How can we attract more young people to journalism?

I’m on tour in a month’s time.

The list on the back of my tour merchandising t-shirt wouldn’t be all that long: Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Stroud – and Bristol again.

But it’s a chance to look up old friends and to strengthen links with newsrooms and other media employers around our region.

I know that in one of those newsrooms I will run into one of our most recent graduates.

It’ll be lovely to see her.

It would be equally lovely to think that I might bump into more of our finest former students.

But the appetite of young people for life in a regional newsroom isn’t always all that it might be.

The anecdotal evidence has been there for some time – and in previous jobs I spent a fair bit of time trying to come up with new ways to sell vacancies on small titles to what felt like a diminishing pool of interested talent.

But in May, I saw the first concrete reference to the problem – in an authoritative report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which highlighted the recruitment  headaches faced by regional newsrooms.

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And there was a hint at another cause, too….

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Journalism was always a job where mission and vocation teamed with mischief and camaraderie trumped financial reward and the desire for work-life balance.

But maybe that uneasy pact has come unstuck as a new generation either wants more from its working life – or has developed a greater ability to see the new clothes of some media firms’ top digital emperors.

My colleagues and I work day in, day out, to inspire our students to think of journalism as an amazing privilege. But we rely on our industry friends to help turn the flickering flame into the fire in the belly.

That recruitment issue has emerged again with the revelation that the filling of the remaining vacancies for the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter scheme has virtually ground to a halt.

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Once again, money has been advanced as a sticking point – although in the early stages of the scheme, the quality of applicants was said to be incredibly high.

The difficulty of finding the right person for the important job of holding power to account across the country has been tellingly shown in the debacle of the LDR for Harrogate.

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A writer with a public track record of being a thorn in the flesh of his local council, with clear axes to grind, was appointed to a role where BBC-style balance and impartiality were key. What could possibly go wrong?

I agree that the £22,000-a-year salary for the LDR jobs is far from generous.

But from my understanding of the situation, the roles offer a degree of autonomy – a reporting right to roam, if you like – that traditional newsroom jobs increasingly lack.

So if we’re struggling to fill these jobs, the image problem of the regional media is a very real one.

I’ve watched with a glow of pride as one of the titles in my home county, the Salisbury Journal, has flown a flag for honest, hard-working, supportive reporting in extraordinarily difficult circumstances with its coverage of the two poisoning incidents on its doorstep.

Much of that coverage has involved its now head of news, Rebecca Hudson, who has been rightly praised for her dedication, determination, and defence of her home patch.

Aside from some very healthy web figures, there haven’t been many silver linings for the 23-year-old and her tiny team.

But the saga has had one positive impact: for the time being, at least, it’s kept her in journalism.

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We can’t have – and wouldn’t want – Russian-backed murder conspiracies paralysing communities in every news patch of this land.

So for the sake of a healthy democracy, the industry needs to be honest about why we’re not recruiting more Rebeccas – and why the ones we have are so easily tempted to leave.

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Why a journalism degree is a Swiss Army knife for life

The gowns were hot – and not in a good way, my tie was all over the shop, and there was a lot of clapping to be done.
But it was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of our university graduation day last week.
We swelled with pride to see young people who we’d helped through academic and personal challenges take to the stage with their mortar board-clad heads held high.

 

