10 November 2008

Wannabe hacks revisited

I occasionally dip into a certain forum for journalists that seems, unfortunately, to attract a particular class of post and a certain type of poster.

There is a high number of posts offering unpaid work, which might be ok if it was for a 2-week work experience somewhere decent, but usually they ask for experienced professionals, a lengthy commitment and no reward beyond a byline. One recent post was about the launch of a luxury lifestyle magazine, asking for seasoned contributors and expecting them to supply their own equipment - asking a writer to bring a laptop would just about pass muster if the publication was a community paper run on a shoestring. It's not acceptable when the magazine is aiming to attract advertising from high-end brands and expecting to sell to very high earners.

But enough about that.

What I find more worrying, of major concern even, is the high number of people posting and asking the most elementary questions. A couple of days ago someone new to freelancing was asking how to get paid. I'm well aware journalism courses often don't teach anything on freelancing but I'd expect a journo grad to have the nous to look up some info on the net somewhere on the basics of running a small business. There are quite a few government-funded sites, for example, that provide this sort of gen in simple language. More alarming was the poster's remark that this was a big company but she had no idea how to contact anyone there beyond an email address. Now if a journalist can't even google a company name to find their HQ and phone number, then I fear for the future of the nation's press.

This was a fairly typical query. Others run along the lines of "can I expect to be published without flashing a degree or two first?" and "do editors give the reporters stories to write about? Or does the reporter have to generate the stories him/herself?". The one that seriously alarmed me was "What happens once the news piece has been done, does it get proofed and then edited?" This was from someone who had just done work experience on a local paper and even written some stories for it. It does beg the question why the poster hadn't asked anyone on the paper while there to give them a quick tour cum rundown of how a paper is put together. But more shocking I think is the fact that so many universities are turning out journalism grads who basically don't seem to have learned anything practical or useful. What are they doing on their 3 years on campus? I would seriously love to know.

Back when I trained (long before someone invented journalism degree courses), I learned pretty much everything within 6 months on the job. I was subbing within 2 weeks because it had to be done and making up mock page layouts within a month. I stayed for 30 months and the only thing I didn't learn was shorthand (or proper typing) because the mag didn't have any budget to send me to day-release college. There was no internet then, but I learned fast how to find out info at the library or the town hall. Not knowing was not an option as I feared my editor's wrath.

I came away confident in my skills and knowing I could handle most things thrown at me. Today's lot give the impression they wouldn't know how to fend off a wet paper bag if it were thrown at them.

I don't want to say "Eee, it were better in my day", because it undoubtedly wasn't. The kind of tools available to today's journalists are amazing and wonderful and I would have given my eye teeth to have had mobile phones, the internet, laptops and the rest back then. So why, if they have access to such great kit are we churning out hacks who don't have a clue?

EDITED to add that Press Gazette reports that "new journalists lack key skills". Not sure whether to feel vindicated or even sadder.


Craig McGinty said...

Let's face it the newspapers/magazines employing many of these young journalists don't understand the internet, so they don't know what to look for in their staff.

No excuse whatsoever, and distinctly worrying, but maybe it shows us just how quick the new tools of the internet have developed.

And only a certain number of people i.e. those who are inquisitive or whose livelihood really depends on using these tools, are currently able to wield them effectively.

Unknown said...

But don't you think, even setting aside new media tools, that journo grads should be able to look up info eg at a library? I used to have to trawl through Companies House microfiches so it was harder then to find out facts.

And don't you find it worrying that someone can do work experience on a paper and leave without a clue what was going on around her?

Anonymous said...

Big topic, certainly the inflation in journalism courses and journalism graduates would be one answer. When I was at City Uni at the start of this decade, doing a journalism degree, I was shocked by how some fellow students on this supposedly prestigious course expected to be nannied to their degree, had to be chased down and forced even to do very basic course work...

Unknown said...

I'm sure that's part of it. Ever since the old polytechnics were allowed to upgrade to universities there has been an explosion of bizarre degree course to pull in students in order to get the government funds. I'm not saying journalism is bizarre but I can why see so many unis offer it now - it's relatively easy to teach, it doesn't need vast amounts of expensive extra equipment (unlike the sciences, for example) and it has the veneer of legitimacy.

It's worrying that students are not putting even the basic coursework in, though. Perhaps they think it'll be an easy ride through uni then into a glamorous, well-paid job? If so, they are in for a brutal shock.

ms_well.words said...

Apologies in advance for sweeping generalisations that follow…

Having recently ventured into the CPD/FE world I am staggered by the change in the education system since I was last there (12 yrs ago, post-grad diploma at Birkbeck).

The young people I've encountered lately are behaving as customers/consumers, expecting everything to be given to them instead of having to participate in the "learning experience" i.e. get to the library/on t'internet and find things out for themselves.

I don't think the feedback culture helps either - as a tutor I've now been on the receiving end of end-of-course feedback; and as a student on a C&G course, I'm now having to do the same for my tutor. While positive feedback can be a good thing, there's a lot of criticism and carping going on that's not always justified. Overall, I think this approach reinforces the students' sense of being consumers rather than participants, and undermines the tutors' authority. (Of course, I know there are sub-standard tutors/courses, but why make everyone suffer for the sake of a few bad apples?)

On top of that, I wonder whether schools' careers services are doing their students an injustice by making journalism seem like an easy option and/or not making prospective students fully aware of the core skills they will need i.e. an enquiring mind and a willingness to get off ones **** and dig out the info!

Unknown said...

Thanks for that. As suspected, it's across the board.

It must be emphasised that some journalism degree courses do cut the mustard. Lincoln Uni, for example, seems to have an excellent syllabus for hacks. Quite a few of this year's grad crop have already walked into really good positions, suggesting that they have learned well, so it's not all doom and gloom. It's just that when I dip into that particular forum and read the questions on there, I find it so depressing that these kids are being churned out with useless degrees and lacking the most basic skills. Most of them cannot even spell or punctuate, or identify a dangling modifier, when being able to write well, including understanding the elements that make up language, is surely one of the most important essentials for being a journalist.

Anonymous said...

I'm saddened (although unsurprised) to hear that it's not just the engineering/scientific sector that has the problem of new graduates not having the first clue about how to do the job.
I've worked in the electronics engineering industry alongside 'bright' young engineers with Firsts from Cambridge, who couldn't even wire a plug. OK, maybe they don't teach them that on the engineering courses, but you'd have though tthat they'd tewach them to *ask* if they didn't know... Instead, this idiot guess, and nearly electrocuted another engineer...

Unknown said...

Dear god, John, that is seriously worrying! My dad taught me to wire a plug when I was 8, and that may be exceptional, but surely it's not wrong to expect an engineering grad to know this. It's not rocket science, after all ;)