I have a confession: I have never liked student projects aimed at students. They tend to betray a lazy approach to creativity: after all, what can be less imaginative than a project aimed at ‘people like me’?
They also don’t generally develop the skills that journalism degrees aim for: original research, for example; flexibility in style; or an exploration of professional context.
And I’m not alone: most journalism tutors, when looking for an assignment to give or weighing up a student’s proposal, will run a mile from anything aimed at students. “Go write for the student newspaper if you want to do that.”
But I think my instinctive aversion has been wrong. I think it’s as lazy as the ideas I’ve criticised. And I think it means missing an enormous opportunity.
Traditionally, one of the biggest strengths of the regional journalist was their connection to the communities they reported on. They knew the issues; they knew who to speak to in those communities (and not just who published the press releases); they knew their readers; and they saw the impact of their work.
University students, in contrast, are perhaps at a stage in their life when they are least connected to any community. They are often living in a town or city they have no history in; they are unlikely to run businesses, or belong to any industrial or professional culture; few have children in the local education and health systems. They are inbetweeners.
It is possibly the worst time in somebody’s life to expect them to do journalism.
And the one thing that they are connected to – student life – we steer them away from.
A New Year’s resolution
So I have a New Year’s resolution for 2012: I’m going to change the habit that I’ve acquired from a decade in teaching journalism.
For the first time I am going to assign my students – just one group – a project focused on students.
It will still build those essential skills: original research; flexibility of style; professional context. But those skills will be built upon a knowledge that what they will be doing will have a large audience, and can make a real difference to them.
That means that I will be expecting more. Because they already know the community they are writing about, I will be expecting them to hit the ground running with original leads and story ideas – not trying to hit a story quota with press releases or superficial he-said-she-said conflicts.
Because the project will be online-only, I will be expecting them to be exploring new ways of engaging – and collaborating - with the most connected audiences in the country.
And because they are personally affected by the systems they are reporting on – from employment law and tenants’ rights to student councils and representation – I will be expecting them to research the system itself: where power and accountability lies; where the money goes, and why.
As a result, I’m hoping that students will develop an understanding of how to investigate systems in any field – transferring their experiences of investigating education into investigating the health system, welfare system, local government, or anything else.
I’ll be using Help Me Investigate Education as a space to help them build that knowledge, and those connections, and to collaborate with journalism students and others across the UK. If you have a class that you want to get involved, I’d be happy to help.
And there are plenty of stories to be told. Like any transient population, students are subject to many abuses of power. In 2012 I want to see if, given the opportunity, student journalists can hold that power to account.