But what does the journalism degree they now possess mean?
At a time when every week brings new stories of journalists’ jobs being lost, is that ornate scroll with a £27,000-plus price tag still worth having?
I would say this wouldn’t I, but to me the answer is a resounding yes.
I’m helping some of our third years polish their CVs at the moment, and the process has helped remind me and them just how many skills they will have when they too check out of our care.
Video-shooting and editing, InDesign and Photoshop, writing to deadline, presenting to camera, radio scripting, social media and SEO techniques, and project management will combine with awareness of the law, politics, public relations and the latest industry trends to create a potent cocktail mix of confidence, character and competence.
When journalists move into other sectors they soon realise what valuable and transferable skills they have – even if it’s just the ability to work fast and push the boundaries of tasteful humour.
And it’s the same for journalism students.
We know that more of our graduates are likely to end up working in PR, marketing and social media roles than as traditional journalists.
But their qualification, the crucial soft skills that we have hopefully encouraged in them, and connections they have made on work placements and news days should give them a powerful degree of choice.
Those news days test planning and leadership, stamina and sensitivity, and creativity and judgement.
The day after graduation, I was at the NCTJ’s annual skills conference, hearing from industry figures and discussing how to give our students the best start in life.
I took part in a surprisingly fascinating session on business reporting – a slightly niche area with huge jobs potential.
A senior journalist at the FT talked about how he got into the industry many years ago, and confessed: “I wouldn’t get my job now.”
There was much nodding from all of us.
It underlined to me the comments made by Sky News boss John Ryley at the conference, ridiculing the idea that there was ever a golden era of journalism.
As I have said many times before, today’s journalists are better skilled and harder working than the vast majority of their predecessors.

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To me, a journalism degree – provided it is accompanied by a rigorous work placement track record and a positive attitude – is like a Swiss Army knife.
It’s a great toolkit for life.
You never quite know when you’re going to need each bit – but it’s a very useful thing to have in your back pocket.

Journalism: a marathon AND a sprint

I’ve been to two journalistic leaving dos in the last few days.

Both the departures were of reporters in their 20s, both of them leaving mainstream journalism.

Which might be seen as sad, particularly as I welcome 24 new students to our university journalism course.

There’s no sadness on my part, though. I know both are heading off to futures that they are going to embrace and enjoy.  And I know that in many ways they wouldn’t be on that journey without the experiences, training and confidence that journalism has given them.

I write this as my friends at Gloucestershire Live come to the end of a difficult process that will see jobs lost as the Echo and Citizen titles go weekly and the departure of Matt Holmes – an editor who has inspired scores of colleagues down the years, and who it has been a pleasure to have worked with.

At both leaving dos, as indeed happens pretty much everywhere I go, I was asked the same question. One, indeed, that I was also asked when I appeared on BBC Points West to discuss the Gloucestershire papers shake-up.

What do you say to your students? Are you honest with them about the state of the industry?

The answer is that we are very honest.

That candour involves an acceptance that media and journalism now cover a multitude of sins, and that the sorts of jobs which editors now need to fill have changed.

But, as I said in a recent blog aimed at new journalism students, there remains no shortage of work for people with the right ability, determination, emotional intelligence, organisation and enthusiasm.

And I also point them towards a building that remains a potent and poignant symbol of journalism’s potential – both for good and evil.

I worried when Grenfell Tower fell out of the news agenda.

We should never allow the lessons of that watershed moment to be forgotten, or eclipsed by new concerns.

I will be spending a lot of time talking about the implications of Grenfell Tower with our students this year.

Because every challenge that currently faces journalism is writ large here.

From the trade-off between speed and accuracy to the balance between wall-to-wall coverage and intrusion, along with the recognition that most journalists do not reflect the demographics of the areas they cover.

And above all else, the failure of media organisations across the capital to be in touch with their communities – to see and hear the writing on the wall of residents’ association blogs and cynical council cost-cutting.

It’s been hugely refreshing to see Newsnight’s incredible storytelling this week, focussing on presenting the tower’s tenants as fascinating, engaging people whose lives shouldn’t be defined by tragedy.

My overarching message to our first years, to all journalism students, and all journalists everywhere is this: Get it right, and we stop Grenfell Tower happening again. Get it wrong, and such tragedies recur time and time again. It’s as simple and as serious as that.

There’s a hint of this in a hard-hitting valedictory piece by an editor whose paper is being shut, Sarah Cox.

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It includes a wonderful description from literature of what journalism should do:

‘The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’

We talked at those leaving dos of how knackering journalism is. It’s relentless, it’s exhausting. But it’s also deeply exhilarating, and addictive.

