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23 July 2015

Hackademic? I'd Rather Chew My Arm Off

I love journalism academics. Journalism educators. "Hackademics" (I know ...).

I love them in the same way I love the National Gallery. I'm glad they exist because they're a sign that, as a society, we choose to spend time and resources on more than just the mundane essentials. That said, they have little to do with the realities of daily journalism.

There's always been a healthy tension between practitioners and career university types in journalism training, but I fear it's getting out of balance.

Here - in a piece I've written for the Association of Media Practice Academics gathering at Birmingham City University on 27 July - I set out the reasons why.

Universities are fundamentally unsuited to training journalists for a whole host of reasons. They ended up in the news training business by accident, and among many self-styled educators "training" is a dirty word.

News organisations largely abandoned in house training decades ago, relying instead on the perceived glamour of news roles to keep a supply of bright applicants coming, all of whom were prepared (state funded, or paying for themselves) to acquire the necessary craft skills to get in. All the editors had to do was cherry-pick.

That model worked for a while, sort of, with manageable numbers of journalism students able to undertake meaningful work experience, and with a decent proportion making the transition to paid employment as staff, or freelancers. Now, with a severe contraction in the numbers employed in newsrooms and a massive expansion in university places, that's happening less.

Digital zealots point to a sunny future in which legions of freelance journalists make their self-sufficient living feeding content by ever more ingenious means to an ever-hungry web. Whilst opportunities are certainly growing to showcase such content, the mechanisms to monetise it remain a dream.

My argument of course assumes that students embarking on a degree in journalism actually want to be journalists.

There may actually be some students who want "transferable skills" to work in "public facing roles" as "communicators". Others may want "a broad understanding of the media culture which informs society". But if you leaf through a typical prospectus the sell is all about radio, television, magazines and news. Look at the pictures, not the small print.

At a more basic level there are practical reasons why universities are ill suited to training journos, and it starts with the calendar. The academic year. The October to June treadmill which almost every institution treats as sacrosanct. Nearly all courses start in the autumn, and are examined in early summer. This lead to huge demand for placements at times which suit the career academics .. Easter, May and Christmas .. and leaves troughs in the full-on course delivery months of October and November. Contrast this to the 24/7, 365 day a year culture of the newsroom, and there's a clear mismatch.

Individual modules tend to be devised for one or two semester delivery in neat chunks as short as two hours a week. Allowing for tardy arrivals, and student expectations to be allowed to grab a coffee before the next class, actual contact time can be as little as 90 minutes a week for a discipline such as radio, which requires immersion in order to understand the complexities and possibilities of the medium. Forty hours over two terms is the way we've always done it.

Then there are the committees. Lots of committees, often demanding details of course content and assessment months or even years in advance. That might work in French Literature or Philosophy, but if we're training journalists to react to current events there needs to be much more flexibility in both course delivery and assessment to cope with events which present the most amazing learning opportunities.

A big story breaks on the patch, and the opportunity is there for students to gain priceless experience assisting established local and regional media in gathering audio, video, and vox pops, or to act as studio runners - but that chance is lost if trainees are scheduled to sit an Ethics test.

Even populating an institution's own news web site at such a time may take second place to populating a lecture theatre to hear yet another commentator opining about the evils of phone hacking, or the role of citizen journalists. How do we expect students to develop the instincts for reacting to a story in such an environment?

This problem is clearly seen in the context of the BJTC's rigorous accreditation process, where I've seen course leaders in anguish claiming "it's just not possible" to build in fifteen - just fifteen - uninterrupted news "days" (in reality, each as little as six hours) into each year of a three year degree course.

Try suggesting even ten consecutive news days, just two clear five-day weeks, of actual news operation within academic term time and only a minority of institutions are in a position to comply. It's not what universities do. That's before the security staff go gaga at the mere thought of opening newsrooms, or what they insist on calling "labs", at the weekend. 

Problems are even more pernicious in Law, where some academic institutions oppose the concept of a fundamental error and insist students must be given credit for getting bits of a law exam right. They fight like tigers for a university's "right" to set pass marks at a level which allow students who've committed contempt in one answer, or defamed a celebrity in another, to pass the course. Try telling that to Mr Justice Eady in a libel trial.

I've written before about the trend for academics to favour their own kind when staffing university departments, so I won't repeat those arguments here. However there is a question to be asked, as numbers rise, about where all those with PhDs are to be gainfully employed at a time when the number of working journalists, in the sense of people actually paid to report and contextualise current events, is shrinking. If the answer is "within academia" we face the danger of those wanting to practice journalism being taught by those who've only ever studied it - or maybe did a few months freelancing on a magazine (and didn't like it very much).

The issues I've raised are not particular to any one establishment, the examples are drawn from many and the issues are general across the sector. It should go without saying that everything I've written above represents entirely my own views, not those of any institution or organisation. I'm grateful to have been largely tolerated as a maverick in the University that employs me, at Leeds Trinity. It's a human scale place with some lovely people doing great things, and I'm proud to be a part of that team.


  1. It's still a mystery to me how a journalism degree takes three years. 1996, Stradbroke College, pre-entry course done in five months.
    I'm not even going to mention PR degrees where students don't start writing until year three.

  2. Sorry to have only now managed to read this - but in my experience excellent points well made

    1. Cheers Rob. Seems to have struck a chord with many playing the HE game who can't speak out.