The 3 forces changing journalism education part 3: the relationship between education and industry

In the first part of this series, I talked about how changes in the news industry were reflected in changing journalism education. In the second I looked at how education itself is reacting to changes in information. The third change is a result of the first two:

Part 3: The relationship between the news industry and education is changing

In the UK the relationship between journalism schools and news organisations has largely been a supply chain of newsroom-ready graduates. As universities and training bodies like the NCTJ, BJTC, PTC and Skillset expanded, news organisations scaled back on their own training budgets.

But the changes in the industry outlined above threw a spanner into that supply chain, in two key ways.

Firstly, the chain was based on an assumption that the news industry – and specifically senior figures within it – was best placed to know what skills it was going to need in the future – but it quickly became apparent that they didn’t.

Accreditation documents that barely mentioned online skills – or that reduced it to web design or broadcast-style video – didn’t help.

Cultural battles that dragged on for years – over the validity of blogging, citizen journalism, SEO, and innumerable other innovations – didn’t help.

And the fact that the industry itself didn’t appear to have the skills to solve its problems – or know what skills would – didn’t help.

Universities faced an uncomfortable truth. It was increasingly clear that to serve their students properly they needed to teach skillsets that were in demand in the growing online media industries. But those industries were not the ones formally shaping their curricula – nor the ones that students even knew existed when they applied for the course.

Should they continue to teach the courses that sold – knowing that there was a good chance that graduates would be less employable in a few years’ time?

Supplier of cheap labour – or incubator?

Alongside the issue of curricula was another development. Student work experience, when scaled up to the numbers at which journalism courses were now operating, had become a significant part of the way the media industry worked.

As the workforce thinned there was the potential for that contribution to reduce the number of jobs available to graduates of the same courses.

In other words, while work experience may be useful for the individual student, it would also reduce the opportunities open to the same student in the jobs market.

The whole concept of work experience was also based on the same supply chain logic. It wasn’t designed to adapt to a situation where graduates were ‘expected to teach the news industry’ (which isn’t to imply that the exchange is only in that direction either).

It was designed largely on the basis that students would either perform an existing role while the occupant was on leave, or fill the gaps in another role – either of which may be redundant in a year.

Was this the best way to serve both journalism students and the news industry? Again, it may have been when the numbers were lower and the industry better defined.

But could that student workforce be used in a way that would better benefit both the student and the news industry?

What benefits both student and industry most?

In my own course I tackled this by designing the ‘work experience’ element as a consultancy, tackling a specific problem for a client (media organisation, or other organisation with a media element) through the research and practical skills that a student develops in higher education.

This helps the organisation explore possible new streams of revenue or content which could help create new jobs.

It helps the student develop unique knowledge and skills that can help them stand apart from others, in partnership with experienced journalists and publishers who can provide valuable insights too.

This process could be scaled up to see groups of students exploring industry problems.

There are other possibilities. At UCLAN Francois Nel has been developing the MADE project to help develop media and digital enterprise. At the Oxford Institute they are working on a range of industry problems (although it’s not clear how involved journalism students are). At Birmingham City University the university provides facilities to students launching their own enterprise. At City University London and at CUNY students pitch entrepreneurial ideas to potential investors.

Could universities – with their access to funding, infrastructure and business networks – do a lot more in this regard? Might it be one of the new areas where they can claim a gatekeeping role (although Kickstarter and other fundraising platforms still offer alternatives)?

In the final part of this series I will try to list some of the ways that journalism training is trying to change – can you add any?

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