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15 July 2018

Keeping It Real - The Case for Immersive Newsroom Teaching

One of the major challenges in news training is making the student experience as realistic as possible. It’s an objective that sits uncomfortably with the norms of university life, because it requires total immersion in the newsgathering environment over a period of time.

A key feature of the postgrad course I ran for two decades at Leeds Trinity University was the “month on air” – 28 consecutive days of radio news for BCB 106.6 FM, with trainees providing bulletins from 0800-1800 weekdays and 0800-1200 at weekends. They also did a fortnight of live TV programming, originally with cable TV, more recently online.  
Compare that with the sector norm, which is quite often a single newsday at the end of a module, maybe two consecutive days if the institution has taken on board guidance from the BJTC.
I’ve seen course leaders literally wringing their hands at the prospect of finding just fifteen days a year in the timetable for all newsdays … “that’s not how universities work!”. 

Well, it should be. This post, originally commissioned by my good friend Dr Richard Thomas for the Journalism Knowledge Exchange (@JournalismKX) website, sets out why.

The problem with the “big finish” approach is that, for the students, it’s all an adrenaline rush.
In at 9, scramble some output together for lunchtime from a standing start with no overnights, refine it through the afternoon, big showcase around 4 then a bit of feedback and off to the pub, hugging each other at what they’ve achieved.

Real news operation isn’t a sprint. It’s a gruelling marathon that never actually ends.

Experienced journos know there will be feast and famine, stupidly busy days and quiet weeks. They have strategies to cope with both. Those working daily in a newsroom also acquire a thorough, in-depth knowledge of the current agenda, so morning conference is a nuanced exploration of lines to develop rather than “Hey, let’s do something about Trump” or a panicky glance at the local paper’s website just before the session starts.

At a human level it’s about shift work. Getting up early, coming home late, staffing evening events. Truly realistic 5am starts are awkward for trainees without cars, but coming in for 9 does nothing to prepare them for the reality of an early alarm.

And if ignoring the breakfast audience ill prepares them for jobs in radio, a 5 o'clock finish likewise disregards the rhythm of a typical local or regional TV operation. It’s making the news cycle fit the convenience of the university, rather than adapting the institution to news.
Professionally, it’s about learning to be selfless. Handing the best stories forward to be used at breakfast or drive when the audience is there, not firing them off at 1000 or 1500 because individual students want the satisfaction of hearing themselves on air. 

More importantly it’s about developing the instinct for the morning angle, the second or third day of a big story, about previews and buildup and reflection and reaction. About news management, not flinging everything we’ve got at the transmitter.

It’s about giving trainee journos the satisfaction of owning a story and probably (given that there’s never a shortage of staff in a training environment) the chance to really work contacts they acquire to find new and exclusive lines through access or familiarity.

To make an immersive newsroom work it’s essential to have staff who’ve been there and done that. They can run an operation which mirrors as closely as possible what happens in the real world. 

Issues arise around law, ethics and regulation in real time and against deadlines where a bulletin is minutes away. Students really get that when a suspect’s just been charged, that voicer they’ve worked on for an hour is dead.  Public Affairs becomes relevant when Councillors try to exclude reporters from a meeting. And as for OFCOM – can we have that word at breakfast?  
Flexible academic colleagues can guide and talk through such issues as they arise, rather than lecture on them, making learning so much more meaningful. 

There’s also a key pastoral role for tutors. Often a student will find the stress just too much. If a breakdown happens in the safe environment of a training newsroom there’s always chance for a time out. 

When I’m in the newsroom, I’m an editor. When I’m in my office (or as wry trainees would call it, “the situation room”) I’m a caring tutor. Far better for a trainee to discover they can’t hack it in such a supportive space, with the chance to rejoin and try again, then to be sent away from a placement. 

In the words of one trainee “It’s a freelance gig you can’t be sacked from”. That’s the best possible training experience. 

When the trainee then goes on to bid for work there’s a steadiness in the eye and a firmness in the handshake that says to the employer they’ve had an experience as real as it gets.

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