

This could be the big problem with trying to teach our students how to be more entrepreneurial. The elephant in the room is that we've never done it ourselves. We've never needed to. Many of today's journalism lecturers started their careers at a time when the business model was to find a staff job with a local newspaper or trade paper and move steadily up to the nationals, again on a staff contract. Then we moved to a second career, yet again on a permanent lecturing contract. Not much entrepreneurial drive needed there. Some job planning skills, maybe but not the creation of a completely new idea from scratch, searching for funding and generating audiences and advertising revenue.

Guest speakers James Hatts, editor of hyperlocal site London Jack Roberts of Bad Idea and Danny Miller, publisher of film magazine and website Little White Lies were impressive examples of what relatively recent graduates can achieve. But all of them seemed to be natural entrepreneurs, seized with the determination to make an idea work. Not all students are like that. Neither are all lecturers. 2010's going to be a busy year.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Back to journalism

A big freelance commission from the Evening Standard. I've said yes - I hope I won't regret it. Of course I can fit it in alongside a full time job and my PhD research. I have to confess it's a year and a half since I actually last wrote anything larger than a blog entry and I've written more module guides than double page spreads for the past three years. But I felt a bit of a thrill as I opened my contact book (no iPhone contact lists, thanks). I felt a bit less of a thrill when I realised some of the people in my book had left the industry or, even in one or two cases, died. My shorthand is woeful and my interview technique rusty. I've got a lot to do to get back into journalism. My students are far more in practice than I am. But journalism is like riding a bike.. you never forget. I hope.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Online journalism teaching - the good and the not-so-good

An interesting debate is taking place on Twitter and blogs about the quality of online journalism education. Students are quite rightly critical of courses which don't take online journalism seriously (a particularly shortsighted position as many of our students get online jobs when they graduate). We're working very hard at Kingston to keep our courses up to date and have made a number of significant changes, including junking Online Journalism as an option and making multimedia reporting compulsory for all first and second years. They're assessed on work uploaded onto our internal CMS as well as work done for print. Students are introduced to Twitter, blogs and video journalism and learn how to develop an online brand. Our MA students run their own news website, RiverOnline where they put their multimedia skills into practice.

But all this has only happened after a lot of meetings and arguments (sorry, discussion) about timing and resources. As Marie Kinsey @journotutor, my colleague at Sheffield, points out, university bureaucracy is not set up for instant and regular change. Any changes to assessments have to be agreed by a committee which meets only every couple of months, so introducing assessment of students' Twitter use (one suggestion on the blogs) would have to wait an academic year, unless we could sneak it in under the guise of a "portfolio" of work. The obsession with "quality" means that everything has to have a paper trail. Software changes which need technical support or resources have to be planned and agreed more than a year in advance. Obviously we're not alone - the whole university sector works the same way, as far as I can gather from colleagues at other institutions.

As an NCTJ-accredited institution, we also have to shape our syllabus to a certain extent to the demands of the NCTJ exams. The NCTJ has just announced a massive overhaul of its newswriting syllabus and not a moment too soon. The disjunct between its old-fashioned, local newspaper print journalism exam and our attempts to teach our students the skills to survive in a 21st century newsroom make session-planning a tricky task.

Of course students don't see all this frantic paddling under the surface and they could argue, quite justifiably, that it isn't their problem. But in the interests of fairness (good journalism), this is just to suggest that there are two sides to every story...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Citizen journalism: amateur but addictive?

The BBC and the mainstream news websites are all desperately encouraging readers to send in their snow pictures and videos and post their accounts of how they got stuck in the snow/missed their exams/had a baby in the car on the M4 in a snowdrift. Citizen journalism at its most dynamic? Not really. The overall effect is more local newspaper than cutting edge journalism. And this, for many professional journalists, is one of the problems of citizen journalism, or user generated content, or participatory journalism, whatever you want to call it. As John Kelly argues in his paper Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: "the main criticism levelled at citizen journalism is a simple one: it isn't very good".

It's easy for journalists to be snobbish. There's a growing body of research suggesting that professional journalists are "ambivalent" about the value of citizen journalism, partly because it challenges their own professional status (if anyone can be a journalist, why bother to spend years training and sucking up to editors and being shouted at in the newsroom?) and partly because they worry that poor amateur contributions will damage the brand of their organisation.

But the point is that readers want to read and view contributions from other readers. The top shared story at this moment on the BBC's website is "Your pictures: more snow across the UK". The broadsheet journalists' choice of top story today (the secret ballot letter plotting against Gordon Brown) was nowhere in the top story choice for BBC readers. Which rather goes to back up the widely held view among commentators that what journalists think is news and what readers are actually interested in are two very different things.

Fast reading isn't always good reading

A welcome research week before the onslaught of semester 2 begins. It's so long since I had any sustained time to work on my PhD that it takes me a day to remind myself of some of the main themes of my research so far. I start reading through a stack of journal articles only to find that I must have already read them, because they're covered with underlining and my scribbled comments. Worryingly, I have no memory of any of the content of these articles, or even of having read them, so I go through them again and make notes on the main themes and arguments. Not exactly an efficient use of time but as I'm discovering, one of the most difficult aspects of doing a PhD in the gaps between the rest of my job is that the process of research is very disjointed. I read fast because I have limited time, but how useful is this if I can't remember what I've read? There must be a better way...