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21 April 2014

On Vision and Reality. Welcome to EPJOT.

Walt Disney was a visionary. After creating an entertainment empire on the back of a cute mouse with circular ears, by the mid-60s he'd become one of the first entrepreneurs of multimedia leisure.

Disneyland - the flickering images made solid - was a huge success in California, but he had a vision to create something much, much bigger; an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - or EPCOT - in Florida.

Walt was dying of cancer, but he still worked tirelessly on his vision which would have seen an entire city with industrial areas, residential zones and a vehicle-free, climate-controlled 'downtown' all linked by gleaming monorails and futuristic 'people movers'.



He had the plans drawn up, and the architects' models built. It never happened. After Walt's death the plans were scaled back into something not unlike a conventional theme park, albeit with an educational slant. Epcot, but now in the lower case.

So what has all this got to do with journalism?

We live in a time of change. The internet has revolutionised delivery mechanisms and altered priorities for news organisations. The old certainties are gone.

We live in a time of visionaries, particularly in the university sector where, for very good reason, original thinking is encouraged .. if nothing else because there's so much more potential for 'research' into possible futures, and all the kudos that publishing brings, than there is in the mundane teaching of day-to-day practice.

They're imagining the Experimental Prototype Journalists of Tomorrow.

These visionaries in journalism education (they dislike the word 'training', but that's a theme for another day) can see the towering information monorails and the silver-clad news pavilions in the air; they're so near you can virtually touch them (see what I did there?).

Eager news trainees must be ready to use this app and that; they must be encouraged to seize the new, always the new, and discard the old. In all this there's a real danger that the shiny future becomes like one of Walt's people movers.

Yes, they do exist fifty years on from when he imagineered them, but carrying out very limited functions in airports and shopping centres. The Rawdon to Leeds travellator had yet to be installed last time I looked out of my window.

For every Twitter (useful tool) there's a ... well, yes, any one of those umpteen startups I've been implored by one digital guru or another that I really, really need to be on or be left behind. Out of common decency I won't mention MySpace .. or Friends Reunited.

Podcasts were to be the future of radio a few years back - probably because they were 'radio' in a form that could be understood by the zealots of online, whose world is defined by text and pictures, preferably moving.

Podcasts exist, of course, like the travellators, but in a limited niche sector, a neglected arcade in Tomorrowland.

The prime function of higher education, now and for ever more, is to encourage thinking. A graduate should be able to seek out and assimilate facts, draw logical conclusions, express themselves clearly and apply these processes to all kinds of novel situations.

In addition vocational training, including that offered in journalism, should equip students with the practical skills required to take up a role in a news organisation with recognised and agreed minimum standards of competence and specialist knowledge in areas such as media law.

The challenge, as always, is to get the balance right.

My focus is clearly on one thing in all this, and that's the job prospects for graduates. My younger son is currently clocking up debt at the rate of something approaching a grand a month whilst he studies Engineering - a debt he'll be paying back 'til he's my age.

That means I have a hell of a responsibility. Every student I teach, or who signs up for a journalism course elsewhere, is in a similar financial position. My function is to equip those who pass my way with the skills to grab the greasy pole as effectively as possible.

I look at actual job successes, of which there are many. Two of my first-ever class of radio undergrads have job interviews this week.

But the jobs they're going for, and getting ... are in traditional media roles.

Radio newsrooms, weekly newspapers, TV news operations. I've yet to have anyone I know taken on as a Twitter specialist, still less as a Yammer whizz. The social media roles are tagged on to the conventional jobs, or they're done by interns - the shiny new name for work ex kids.

Vision has its place. I'll stick to what I know ... sound skills.


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