I now like to think of journalism as a little like one of my other loves: running.

There are parts that have to be a sprint: the reaction to breaking news, of course, but also the content that gets written to meet search criteria, and for short-term web target gains.

And there should be no reason to fear software such as Chartbeat, which gives us more information than we have ever had before about our readers’ habits and behaviour.

Why would we not want to write stuff that people want to read?

But there must be some marathon journalism as well.

I was immensely cheered when those friends at Gloucestershire Live found the time and space to tell the story of the devastating floods of 2007 ten years on recently.

It was superbly executed, with stories beautifully told.

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When I spent a week with them in the summer, I also heard a phrase that brought joy to my heart: ‘Let’s play the long game.’

That was a decision not to use a social media picture of a crash victim to avoid upsetting a bereaved community, and to build up goodwill for the future.

As long as phrases such as long game are still being used, there will be a long term for journalism.

And there will be a bright future for journalism students trained for both the marathon and the sprint.

PS: That picture is me, by the way. I’m not proud of myself.

Eight tips for new journalism students

I’m looking forward to Monday.

I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks, if the truth be told.

I’m hoping 25 other people share my sense of anticipation and excitement.

Because at around 10am, they will officially become first year journalism students with us.

Over the next couple of weeks, at other journalism courses around the country, a few hundred more students will join them on similar adventures.

So what will we be saying to our new friends? What advice is there for all these folk setting their sights on an industry facing such massive challenges?

1. Make the most of every opportunity

Our course mantra is Say Yes To Everything. You will be offered all manner of chances to go on trips, get involved in event coverage, help with projects, hear from expert speakers and complete work placements.

Try to adopt a default setting of having a go at everything. You never know what doors will open, what connections you’ll make and what new insights you’ll get.

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2. Plan ahead

One of my personal gems of wisdom is Let Planning Be Your Friend. Planning sounds deadly dull – but it allows you to do the really interesting things you want to do. In most cases, there is no new information coming along about the timing of assessments; at the start of term you will know all the dates of all your hand-ins for next few months, as well as the details of your academic timetable. Put all these in whatever calendar you use, and start plotting now when you’re going to work on essays, blogs, projects and so on. Then there should be no surprises, with every piece of work having its allocated slot. Get this right and you will be developing a journalistic skill that will be invaluable in a real newsroom. Plus, you’ll be able to pinpoint the days and nights when you’re free to do your own thing.

3. Attend lectures

One of my bosses uses the analogy of gym membership when persuading students they need to squeeze every drop of value out of their £9,250 annual investment. You won’t get fit just by signing up to that standing order. The more you engage with the timetable and your lecturers, the healthier your academic life will be, and the more we’ll want to help you.

4. Consume news

Read websites. Watch TV. Listen to radio. Immerse yourself in social media. Be aware of current affairs and get used to critically evaluating content and coverage. Above all, appreciate great storytelling, brilliant writing and incisive interviewing.

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5. Think like a journalist

Your uni life isn’t just about assessments and marks. Keep your eyes and ears open. See story and content potential everywhere. Write (see below). Take a real interest in people and their lives, and make every contact and connection count. Everyone you meet potentially has a story to tell.

6. Write

Blog. And keep blogging. Make sure your writing muscles get regular exercise and that your work is seen by other people. Get involved in student newspapers and websites, like   the one run by our students.

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7. Ask for help

Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t assume. Don’t think your problem or question is silly or trivial. Don’t let feelings of anxiety overwhelm you. As in journalism in what we might call the real world, one of the most important questions you can ever ask is: Can you explain that again? There is no shame in not understanding something. The shame is in pretending you do.

8. Count your blessings.

You are on the threshold of what could be the best three years of your life, taking your first steps towards what I still believe can be the best job in the world. Whether or not you end up in what we might call traditional journalism, you are acquiring skills which are beautifully transferable. There is no shortage of work on offer for someone with the right mixture of determination, ability, emotional intelligence, organisation and enthusiasm.

