Media studies no replacement for training

This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin August 2014

Before you go closing all those university journalism courses, spare a thought for the future.

What future, you ask? The Australian federal government is determined to reduce communication course subsidies at research-led universities in favour of vocationally-oriented private institutions and the New Zealand government is preoccupied with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at the expense of arts and social sciences.

The industry itself has long preferred trade training to the pointy-headed ruminations of critics with too much time on their hands. The future, some might think, will be better served if training sticks to knit-one-purl-one – with digital knitting needles of course – rather than deconstructive (or destructive) studies of journalism that reveal its faults and inadequacies.

Dollar-driven decisions with a short-term focus have been leading this particular debate. Deficit-burdened governments are prioritising education spending, while companies with a heavy emphasis on newspapers are facing cash crises and an immediate need to transition to digital businesses. Those businesses need keen, sharp young digital natives versed in both the principles of journalism and the technical skills to practice it on multiple platforms. I can’t argue with that.

Training and education do not, however, have only short-term purposes. Yes, they provide the wherewithal to gain entry into the industry but that is, both literally and figuratively, only the starting point. They shape the workforce and influence increasingly senior decision-making in decades to come.

I entered journalism in New Zealand at a time when university graduates were in a distinct minority, journalism degrees were something in the future, and the newsroom was populated with people moulded by diverse backgrounds and life experiences that included the horrors of war. All had learnt their craft ‘on the job’. So did I, beginning with mentoring by a crusty bugger called Bill Niland whose down to earth attitudes were honed on the less-fashionable streets of Sydney. We were the breed of journalist who influenced newspaper editorial practice in Australia and New Zealand for decades that were characterised more by stability than change.

Contrast that with today’s newsrooms where journalism degrees are the norm, digital expertise is prized and change is ever-present. We now have the best-educated newsrooms in history and the tertiary sector is introducing a new breed to the ranks of professional journalism. However, there is an elephant in the room: How will professional journalism be defined and practiced even a decade from now?

That is the question that should be driving the education debate and we will need some blunt answers to further questions that flow from it. For example, will we need 15 tertiary institutions in Australia offering undergraduate journalism degrees? Will we need 10 journalism schools offering journalism diplomas or undergraduate degrees in New Zealand, which has a population smaller than Sydney?

No doubt the industry would prefer vocationally oriented institutions to teach the enduring principles and core practices of journalism to prospective entry-level staff but how many of those can even the wider media industry absorb each year? If employers give preference to vocational college students, should so many research-led universities be offering undergraduate courses?

There is room for rationalisation but not the use of blunt instruments. Careful thought needs to be given to which institutions – and not simply what type of institution – are best placed to meet a particular need.

Vocational courses for school-leavers have their place but credibility and analytical expertise will differentiate professional journalism within the burgeoning communication labyrinth of the future. This will require even more graduates with skills and knowledge in other disciplines who have been taught also to be journalists. So research universities might offer only postgraduate courses in journalism tailored to this need or collaborate with vocational institutions.

The fundamental questions about the future of professional journalism could not only be answered but shaped by cross-disciplinary research into the future of communication. Media or journalism studies will not, in isolation, find the answers. At a rough guess, it will require the combined thinking of teachers and students in at least science, engineering, economics, business, sociology, psychology, philosophy, politics…plus journalism and media studies. In other words, some universities need to concentrate their efforts in high-end postgraduate research centres. By drawing together diverse skills and knowledge they may, for example, be able to tell us what lies beyond smartphone and tablet apps.

That part of the tertiary sector would contribute more to journalism training by studying its future than by deconstructing its past and present. The industry needs people who are equipped not only to navigate successfully their first day in the newsroom but also the ability to still be there when today’s unknown becomes tomorrow’s reality.

For all that, I also have a sneaking suspicion we could do with a few more crusty buggers who can teach you to spell Woolloomooloo.

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