Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 1, January 2010 The Scale and Origins of the Threat to Journalism
I have been spending a lot of time recently turning specialists into professional journalists. We call this the Bolt course and I now run it for Bauer Media, formerly EMAP, in Peterborough. The aim is to turn keen fishing enthusiasts, gardeners, classic car petrol heads, bikers and steam railway fanatics into journalists. They are already professionals in the sense that they are paid to work on their respective magazines. The aim is to help them become professionals in that other sense: writers who understand that they are communicators; who understand where they are in the river of journalism; and who apply interviewing, reporting and writing standards.
Subject Specialists and Professional Journalists
For almost everybody on the course over the years I’ve run it, there is some defining moment when they turn from being a specialist writer into a professional journalist. For one writer, now on MCN, it happened over one weekend. He had been recruited by an MCN editor who had seen him riding in the street and left a note on his fuel tank asking him if he was interested in writing about biking. He said ‘yes’, so he was on the course. That weekend, he was reading a local paper with his girlfriend and she commented on the lead story – something about a child being molested. ‘That’s shocking,’ she said. ‘Yes,’ he told me he replied, ‘Look at the intro. Thirty-seven words. Shocking.’ That was his moment.
Another one in this year’s intake was sent on a trip to Europe to cover a bike launch. Using standard journalism techniques he came back with four stories, not just the one put on the plate by the PRs running the event. Another defining moment. He called it his ‘Bolt moment’.
During the course we take them out of their comfort zone and have them writing stories about police investigations, food scares, holidays for the over 60s – anything but bikes, fishing, gardening, classic cars, and steam railways. They learn to detach themselves from the subject, generate angles for different audiences, write for different media and generally serve the readers, listeners and viewers. Day by day they learn the small things and the large ones: the history of British magazines sits beside the identification of the subordinate clause and the proper use of the semicolon.
Once or twice, it has been too much of a jump. A young fisherman, an amateur champion, was the star of one year because he progressed so far from his starting point. Within two years he was an editor; but two years later he was out of journalism altogether. Writing every day about the sport he had looked forward to practicing each weekend, had undermined his love of fishing. He sacrificed his journalism for his fishing. Our loss.
Three ‘C’s: the holy trinity
Their publishers see them as content generators. The creators of the first ‘C’ in the mantra: Content begets Community begets Cash.
They are not really challenged by the surge in user-generated content (UGC). They see it as part of the conversation with their audience. And they filter it. And they can do it better than those who have not been trained.
Not that training is the key. The key to unlocking their potential is that moment when they realise that professional journalism is different from UGC. Different because it is paid for, and different because it is privileged. Many used to be avid readers of the publications they now work on. They understand the privileged position they are now in.
Some of them will get to be editors and will have to shed much of what they now love doing: writing about their passion. They will become part of the hierarchy, grappling with that old oxymoron, editorial management. I’ve been working closely with two editors in the trade press quite recently, guiding them through the choppy seas of their relationships with staff, publishers, commercial managers and their ‘industries’. Both have relaunched their magazines in tough times. Both have relaunched their websites. They have accepted, indeed embraced, the fact that they need to deliver their content in whatever media at whatever time their audience requires.
They and other editors are dealing with the fact that many publishers have restructured their organisations into complex matrices with little thought for the consequences. We journos are used to simple, product-oriented structures: editorial teams focus on the generation of those digital page images for repro and print. Most of the skills to do this were within the editorial team. Now editors have to look sideways to a digital production team which does not belong to the editorial team of that particular publication; instead it is embedded in its own technical fiefdom.
The needs of the less prestigious publications within the publishing house will be pushed aside as the privileged publications get the lion’s share of attention from the digital teams. If there is anything which will undermine the position of the professional journalist, it may come from inside publishing houses rather than outside. Not the recession, not UGC, and not digital media themselves. But the almost thoughtless creation of complex organisational structures which require constant negotiation and sophisticated management to make them work. And publishing management has never in my experience been burdened with the description ‘sophisticated’.
In this more complex world the wrong argument is: ‘We need this in editorial’. As long as editors use this argument they will sound like the moaning minnies they are caricatured as. They will look even more like a cost centre. The more they tune what they need in editorial to what publishers want, the more successful they and their publication will be. That is not to advocate that they should give up editorial values: far from it. They should use the fact that the three ‘Cs’ start with what they create, as the lever to get the resources they need.
Or to put it another way, as Andrew Calcutt has done, ‘professional news reporting must be elevated into position as the cornerstone of commercial publishing and the public realm.’ And they are doing this. The editors and the reporters I have written about here, are doing this; and they are not alone in doing so.
Richard Sharpe is a visiting fellow of UEL and the cornerstone of UEL’s MA Magazines. He is also a partner in ETC (editorial training consultants).