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24 September 2014

Harmful Opportunity

Autumn's here again. The nights are getting longer. The trees are turning golden. And my inbox is filling up with wonderful 'opportunities' for journalism students to generate free copy for speculative startup websites.

Now I live in the real world, and I know how important work experience is to getting a job.

Getting graduates into jobs is, in fact, the only reason I do what I do. The joy of reading endless platitudes on the state of the news industry dutifully cut, pasted and Harvard referenced in the 'reflective reports' appended to otherwise straightforward practical assignments doesn't come into it. No really. It doesn't.

But I do get pigged off when I see students exploited, especially when the supposed 'opportunity' is actually harmful to their prospects of getting work later. Here's why.

I'd like to reproduce a typical email soliciting copy. I've had to make a few changes.

Names have been altered, of course, to disguise sources. I've also run it through a translation program. This one's a bit unusual in that it translates 'Bullcrap > English' so you don't have to. I've then appended my reply.

"Hi there, Course Leader!

It's the start of a new academic year and my mates and I thought it would be a great wheeze to start a cool website aimed at freshers! There's loads of youth brands out there wanting to pay me to catch the eye of kids, y'know, pockets stuffed with loan cheques and all those tenners tearfully handed over by grandparents, if I can just get them to visit the site!!

But there's a problem :(. I need compelling content. I had a go at writing some but this journalism lark isn't as easy as I thought LOL so that's where your students come in!
I mean, they must be, like, writers to be accepted for your course and if they'd just create some ace compelling content for free - I'll put it on the site! W00t!! Can't do fairer than that, can I, and it's so great for their CV!!!

They just need to write about what it's like being a student for other students - all, like, streetwise and trendy - and that'll boost their employability no end! Anyway - must dash - a Reddit's just pinged on my Tumblr and I've not Instagrammed my analytics for at least five minutes so ciao!!!!

Annabelle Chancer (Ms)
Group Vice President and CEO,
Galactic Studentastic XP Allidocious Branding Corp (Pudsey)"

Dear Ms Chancer,

Thank you for taking the trouble to write. I won't be putting my students forward for this opportunity.

First, have you any idea at all how many people are trying to get free copy this way? I must get half a dozen emails a week. I've written before about the criteria by which we decide who to engage with, so I won't repeat all that. I'm sure you know how to follow a hyperlink, you've made a career out of it.

What I'm specifically concerned about here, though, is the idea of getting students to write for other students about student issues. Wrong on every level.

The biggest challenge facing a 21 year old in their first newsroom role is writing for an audience very different to themselves. On a local paper or a BBC local radio station the audience will be much older than they are to start off with. A twentysomething must learn very quickly, and ideally whilst still at university, to look at the world through a fiftysomething's eyes.

But that's not the half of it.

Now that journalism is, to all intents and purposes, a graduate-entry profession people who only a few short months ago were students will be writing for an audience many of whom, irrespective of age, didn't go to university at all. Those automatic references to boring lectures and late nights and shared housing will be totally alien to a majority of those reading the output. Such inside-out thinking needs to be eliminated from trainee journalists at a very early stage. Writing the copy you ask for would just reinforce bad habits.

Then there's the whole idea of house styles and writing for publications - horror of horrors - that might advocate political views from, for instance, right of centre. Just about all students (and to be fair, a proportion of their lecturers) are firmly convinced journos believe every word they write. Personally, sincerely, fervently. They don't.

If a professional journo is told a particular outlet's editorial policy is in favour of free love, legalising dope, voting UKIP or culling unicorns they simply amend their writing accordingly, just as they read the style guide to familarise themselves with the house treatment of capitalisation and presentation of numbers.

A decent freelance should be able to switch between writing for the Guardian or the Telegraph at will. Those who are really good might even be able to master the skills needed to write fluent Sun. Much harder than career academic PhDs could ever imagine.

Getting students to write about student issues is probably the worst thing possible for their professional development. They need to be out of their comfort zones, off campus, getting real stories from real people in real communities; learning to win the confidence of and get a killer quote from people who don't share the same world view or the same social circles as their interviewer.

I have to listen to their first hesitant radio efforts and believe me, if I get one more 'story' about student safety, binge drinking, a new band just starting or sexually transmitted diseases obtained by 'interviewing' their mates (the interview, that is, not the diseases) I'll go spare.

So thanks, but no thanks. Unless you're paying, of course, so my students don't have to pull pints or brew coffee to see themselves through their studies?

Thought not, silly question.

Yours sincerely,

Richard


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