Academic Sean Dodson has come under fire from the media industry for his criticism of regional journalism in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?
To those working in the regional media I am poacher turned gamekeeper. I was squeezed out of the the profession and ended up teaching the fine art of journalism to the content gatherers of the future.
For the last few weeks, I have stood on the touchline as the classic row of how it used to be better in the golden era of journalism has rumbled on between academics and those still plying their trade in the industry.
KM group’s Ian Carter admits that ex-journo now academic Sean Dodson hit a nerve in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?
Sean, a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, is critical of today’s journalists complaining about listicles and user-generated content.
But Ian and David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Digital Publishing Editor, were a bit miffed by this, with Ian describing Sean as sitting on the sidelines and ‘sniping’. Ouch.
To be fair to them, the regional newspaper crowd have probably had a bellyful of criticism, unfortunately though, in journalism, it comes with the territory because it is a public-facing industry.
It is as easy for those in the business to criticise academics who are no longer on the frontline as it is for academics to write despairingly about the industry they love/loved.
What it does show is a passion for journalism and I for one rather like that.
Having said all of the above, here is my defence of Ian and his colleagues.
As an academic, even though I still also consider myself as a journalist as well (dual professional), it’s our duty to to stay in touch with what’s happening in the industry.
I was surprised in the summer when an academic almost choked on his nicely chilled Sauvignon Blanc when a journalist lecturer friend of mine told him he now never bought a newspaper.
He gathered all his news online, he added.
What most startled me was the response from the wine drinking lecturer who couldn’t quite believe what he had heard, his blood pressure seemed to spiral out-of-control.
Of course, the outcome was that he ranted at my friend about throwing in the towel and being a traitor to the newspaper industry and journalism.
Far from it, my friend’s comments were just a reflection on reality and not past glories.
Indeed, my friend is one of the most passionate advocates of journalism, in whatever form, I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
As I left the conversation I was left to ponder on whether some parts of academia were still stuck in the past.
As for me, I fret that I may have missed the latest trend in journalism or a different way of working as I sleep, let alone during the time I’m awake. Yep, I need to get a life.
Here’s the plug (but it’s truthful) I want my journalism students at the University of Derby to have the most up-to-date education in the ways journalists work.
So, not only do I spend time in newsrooms, I speak regularly to people in the business so I have quality intelligence on the latest techniques or theories.
Attending conferences where cutting edge news organisations talk about how they work and why they work in that way is also essential.
As an academic/practitioner it’s all about having up-to-date professional currency.
The course I teach on is a digital journalism course. Do I expect all our students to work in so-called traditional media?
No, I don’t, some will, others will write content for businesses, charities, football clubs or anyone or any organisation which wants quality, modern content with high journalistic standards.
Everyone is a publisher now, so they all need quality content. We teach the core skills of journalism, like being able to tell a great story, but we also teach that once a journalist has a story, there are many, many ways to tell it now.
I’m in the camp where I don’t think that regional journalism is any better or worse than it used to be, there’s an argument for both.
In the so-called golden days of journalism, when Northcliffe Newspapers used to have annual profits as high as £96m, I saw, like Ian, some terrible, lazy journalism in newspapers.
I remember having to wake up journalists to do some work, I found reporters sleeping under their desks.
A colleague of mine recounts a tale of how in a district office the old copies of the newspaper were laid out in the shape of the bed, so the reporter could have a sleep after a liquid lunch.
However, these are just great anecdotes, they do not define the journalism of the era.
There was some amazing journalism in the so-called golden era, but there is equally some brilliant journalism and journalists now, it just might does not look the same.
So who do I back the academics v industry battle of the golden era?
Like most former regional journalists I mourn the past, we were a cash rich industry and we had a blast, producing sparkling newspapers and enjoying the riches of the industry.
We worked really hard, we played hard as well.
It’s a difficult argument to say one generation worked harder than another. However, from my knowledge and recent visits to newsrooms, the 21st century journalist is working very hard.
The business is more demanding now, it’s bound to be with the massive reductions in staff, but we mustn’t forget, that technology has helped journalists to get stories easier as well.
But the modern journalist has many more skills and jobs to do, as Ian rightly points out. At the university we are teaching students to tell stories for print, online, video, broadcast, radio, audio, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
They need to understand audience software and how to interpret that, be masters of SEO, take pictures, understand content management systems, aggregate/harvest content and maybe do some html coding.
Why are we teaching this? Because this is modern journalism, these are the skills a journalist has to have.
With regards to content, I have often said that I was worried the traditional news agenda was not necessarily fit for today’s audience.
We used to have little intelligence on buying habits compared with today’s constant analysis of audience.
However, I do feel that the newspaper and online audiences are different. The issue is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult or if at all possible to write different content for both online and newspapers, which I think is needed.
As for the nature of the content, no-one read every story in a newspaper.
What online offers is an immediate understanding of what interests readers, so why write content that readers are not interested in?
There’s the argument that much of this online content does not fulfil the Fourth Estate principle, but the reality is, how much content ever did tick this box?
There is still a lot of investigative journalism going on and it’s a fallacy that regional newspapers spent everyday chasing after Fourth Estate stories in the ‘golden era’.
Criticisms of listicles by the golden era brigade is also futile. The reason listicles exist is because the online audience like that presentation of this content and if researched well and with good information, they are an excellent way of presenting content.
Anyway, listicles are hardly a new concept. Throughout my career in newspapers we constantly produced added content to a lead story.
We used to call them panels or sidebars…not as sexy as listicles.
Are they trivial? Well who are we to say that if they are ready by thousands of people? I actually find many a good, fun, informative read.
I ask my students to produce listicles but apply good journalistic practices, well-researched, well-written and quoting people when appropriate.
As for the concept of click bait, it is also old hat. We have always been keen to flog a story hard and get people to read it.
Why did we spend so much time on the front page, fretting over as cracking headline, a hard-hitting intro’, the right photo and intricate detail in the front page puff?
We didn’t sweat buckets over this to turn readers off, it was to lure them in, call it newspaper bait.
So what we are creating at the university is multi-skilled geniuses, journalists who can tell a story in many ways.
Why, because that is what a modern journalist needs, whoever they write for.
Forget the bickering over better or worse than this or that era. We need to start to appreciate the difference and let the industry evolve.
Don’t worry, I have not been paid off by the regional press…yet…but I do try to seek balance, I know, it’s a bit old school.
Just maybe, this is the golden generation of change for journalism.