Milk and honey

February 27, 2009

Right, after bashing university students in my last post, here is a great piece by third-year journalism student Steve Carpenter. It’s a report of a speech given by Bob Satchwell, he of the Society of Editors fame. He sent it to HoldtheFrontPage, who I hope paid him properly for it.  http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/news/090227satchwell.shtml 

Now I’ve always felt Bob was too quick to defend the tabloids whenever they stepped over the mark rather than giving them the odd kicking that they clearly deserve, but I can respect his views and he usually argues a good case.

But this speech he made to students at Coventry beggars belief.

It may be a case of telling his audience what they wanted to hear – ie that their pointless three year course (sorry Steve) is likely to lead to a job and (according to the PG) that the ‘land of milk and honey’ will return to newspapers soon – but it’s such rose-tinted nonsense that it could have been written by one of the ‘owners’.

Now before you dismiss Bob’s claim as utter tosh, or choke at his statement that the downturn could be good for the press, read this other little gem from him first:

“There are lots of stories about journalists being made redundant, which hides the fact that there are lots of other journalists that have actually been employed. There are more journalists now employed than there were ten years ago.”

Marvellous. Well done Bob. What spectacular awareness of our industry you have.

To be fair, I suppose you could argue that stories about the Kent Messenger group slashing a quarter of its staff, Northcliffe, Johnson Press and others ‘centralising production’, the heavy cuts at Bristol… (I could go on but you get the point)….are taking the limelight away from the seven reporting jobs being advertised on Holdthefrontpage at the moment – a whole two of these are for trainees.

I was actually about to join the society this week – which funnily enough has just been complaining about a fall in subscriptions – but I really don’t think I’ll bother now as it seems to have become the official mouthpiece for the owners rather than editors struggling to get their ‘products’ out because of the lack of staff.

I tell you what Bob, I’ll send in my cheque as soon as this land of milk and honey returns.


Is journalism the new media studies?

February 25, 2009

There’s been a few interesting views recently on the training of journalists.
It follows the news that the number of applications to do journalism degrees has risen by 24 % this year – that’s more than 13,000 applications for courses starting in September.

It’s a frightening statistic given the state of our industry. Every day another paper is slashing jobs and centralising production.

Nick Davies (he of Flat Earth News) http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43159&c=1 makes some interesting points about the quality of lectures.
He states: “A great many of them are genuine crap, taught by people who haven’t the faintest idea of how to do the job.”

I think he’s spot on – there are simply too many courses and some of them just aren’t good enough.

Eastern Daily Press deputy editor Paul Durrant  http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/training/090218counciljob.shtml goes further, stating that he isn’t ‘bothered’ about journalism degrees.

It saddens me but journalism degrees have become a populist, soft option. The media studies of noughties if you will (and having done a media communications and English degree, I know all about soft options).

Journalism still looks cool to outsiders – I’m sad enough to admit that my press card is clearly visible whenever I opened my wallet. And with the rise of the internets, news and information has never been more in our faces, so it’s not surprising that lots of young people are interested in the profession.

But the massive increase in courses is dangerous. Many are uncredited and I know of at least two which are taught by people who have never been journalists.

Lets get this straight. If you want to be a journalist, there is absolutely no need to study journalism at university. What is the point in a course that lasts three years teaching something which is 95% learnt on the job?

As Paul says: “I’m bothered about NCTJ qualifications – I’m bothered about vocational training. I’m looking for maturity, passion and confidence. In terms of currency in the industry, I need to know someone’s got 100wpm shorthand, that they know what a Section 39 is.”

Apart from the NCTJ qualification – which is in dire need of a major overhaul – I agree totally with this. You can have all the journalism theory in the world but if you lack the personality and the passion you’ll be a shit reporter.

A journalist needs some law, shorthand and local government knowledge before they get started properly. These can be picked up in a pre-entry course which lasts between four months and a year.
They also need work experience. As much as they can get.

As an editor and formerly news editor, I have dealt with many work experience types.
And without execption, those who had studied or were studying journalism degrees were poor. Many simply did not have the personality (you don’t need to be pushy, but a certain amount of drive and common sense is a minimum requirement) while others were vastly unprepared for the world of work, and particularly the news room.

But the most worrying and annoying were those who thought that three years in the classroom, a piece of paper saying they achieved a 2:1 or even a 1st, was proof enough that they knew it all already.

In reality, they know no more about the industry than the kid straight out of sixth form who has been doing work experience for three months, and far less than the kid who did a four month pre-entry course. Worse, they tend to pick up more bad habits which need to be beaten out of them.

