Would I still recommend people to go into journalism?

In a week’s time, for the first time in 31 years and indeed my life, I won’t be employed by the media industry.

It’s a slightly scary thought.

But, as I move into a full-time role as a journalism lecturer, how much scarier are the prospects for the young people that I’ll be teaching?

Or, to tackle the $64 million question that my wife asked me the other day: Would I still recommend folk to go into journalism?

The short answer to that is of course, yes – why otherwise would I be embarking on a new career in a university journalism department?

But it’s a highly legitimate question at a time when many mainstream news organisations are preparing to take an axe to their newsrooms.

In the last few weeks, the BBC and the Guardian have announced cost-cutting programmes which are likely to lead to redundancies, while the Independent is ending print production this week.

And on a regular basis, Hold the Front Page charts a pattern of job losses, office sales and title closures, with the regional media that has been my world for the last three decades engaged in a constant battle to stay at the heart of Britain’s increasingly transient communities.

The pressures on the reporters and newsdesks of today are greater than they have ever been, with the extraordinary sources of information and the new publishing platforms that are now available being very much a double-edged sword.

One of the enduring themes to the two years I have spent as an industry trainer has been the difficulty – even against a tough financial background – of filling vacancies with the right people.

That background is not going to go away, certainly not for the mainstream media and particularly for any company which has either shareholders, debts to pay off or venture capitalists on board.

The challenge for all of us is to ensure that those harsh realities of life aren’t driving away the greatest talents – whether that be those already under the roofs that I currently work, or under the slightly more elegant ones beneath which I will be labouring from next month.

Saying goodbye in the newsrooms that have been my home for the last couple of years has reminded me just what a talented, imaginative, disruptive, charming, funny and genuinely interesting bunch journalists are.

Each of those qualities – teamed with my favourite combination of determination and empathy – will be vital in the years to come.

As times get harder, there will be an element of the survival of the fittest. And I want the journalism students that I will now be training to be among the very fittest.

But we’ve all met those ultra marathon athletes who have no conversation other than their monk-like diets and their latest lightweight bike frames.

This industry and the people it serves will be so much the poorer if eccentricity, instinct, guts and sheer bloodymindedness – as well as a sense of fun – are lost along the way.

If we keep people with those qualities, then journalism can always be the best job in the world.

 

 

The mini off-diary sabbatical

Two years ago, I was very proud to be a journalist.

I still am, it’s worth saying, and I hope that feeling will never go away.

But in March 2014, one of my reporters and I were feeling particularly chuffed with ourselves.

We had reached the endgame in one of the most satisfying and rewarding pieces of journalism I have ever been involved in.

After sharing the frustration of parents, staff and pupils at the frankly dictatorial regime operated at a local secondary school, we had been able to expose the head to proper and incisive scrutiny, and help usher in a new era of openness and relationship-building. And she had finally just resigned.

People said some very nice things about our investigation and we know it made some very harassed and voiceless staff feel listened to and vindicated.

The reporter concerned also won an award for her work later that year, which is always nice.

Those few weeks at the beginning of 2014 kept me going for a very long time.

If you ask most journalists why they came into the profession, one of the most common answers you are likely to get is ‘to make a difference.’

As I said in my last blog, it’s certainly an ambition that motivated one of my local journalism heroes, onetime Express and Star reporter Shaun Lintern.

And undoubtedly, it was one that has kept reporters at the Yellow Advertiser going in recent months as they worked on an investigation into the abuse of around 60 children in the 1980s and 1990s.

But after that last blog, a senior journalist got in touch with me to express scepticism that time could ever be found to do justice to these hugely satisfying stories.

We need to produce them every year or so to recharge our journalistic batteries and to ensure that our investigative and story development muscles don’t atrophy.

But how, practically, can we step off the treadmill of what can so easily become the daily grind?

How can we reconnect ourselves with the simple truth that we are doing a job that can be the best in the world, one that others would kill to do?

Here’s an idea. As I begin to explain it, I fear it will shot down in flames.

Probably with the simple and understandable riposte to my question of ‘hire more staff.’

But what the hell.

I’d like to float the idea of the mini off-diary sabbatical.

Once a month, one reporter would be given two or three days off to pursue a story that they have had no time to develop in their normal working week.

That reporter would be chosen by his or her peers in what could even be a monthly Dragon’s Den social event, at which everyone pitches for an off-diary stint.

Those colleagues might have to work a bit harder and longer for those few days, which would clearly have to be relatively holiday-free.

But they’d know that their turn would come in the months ahead.

And they’d also know that the most satisfying journalism was actually happening in their offices.

So there you go.

If anyone wants to comment on my idea, I will be putting on my tin hat.