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17 June 2012

Testing Times Ahead

As I drag myself out of bed for the start of another month on air with my trainees, providing news bulletins for Bradford Community Broadcasting, I'm tempted to ask myself why I'm doing it.

This is the time of year when, marking load done, many of my academic colleagues look forward to summer; thinking profound thoughts whilst reading in a shady square in the Loire, getting the work/life balance right building dens with the kids in the woods, or doing quantitative research into media trends by listening to Radio 4 with a cappuccino.

For those of us training postgraduate journalists at Leeds Trinity it means twenty early morning starts for BCB Radio, followed by three weeks of producing live webcast telly for Leeds Today Online.

So why do we do it? Because broadcast journalism is still the best job in the world.

If we think we've got it tough supervising the output it's nothing compared to what the trainees go through. 

In the space of a few weeks they will experience many firsts. 

First time on air, reading a news bulletin to a real audience, not talking to themselves in the safety of a classroom as happens on so many courses that claim to teach journalism.

First time doorstepping someone famous. "Eddie - see what you can get from the Dalai Lama" is a genuine quote from Friday's final rehearsal.

First time screwing up badly by going to the wrong building in the wrong town, forgetting batteries or forgetting that civic worthy's name at the start of the interview. Learn that way, and it won't happen again.

They will learn what it's like to be tired. 

Not just a bit whacked. Really tired. The tiredness that comes from a month of solid effort, rather than a token 'newsday' in which they give their all, thrive on the adrenaline and then head for the pub.

The tiredness that comes from being told to '- off'  by the third contact they've tried at 9 o'clock in the evening, knowing they can't go home until six overnights are in the can and that they're back on air on a reading shift in less than twelve hours.

This is a reality of journalism that isn't reflected in the glossy prospectuses, and which isn't remotely touched on by many academic courses. Some of the self-styled 'journalism educators' wouldn't even know such a world exists.

The trainees learn how to cut corners safely. 

The Day One idealism and enthusiasm of bunging everything we've got straight to air becomes tempered by the reality of the daily, weekly, monthly grind.

If I hold that back an hour I can get a lunchbreak. No-one else I know of has a sniff of this story, so I can hold it over for breakfast tomorrow. If I use the boring rentaquote at 2 and 3 I can run the decent clip at drive when there's a chance someone will hear it. Can I get away with using that expert again on the Euro crisis or Afghanistan? .. or whatever.

In the process something magical happens. It's a form of alchemy. 

We feed in base students; heads full of facts, but still strategic in their effort, often looking at journalism as a series of compartments. A month down the line, amid the swirling and steaming of the real-time newsroom crucible, golden journalists emerge.

In the process Law, Public Affairs and Shorthand cease to be separate subjects on a timetable and become a seamless whole. What can I say about the allegations that councillor is making? What statutory responsibilities does she have? What words exactly did she use about her opponent?

The magic moment every year comes when I walk into my newsroom at Leeds Trinity at five minutes to the hour. The duty editor .. the trainee with that responsibility for the day .. looks up. They are respectful and polite. But their eyes tell a different story. The eyes say "Richard - I don't have time for this now, I have a bulletin in five. Will you please shut up and get out of my newsroom!"

That's the point I know the job is done for another year. The trainee can walk into an interview or a BBC Board with that same look, and a firm handshake, and enough examples of 'going the extra mile' from their experience with BCB and Leeds Today to satisfy the most demanding editor.

That's why I do it. 

That's why the trainees, who are about to start on that journey, do it. 

They go in with their eyes open, the story in this blog is the story I tell  at every postgraduate candidate's interview. At the end of it, they're changed. They have become worker ants for the news collective, and they will thrive.

Those who've done it in the past tend to look back at the experience with nostalgic affection. I'd appreciate any advice from former trainees  and their professional colleagues on how to cope, how to survive with the transformational experience. Feel free to comment below or find me on Twitter - I'm @leedsjourno

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like a really good system.

    I did a very well regarded journalism degree course just over a decade ago, and we only did weekly news days (radio for the first half of the final year, TV for the second).

    Quite frankly, I don't think I learnt a lot. I was pretty lazy and threw together my portfolio on the last day of term. It was only when I ended up working for free for a commercial station that I actually started grafting and truly learning my trade.

    What it sounds like your doing, is giving your students a sense of reality from the start - both the highs and the lows. That should hopefully leave them well-prepared for when they venture into an increasingly tough work environment.