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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s