FAQ: How can journalism lecturers keep up with a fast-changing industry?

Abigail Edge teaching at BCU

Abigail Edge teaches a guest workshop on advanced Google tools in BCU’s newsroom

The latest frequently asked questions post is an answer to Ian Silvera who asks a number of questions about teaching journalism within the context a fast-changing industry. You can read his post here.

How do you think journalism lecturers should keep up with the fast-changing industry?

Following the industry press is pretty essential for anyone teaching in the field. Sites like Journalism.co.uk and Niemanlab are especially good at covering developments, but there’s also InPublishing and HoldtheFrontPage who cover it more broadly including new technologies and issues. And tons of email newsletters.

It’s easier than ever to follow individuals inside the industry, too – on Twitter as well as professional blogs, Medium.com and anywhere else. I maintain Twitter lists of people reporting in particular fields or in particular roles, for example, and generate Nuzzel newsletters for those lists so I’m up to date with what they’re sharing.

There’s academic research – journals like Digital Journalism and Journalism now routinely publish research into everything from the use of social media by journalists to data journalism, mobile journalism, podcasting, UGC, online video, etc.

Then there are events like News:Rewired and the Centre for Investigative Journalism Summer School, and the Data Journalism UK conference that I organise every year.

Many lecturers organise their own events and invite guest speakers into their university too.

And of course we have conversations with people we know in the industry.

It’s useful to have to write about your industry – running the Online Journalism Blog for 15 years has been a great excuse for me to interview people or try out new tools, for example, and agreeing to do books has made me think about any gaps that I need to fill.

How should journalism teachers react to trends like the recent podcast boom? How do you, for instance, keep your curriculum up-to-date?

Aside from all the things mentioned above, one important thing is designing modules so they are flexible enough to adapt to rapid change.

I would avoid having a module dedicated to a particular technology, for example, because you can’t guarantee that technology is going to be as relevant or important in a few years’ time (often we have to design modules a couple of years before they are taught, and modules will typically run for a number of years after that).

Instead I tend to try to design modules that can follow change – for example I have a module called Disruptive Publishing which, among other things, covers new technologies and practices, but what those are will vary from year to year.

It’s important to give students the skills to adapt to any new technology – not just one in particular. We can’t just “teach Vine” and then a couple years later the student leaves and they’re asked to be in charge of TikTok, for example.

So getting students to research a particular medium and develop those skills of getting to grips with a new technology — that’s useful.

Last week I worked with my students to identify a person who’s working with a new technology (e.g. a Snapchat editor, a VR producer, a head of email newsletters) and approach them to do an interview asking for their tips — that’s developing their journalism skills, and contacts, as well as their knowledge.

And talking to students about narrative techniques and how those are applied across, say, Instagram Stories and Twitter threads — that helps them develop an adaptability that’s really important.

How important is it to have data skills? Can you enter a newsroom these days without them?

It’s very important — not least because it makes you stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Relatively few journalism graduates, still, have those skills — because almost all students, in my experience, think that they can get away with not having them! So if you have data skills, you have already differentiated yourself.

It’s also important because data is a major source of information for us as journalists. One piece of research found that 42% of journalists used data more than twice per week, for example, but you only have to look at how much data is collected and generated — and the role that data plays in society — to realise why journalists need to be able to work with that information.

As journalists we are supposed to hold power to account, and report accurately, and knowing how to work with data is really important in doing both of those.

Last year the Broadcast Journalism Training Council recognised this when they added data literacy to their requirements for accrediting a course. Universities now have to teach that if they want to be accredited.

Can you enter a newsroom without those skills? Yes, you can. But it’ll be harder to get in, and perhaps more importantly, I think you’ll be limiting yourself in terms of the stories that you can do and the questions that you can get answers to.

It’s like playing a sport with one arm tied behind your back — you can do it, but wouldn’t you prefer to have that arm free?

Any other perspectives you have about the future of news media/future of news media training?

I think we are in the midst of an enormous change not just in the media but in education too, due to the same shift from information scarcity to information abundance.

Journalism teaching used to be about a limited set of skills on limited platforms with limited resources to learn about them, and limited competition.

Now we are teaching across a proliferation of platforms, multiple skillsets (text, video, audio, visual, data), with endless resources to learn from: not just tutorials but videos and communities of practitioners — and massive competition.

That means teaching students how to choose what skills to learn; it means helping them to find the best sources to do so; it means giving them the skills to adapt to new forms of storytelling, and continue to do so as genres emerge and develop.

Students’ consumption habits have changed, too: news comes to them, and it’s mixed in with PR and influencers and non-professional and semi-professional content.

So we are having to work harder to help students distinguish between professional journalism and all the stuff that might look like journalism, but doesn’t actually pay a wage; or the stuff that pays but is actually thinly-disguished promotion, not journalism.

Finally, I think we have to be open-minded as journalism teachers that journalism might look very different in the future — and part of our role is to provide the environment for our students to discover and create that. Some of most enjoyable teaching moments are when a student comes up with an idea or produces something and I think “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought of that!”

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