The economics of journalism have never been more challenged. But the need for journalism has never been greater.

There are stories to be told, injustices to be exposed and communities to be galvanised in every corner of the earth.

Go to it – and enjoy yourselves.

 

How to smash that media job interview

They’re the sort of emails that can send you on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Thank you for the application for the post of social media engineer. We’re delighted to offer you an interview next Tuesday. Please prepare a five-minute presentation on how you’d revitalise the Quiksnax savoury food brand’s Instagram presence in Outer Mongolia.

Or something like that.

Anyway, you’ve got a media job interview.

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Once you’ve got over your initial panic: what next? How do you prepare?

Here are some thoughts, updated from a blog I wrote nearly three years ago, as our students, and their counterparts around the country, prepare for what could be the first big interview of their lives.

 

1. Do your homework

You need to make your interviewer think you’ve ate, slept and drunk their product, business, publication, website or media outlet in the last 72 hours. Maybe not even slept. If you’re really smart, they’ll already know you through work placements or networking. But if they don’t, make them your new Mastermind specialist subject. Flatter them with the extent of your research.

2. Make a memorable first impression

That first minute or so is crucial, however much of a cliche it sounds. Eye contact, a firm handshake, a genuine smile and a confident style all go a very long way. As do clothes which are smart but instantly forgettable.

3. Keep making an impression

Your goal is to make them think you’re someone they want on their team. Keep smiling. Not in a weird, inappropriate way. In a way that persuades them you’re a glass half-full radiator who’ll fit in and be a joy to work with. Demonstrate the passion and enthusiasm that you’ve written about in your CV.  Bring the stuff about work placements and your own media projects to life.

4. Come armed with stories to tell

It’s election time, when politicians answer the questions they want to answer rather than the ones they’ve actually been asked. Take a leaf out of their book by finding slick ways to slip your anecdotes and examples into the conversation.

Have answers to predictable questions up your sleeve. If it’s a journalism job, be ready for ‘what’s the best story you’ve ever written’, ‘what apps do you use’, ‘who’s your best contact’ and ‘how would you go about getting to know the area’. And those chestnuts about a time when you had to overcome difficulty, or how your friends would describe you.

5. Ask a killer question yourself

Try to use your questions to show your skills and your commitment, and avoid working your way through a tedious list of administrative points. The best question I’ve come across recently is a cunning one: have you any feedback for me? Do you have any concerns about my ability to do this job? And ask them why they love working there.

Above all else, be confident without showing arrogance, and enthusiastic without becoming annoying.

In short, show the confident humility that is the hallmark of a great media professional.

And the very best of luck.

Finding another Brenda from Bristol: Top tips for the perfect vox pop

I took to the road with my students last week.

Bath Road, in fact. A busy shopping street in Cheltenham at around 9.30 in the morning.

My mission on this local election morning: to show them how to do vox pops.

The last time I’d stalked reluctant opinion-givers down a street was at least a decade ago.

I had visions of making even more of a fool of myself in front of my students than I normally do.

But the old magic, that old Wiltshire charm was still there.

It helped that we were talking about something reasonably inoffensive: whether they were voting, and the importance of exercising one’s democratic right.

I was vague about what sort of students I was with, and may have given the impression that we were doing some kind of Mr Cholmondley-Warner public information film.

But no matter. I persuaded a steady stream of people coming in and out of the bank to share their views – and even got one woman with a tale to tell about war veteran ancestors to repeat her motivational message after the first attempt was drowned out by a passing police car.

Of course the bar has been set high recently by the BBC man’s in the West, Jon Kay, who struck vox pop gold with Brenda from Bristol.

So how do we find the Brendas? What’s the best way to get people to talk? What’s the secret of a good vox pop?

These are some of the tips from a few of my journalistic pals.