It’s depressing looking at some of the comments made by the journalism students below Paul’s article. I feel really sorry for them as they’ve clearly not received proper careers advice.
I can see it now – they tell their guidance counsellor they want to be a journalist, so the counsellor hands them the list of journalism degrees.

If you want advice – email the editor of your local rag. Many of us (although not enough) will care enough about the future generation of hacks to respond. (You might need to email them twice though as we do get a bit busy).

A candidate with a degree in say English, politics or even philosophy, definitely has an advantage other applicants who don’t as it shows a level of intelligence, that they can stick something out for three years and of course generally universities help people mature.
However, if it’s a degree in journalism, then I’m sorry, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you send me a CV.


Who neesd subs anyway?

February 13, 2009

Sub-editors are “a layer that can be eliminated”, according to former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.

http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43078&c=1

I’m going to ignore the comments at the bottom of the PG story which point out Roy’s own failings, and look at his arguments instead. And I haven’t found a copy of his speech, so I’m trusting the PG report.

First of all, Mr Greenslade suggests that journalists are now “highly educated” and can sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

I really don’t know where to start with this one, but I’m going to resist the urge to push my tongue into my bottom lip and make some incredibly un-PC duh noises.

Even though I am someone who can string a sentence together, I am always grateful for an extra pair of eyes. Afterall, even world renowned authors have their copy checked.

As a trainee hack, my writing was probably cleaner than most, but it would have been insane to let that naive 20-something write straight into the paper.

Actually, one of my district papers was that stupid. All my copy for the Smalltown Obscurer went straight on the page, maybe with a spell check if the sub could be arsed. And the hopeless editor certainly never read it.

To be fair it generally worked ok – but this was because it was my home-town where I knew practically everyone so took huge pride in my work.

Of course I made a few errors, but they were usually simple things which the sub or editor could have picked  up. I think it was incredibly unfair looking back that I had to carry the can alone.
But most trainee hacks go where the work is and don’t necessarily have the strong local knowledge.

Mr G also stated that “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”

That use of “of course” really winds me up.

The statement reminds me of the awful (but enjoyable) Judge Dread film (Stallone at his best) where these clones are created in a couple of hours, complete with all the combat skills of seasoned soldiers.

Does Mr G really believe that hacks come out of journalism college knowing everything they could possibly need to know?  Even though many believe they do, this is just nonsense “of course”.

Apart from law and shorthand, nearly all journalism is learnt on the job. Having a strong sub-editor who can talk a reporter through their mistakes and mock their ignorance is a vital part of creating a well-trained hack. Without the guidance of subs, particularly in a reporter’s formative years, the overall quality of reporting will fall incredibly quickly.

And I couldn’t let this point pass without looking at the “well-educated” reporters we have these days. At every paper I’ve worked, there have been one or two outstanding journalists, but these are always outnumbered (often heavily) by journymen, idlers, wastrels and charlatans.

I also know of a few reporters who can bring in some fantastic stories and have excellent interview techniques but can’t write very well. I’d much rather have a reporter like that and help them develop their writing than a handful of spoon-fed monkeys who write perfect prose.

Mr G argues that all of this isn’t ideal, but commercially it might be necessary.

Again, I just can’t agree with that. Poorly subbed writing can quickly damage a paper’s credibility. Readers will be less inclined to read a paper littered with spelling mistakes and errors, and a loss of readers means a loss of advertisers.

It may see saving on the wage bill in the short term, but it damages the product, and thus its commercial value in the long run.

Mr G also believes there are two types of sub-editors – those who work on local or natioanl rags to templates and the creative types who write Sun headline.

I have to wonder whether Mr G has stepped into a regional newspaper office in the past ten years.

Templated pages are used, but not all the time. Pretty much every page is created on the differing merits of the story, headline, pictures and other furniture.
While the front few pages of my paper always have the same shaped adverts, the pages certainly don’t follow the same rules every week and look very different.

Mr G then makes a point, perhaps contradicting his previous arguements, that it’s not that we don’t need subs, but rather we can hire someone for £1 an hour to do the same job in a developing nation.

The local knowledge is the strongest counter to that, but there are other arguments.

As an editor I imagine it would be very difficult to try and talk through what I want from a page over the phone. To do that when English isn’t the individuals first language would make it even tougher.

I can see a time when technology will improve and the role of the creative sub will be less  – say a programme which can put all the various aspects of a page together like a jigsaw and suggest several layout options – but we’re not there yet.

And I don’t believe there will ever be a time when copy does not need to be subbed, unless we’re happy to become a txt spk nayshun of dunderheads.