The 3 forces changing journalism education – and why we’re ignoring 2 of them (part 1)

On Monday I spoke about the future of journalism education at the EJC’s 20th anniversary event. It strikes me that while most of the discussion around journalism education centres on changes in the ‘news industry’, there are other significant forces which are too often overlooked.

In a series of posts this week I want to try to map out three areas where journalism education is facing changes and how they’re being tackled – or, in most cases, not.

Part 1: the ‘news business’ is changing

Most media coverage of journalism education tends to look at it from the industry’s point of view. This tends to take one of two lines:

  • The skills needed by the news industry are changing, therefore journalism education has to change
  • Their news industry is shrinking: questions are raised over the numbers of journalism/media courses and students

First up, then, is the skills gap.

The skills gap

The main problem facing journalism education over the past few years has been an ever-expanding list of new skills that they are expected to fit into their courses alongside existing traditional skills. To name just some:

  • Multimedia skills – audio and video
  • Mobile newsgathering and production
  • Writing for the web and SEO
  • Using content management systems (CMS) and some HTML
  • Data journalism
  • Community management and managing UGC
  • Using social media and other online sources to find and verify stories, leads and sources
  • Enterprise/entrepreneurship

This list has hit related problems in the way that journalism education is organised:

  • Courses are only redesigned as a whole every several years, and changes can take years to come into effect (for example: a final year module will be designed 3 years before the first intake of students onto the redesigned course actually take it)
  • Journalism and media departments face the same skills shortage as the news industry: it is difficult to hire journalists with those skills, and most existing staff come from senior roles and worked during a time where those skills were not part of the workflow.
  • Most courses have historically been platform-focused, i.e. students take separate modules in broadcast, newspaper, and magazine journalism. Tutors designed the modules based on their own largely single-platform experience.

When online journalism was first added to curricula it was typically done as a fourth ‘platform’ module, rather than something integral to those industries or part of journalism as a whole (as, for example, the telephone is). Heads of courses could then ‘tick off’ online on their list of things to do.

But ever since then the ‘online journalism’ element has, in most cases, had to accommodate that ever-expanding list of new industry requirements. This means that students get less time to develop those skills, and only do so in an online-only context.

This can also give students the impression that those skills are not relevant to broadcast and print news processes: what one tutor described to me as an online journalism ‘ghetto’.

The shrinking industry

The second common problem identified for journalism education is the shape of the industry itself. From most journalists’ point of view, ‘journalism’ is not a good career option right now. Their colleagues are being made redundant; profits are down; newspapers are closing.

This is indeed bad news for journalism students on courses based on how the news industry used to be described, or who have traditional aspirations (as many do).

But as any data journalist knows, there are two key problems with this approach: firstly, it conflates a shrinking industry with one which is not recruiting at all, and secondly, it relies on a very specific definition of journalism and the news industry which may no longer reflect the reality.

So, while the industry is shedding jobs, it is doing so partly because it is trying to change its shape: making subeditors redundant in order to make room for multimedia journalists (who also, being younger, happen to be cheaper too). Closing print titles and launching online-only (with community managers instead of an editor).

And while the traditional media powerhouses’ payrolls have been shrinking, there has been a significant expansion in journalism roles in online publishing and in organisations who now need to publish their own content.

Chart: online publishing one of the biggest growing sectors; newspapers one of those shrinking most

One of the speakers I bring in to talk to my MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham, for example, is Richard Ayers. He’s had digital news roles at the BBC, Trinity Mirror, and now Manchester City.

For journalism students organisations like Manchester City are as likely to be an employer as a local newspaper. That raises all sorts of issues in whether we consider that as PR or journalism (the PR industry has always been a big recruiter of media graduates; while sports and fashion journalism are notoriously reliant on the industry they cover; and contract publishing has been a significant part of magazine industry for some time) but more specifically how we address potential ethical considerations in those roles within our teaching across practice, theory, and related areas like ethics and law.

It also raises issues regarding the expectations that students arrive at (or apply to) journalism courses with: not all appear to realise that print and broadcast are now multiplatform professions; few are aware of the new roles that are being created; and even fewer are aware of the new content businesses that are springing up.

Their knowledge – or ignorance – of these things will shape the form that their education takes: in the modules that they choose and where they invest their efforts (or even whether they decide to study journalism at all).

In the next post I cover the second change facing journalism education: the information environment that students now operate in. Just like journalists, we are not the gatekeepers any more. Meanwhile, I’d welcome comments on how journalism education should respond to changes in the industry.

10 thoughts on “The 3 forces changing journalism education – and why we’re ignoring 2 of them (part 1)

  1. Paulo Frias

    Thanks a lot, Paul, for your brilliant post (as usual).
    As you certainly know, one of the biggest problems in the relationship between the news industry and the Universities is the very conservative opinions of the journalists in the newsrooms about the online journalism.
    One of the most important strategies that we try to follow here in The University of Porto, Portugal, is to bring the newsroom to the University. Or, at least, keep a very close physical presence of our students in the newsrooms. We try to develop projects in partnerships with newspapers, e.g., aiming to discuss with the ‘old’ journalists the importance of the multi-disciplinary skills of our young journalists.
    We have very important results in a specific project, P3, that you can access @
    Waiting for Part 2…
    Best, Paulo

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Thanks – I’m going to tackle this in the third part, so will try to include your example (assuming Google translate can give me a decent idea of what it’s about!)

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  4. Eleanor

    I agree that the journalist’s job is changing hugely with the influence of so many different platforms, which should be core parts of the courses, but I also firmly believe that the core skills of journalism – finding the story, news sense, interviewing and people skills, tenacity, etc – won’t ever change.
    I also don’t think people will ever stop buying newspapers and that the best websites should complement and add to the papers’ content, the Mail Online being a brilliant example.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Agreed about core skills. In one of the other parts of this series I’m going to talk about the difference between teaching people to be a ‘journalist’ (i.e. fit into a particular workflow) and to do ‘journalism’ (the core skills you mention, and being able to apply those whatever the platform and end user).

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