1. Choose your spot

Post offices, bus stations, bus stops, shopping centre benches. Anywhere where people are sitting, standing or slow-moving targets.

2. Break news to them

As the great Tristan Cork from the Bristol Post pointed out, the reason Brenda works, the reason she’s such animated good value, is that Jon was breaking news to her.

3. Get your opening line right

Opinions varied on this.

Tristan offered this advice:

Tell people asap what you’re talking about – like first.
So if you say ‘hi I’m xxx from xxx and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions?’ It gives them the chance to say ‘no’
But if you say ‘I’m from the xxxx and we’re talking to people about xxxx’ then they instantly think ‘ooooo I’ve got something to say about that!’ and can’t help themselves.

And turn on the charm, as my friend Sian David from the Bristol Post suggests:

Smile. And don’t be nervous. Or pushy. Make friends so they are more likely to say yes to the photo/video.

But Tom Peck of the Independent just goes for it.

4. Go for people who look different

From my friend Aled Thomas at Gloucestershire Live came this gem: If they have extravagant hair, or a hat, they’re less likely to refuse the pic

5. Target groups of people

The Bath Chronicle’s Dan Evans had this to say:

My top tip would be target small groups. a. You can get three for the price of one. b. They’ll often say: ‘he’ll do it/she’ll do it’. c. Once b has happened you can then make the others feel guilty. Downside… you’ll still need to do more if you’re after a cross section, but if it’s about a gig or sports event that doesn’t matter so much.

In the vox pop numbers game, three seems to be a very useful crowd.

A group of two never works but three or four always does

6. Keep at it

This from Jordan Bhatt of the International Business Times:

And a final one from Esther Beadle, now in PR but previously of the Oxford Mail:

 

In among all the advice was an offshoot debate about whether vox pops are still worth doing in an age when everyone lays bare their innermost thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.

I think Brenda proves they still are.

Nice work: Why the secret of landing a job could be just getting on with people

It’s a piece of advice that’s been handed down by mums through the generations.

“It’s nice to be important. But it’s more important to be nice.”

‘Yes, mum,’ you may have said, humouring her.

But she was right.

She was right all those years ago, and she’s right now, in a 2017 bristling with technology and digital know-how.

Last week was a great one for linking our students up with potential employers and industry role models.

On Monday, I took a group of our second years to a building that already feels like a bit of a second home.

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We took over the kitchen at ITV Westcountry in Bristol, making tea and helping ourselves to cake, in between seeing two regional teatime news shows go out and watching presenters Kylie Pentelow and Mark Longhurst in action.

The following day I’d invited in three people from very different areas of the world of public relations to talk about relationship-building with journalists – and the skills needed for a career in PR.

Exactly 24 hours later, our students were hanging on the every word of sports presenter Caroline Barker, who invited us into the world of the freelance journalistic globetrotter.

Then, on Thursday, the editor of Newsquest’s websites and weekly papers in Gloucestershire, Michael Purton, was guest editor at our second year news day.

Those visitors brought plenty of different insights and viewpoints with them.

Two of the PR speakers had virtually polar opposite views on the ability of journalists to become successful public relations professionals.

But they – and our friends at ITV – were all agreed on one thing: the importance of being a team player.

And a couple of them summed that up in the same, simple phrase: Be Nice.

It sounds trite. It sounds nothing like the sort of thrusting go-getter you might imagine standing out at interview, let alone like the in-your-face, up-and-at-em stereotype that TV drama-makers sometimes reach for when writing a journalist into their shows.

But, when resources are tight, the importance of that holy grail of team spirit becomes greater than ever.

Will this person fit in? Can I work with her or him? Do I like them? Do they have a smile on their face? Will they get on with our most important contacts – and will they make new ones? Will they just get on with stuff?

Being nice isn’t about rolling over, or refusing to stand up for yourself and your rights.

It’s an acknowledgement that journalism – and PR – is all about relationships.

It always was and, I like to think, always will be.