The microwave reporting that’s no substitute for real journalism

I had a heart-warming email from a student with only a year under her belt at our uni this week.
She was one day into a work placement at a high profile national magazine.
Her verdict: “It’s so fun, and I don’t want to leave.”

Having spent several days last week visiting newsrooms and other media contacts to discuss work experience and generally keep our industry links warm and fruitful, this was music to my ears.
Now that I’m on the other side of the work placement table, a key priority is to ensure that our students’ stints in newsrooms fan a flame rather than snuff one out.
There’s another blog in that, for another time.
But that email also delighted me because it confirmed there was still fun and satisfaction to be had in journalism.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never really doubted it.
But a wave that has been building for a few years has finally broken in the last couple of weeks.
In days gone by, the phrase ripping yarn would have been one of the highest forms of praise for a reporter, as well as a reference to a damn fine Monty Python spin-off.

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Now Ripping Yarns is more likely to be a job description.
Staff in at least two London newsrooms have complained that the joy has been sucked out of their working days by a cut and paste culture that sees them rewriting other outlets’ stories to the virtual exclusion of original journalism.
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Of course, newsrooms have always given fresh life to their rivals’ revelations, and there will always be a place for getting extra angles on other folks’ stories. But we have now moved into a whole new ball game.
The issue was given a decent airing on Radio 4’s excellent The Media Show, where Press Gazette editor Dom Ponsford hinted that more revelations were to come. Now his website has pointed the finger at International Business Times, where it is claimed a change in Google algorithms which punished the IBT has led to a new derivative and target-driven regime.
The granddaddy of industrial-scale news story production is, of course, Mail Online.
I know enough people who’ve worked there to be in no doubt how soul-destroying following up – if that’s not too generous a phrase for it – other titles’ work can be in that sort of factory farm environment.
Journalism professor Roy Greenslade has also weighed in recently, with tales of woe from his City University graduates about life on the online frontline.

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As he so rightly says, to see young journalists at the start of their careers have creativity purged and dreams shattered as they’re broken on the ripping newsroom wheel is nothing short of heart-breaking.
It’s microwave reporting – bunging something someone else has slaved over into your formulaic machine, giving it a stir and then serving it up four minutes later.
And it’s the sort of writing that NCTJ examiners are beginning to wring their hands about in their feedback over the latest NQJ exam today, with concerns that reporters are getting out of the habit of detailed reporting.
I have spent my life talking to journalists about why they came into this fantastic profession – and about why they decided to leave.
The answers to the first question can vary. They might want to make a difference. They might want to hold power to account. They might love writing, and telling other people’s fascinating stories. But at the heart of it will be a desire to open the world’s eyes to something new.
And when that desire becomes unfulfilled, the love affair with journalism ends.
In too many newsrooms, there is a disconnect between the needs of the employer and the needs of the employee. The business model is in direct conflict with the instincts of the people being asked to make it work.
There may be a way to make money from secondhand storytelling.
But the people doing it won’t feel like journalists. And we shouldn’t call it journalism.

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Could student-run news sites challenge the regional media?

It’s on days like these that I remember what a very senior editor said to me when I told him I was becoming a university lecturer.

“You know what the three best things about being a lecturer are, don’t you? June, July and August.”

And there’s an extent to which he’s right. I’m working today. But from home. I started at about 9, after taking my car to the garage, and I’ll knock off around 4.

When I was a news editor, my typical Tuesday would have seen me getting into the office at around 6am and leaving 13 hours later.

I still put in some 12-hour days, but they’re few and far between, and they usually involve some sort of trip. Mostly I’m a 7.30 to 4.30 guy these days.

So I acknowledge that the relationship between the media industry and our area of academia can be like a bad marriage: characterised by suspicion, jealousy and arguments over divisions of labour.

We don’t always help ourselves, and I occasionally cringe at the holier-than-thou ‘research’ outputs of one or two of my journalism department counterparts from around the country.

But I do my best to be a friendly face in as many newsrooms as possible. I’m visiting three next week (including that editor’s), and I’m working in a fourth later this month.

Essentially, we’re on the same side here. We’re fighting for good journalism.

So how can we improve relations still further?

Former editor Neil Fowler knows what he’d like to do.

In a piece for InPublishing, he’s floated the idea of universities incubating new not-for-profit news organisations.

Students would be the journalists, providing output for a printed weekly, a website, TV and radio, with a paid manager and potential for commercial advertising.

It’s an intriguing idea, and one which provokes conflicting thoughts.

One is that organising students can be like herding cats.

But no matter.

Another – and the one that has so far been the main stumbling block for Neil’s idea – is that it would require courses like ours to be delivered in two rather than three years, and for students (and people like me) to give up some of those long holidays.

We could go down all kinds of fascinating side streets debating the pros and cons of two-year degrees – and this Guardian Higher Education Network piece is a good start for that.

But it’s far from simple.

The success of the relatively new Cambridge Independent weekly suggests that launching a new print product might not be completely barking mad.

You’d have to pick your location well, though. Certainly in our neck of the woods, the market is pretty crowded. And TV and radio? I’m not so sure.

But there is something in what Neil says.

The one thing that is crystal clear to me is that the regional news organisations that are most likely to survive are the very local, and the very small.

The continued expansion of the Bristol-based Voice publications – which now involve a couple of friends of mine – makes a compelling case for universities to do more to encourage entrepreneurial journalism.

It’s something we do reasonably well, but there must always be room for improvement.

I can see a role for universities in supporting second and final year students in setting up their own website or websites.

But they must be organic, slightly anarchic – and real. They must reflect passion.

As one of my Twitter heroes, Dr Dave Harte of Birmingham City University, has found, running hyperlocal news sites can be a labour of love.

And they must be sustainable – either growing into independent businesses, or being handed down between year groups.

There’s no doubt that developing business nouse isn’t seen as a top priority by too many university journalism departments.

More and more of our students are going to be working for themselves in future.

Neil Fowler’s idea could just be a very useful reminder that we need to prepare them for that.