The trouble with journalism

Hat with press cardThere’s a lot wrong with journalism today. Aside from managing editors from a bean-counting rather than an ambulance-chasing background there are many things wrong.

Just yesterday we had a call from a journalism degree student desperate to do some work experience in our press office. Any old hack would notice at least two things wrong with that sentence.

Journalism degree

In my opinion journalism started to die when journalism degrees were introduced. You can’t teach someone how to write, you can’t teach someone how to recognise a good story when they stumble upon it and you can’t teach someone how to find the drive to get that foot in the door. You can teach them as much theory as you like but most of the job is innate.

In my days as a journo I remember the training manager showing me a letter from a 17-year-old boy who’d just finished school and wanted to so some summer work before starting his journalism degree. His shiny new CV was impressive – a top A for his Higher English and he’d started a community newspaper, writing the stories himself, running it off at the printers and delivering them himself. He came, he worked his socks off and we offered to take him on as a junior reporter there and then. But no, he was determined to get the qualification and off he went to uni.

Four years later he wrote a very different letter, asking if he could come and work for us. The passion had gone and what’s more he didn’t want a junior reporter’s job, he wanted to come in higher up – after all he had a degree and most of our staff didn’t. When I started, I cut my teeth on prize winners and cheque presentations before moving up to the heady heights of road accidents and gala days. News features and front pages took a wee while longer but I knew I was learning a trade from the older hacks. Note, trade, not profession.

If you really want a degree, go and study something that will make you a specialist, such as environment, health or education correspondent. Acquire other skills that make you different from other candidates – really fast shorthand, proper typing skills, a working knowledge of Arabic, whatever.

Press office

Back to that un-subbed sentence. Why would a potential journalist want work experience in a press office? PROs are just failed journalists aren’t they? This should be the view of any young journalist but sadly these days press releases seem to be the main ingredient in the news mix.

The sad fact is that today’s journalists don’t get out enough. Pavement pounding and getting to know a community should come first in a journalist’s tasks but that takes time, sometimes for no return. The result – performance measured in column inches, journalists who spend their day on the phone, online or rewording press releases.

I’d like to see newspapers and TV news revealing their source – I think we’d all be surprised at how much content starts in a press office or worse with a PR company.

Journalists are becoming further removed from the communities they serve, more and more out of touch with what those communities want to read.

Which takes me on to my third point . . .

Local papers

When you write for a national title, you tend to look down your nose at regional papers. When you write for a regional title you tend to look down your nose at locals. What no one seems to realise is that the locals are the important ones. Journalists shouldn’t look at locals as the lowest rung on the career ladder but this is what happens.

Local papers tend to have young staff, keen to move on to a regional or a national. A high turnover of staff means a staff that doesn’t take the time to get to know its community and what it wants to read. So, instead of community information of real value we end up with papers full of stabbings, court appearances and digs at the council.

When I worked on a regional Sunday title we used to laugh at the line-up photos in our local daily title but do you know what, those pics are what sold the paper because it was what the community wanted to see.

If I were thinking of moving to a new area I’d like to think that if I bought the local paper I’d get a good idea of what the area was like but somehow I doubt many would reflect a true picture of their community.

My old editor was proud if anyone ever said his paper was full of trivia. In Roman times news was passed on by word-of-mouth at street corners, hence the ‘via’ in trivia. Which takes my to my fourth and last (for the moment) point . . .

Falling circulation figures

This is what those bean-counting managing editors really hate but what they fail to understand is why they are falling.

Most young people today don’t buy newspapers or watch the news. They get their news online, and not from behind a newspaper pay wall but from Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news aggregators such as Newsvine and their own RSS feeds.

One such bean counter managing editor recently revealed, to my astonishment, that he thinks Twitter is just gossip. He may think that but I suspect his staff are monitoring it all the time for leads. At least I hope they are.

When I look at the array of social media tools that today’s journalists have I think back to the clunky green screen computer I worked with and the mobile phone the size of a house brick that wouldn’t work five miles outside a major town. But at least I got out and about and spoke to people in the street which generated news and features.

Media moguls just need to look at some of the really good community sites (Camden People, Stafford Direct, A Little Bit of Stone etc.) out there to see what the public want, but I’d suggest if there’s already a community site in your area, it may be too late because your community is already doing it for itself.

Journalists no longer control the message – the people do.

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2 comments

  1. Lindy Martin · June 21, 2011

    Excellent and so true. I like to think of myself as a multi-tasking, gossip/news hungry type that still buys the local paper but no longer buys nationals. I love to sit down on a Wednesday evening with a coffee and read the latest local news from cover to cover (apart fromt he car adverts that is). I use facebook and twitter via the ipad, iphone and lap top and listen to Radio 4 and BBC news 24 off and on every day, so feel with that mix I get the best of all worlds.

    No matter how good technology becomes at delivering our news and gossip in different ways, you still require a talented journalist to write the eye catching headlines that draw us all in to read the small print.

    • carolynemitchell · June 21, 2011

      Thanks Lindy. Like you I use a mix of social media, Radio 4, TV news a quick scan of The Herald and the New Internationalist for my news.
      The problem with a lot of online stuff is that we gravitate towards people with similar views so the generation we have coming up at the moment who live their entire lives online do run the risk of getting their news from the Daily Me but that’s a whole different blog post – don’t get me started!

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