Tagged: Teaching

Another chapter opens

It’s been quite a week. Seven working days ago I was a jobbing freelance. Tomorrow I start a staff job after three years out on my own. I got a phone call. I had a chat. I got an offer that I couldn’t refuse. And it didn’t involve a horse’s head.

Details have to remain confidential for now – but it’s a great challenge and something long-term. I’ve enjoyed freelancing and wasn’t expecting to go back to work full-time. But I’ve always kept an open mind, and life can surprise you. Continue reading

Do we still need proper journalists?

I examine this question in the latest edition of InPublishing magazine in a piece commissioned to prompt debate about journalism education and training in these tumultuous times. You can read the feature at the magazine’s Knowledge Bank, or listen to a podcast of the feature which is hosted there. I don’t claim to deliver the definitive analysis. Instead I ask a few questions, make some observations and post some opinion as part of the process of finding our way. I hope it’s a useful contribution.

Road to World Cup 2010

I’m at the London College of Communication on Friday for the launch of the Road to World Cup 2010 project. The project, run with the Peninsula University in Cape Town, will reflect the experiences of journalism students following eight different clubs, four in Britain and four in South Africa, in the run-up to next year’s World Cup finals.

Tonight’s event tackles the theme of how the UK media covers African football, and features a panel including the BBC’s Shelley Alexander, Guardian football writer Paul Doyle, Kick it Out’s Danny Lynch, Voice sport editor Rodney Hinds and author Marvin Close. The discussion will be chaired by two of LCC’s very able foundation course sports journalists, Martin Hines and Colin Robertson, and has been organised by my hard-working colleague and Acting Course Director Carrie Dunn. The event starts at 7.30pm, and full details are at the link above. The blog is already up and running here.

Journalism and a touch of class

Looming deadlines at Vision Sports Publishing haven’t left much time to keep this blog ticking over, but I wanted to surface briefly to comment on the debate about journalism and social class that has blown up after the publication of Unleashing Aspiration, the government-commissioned report into social mobility.

It has prompted detailed and interesting debate, with contributions from Charlie Beckett, Roy Greenslade and Dominic Ponsford all raising important points. I wanted to chip in with a few comments, as it’s a subject close to my heart. Inevitably, in any discussion about class, definition is important. Much of the comment seems to accept that the media is dominated by middle-class people, and while that’s almost certainly true it’s also true that being a journalist is one of the things which is taken to define a person as middle class.

It’s something I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with. My dad was a postman; my mum worked in a shop and I grew up in a council house. So far, so working class. I worked for a few years after I left school, then went to college, the first member of my family to do so. I studied Social Science, got a degree, and went into journalism. Apparently I became middle class as soon as I went to college, and cemented my ‘status’ by becoming a journalist. And yet I still had the same values I was brought up with.

I still think of myself as working class, while recognising that I’m probably seen as middle class by most people. At root, I tend to take an economic view of class anyway, while most discussions of class start from a definition based upon habit, activity, job status and the like. But I do recognise that ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ are also used as shorthand. I do it myself when I say I think of myself as working class, and when I express a distaste for some elements of what I see as ‘middle class culture’.

Without getting into vast generalisations, there is a tendency to insularity, smugness and a certain lack of warmth in some elements of middle class culture that I’ve never liked, while the openness, generosity, honesty  and warmth of some elements of traditional working class culture are things I’ve always valued. That’s not to demonise or glorify any set of people – you’ll find god and bad in every group of people, as my old nan rightly observed – but rather to challenge the idea that anyone who succeeds automatically becomes middle class.

I’ve long suspected that those who insist all journalists are middle class by definition are the people who insist that journalism is a profession, when in fact it’s a trade. And journalists such as Brian Reade, to take one example and a favourite of mine, come across as far more genuinely working class than some of the self-appointed ‘man of the people’ columnists to be found elsewhere tend to be.

If we accept that the very act of being a journalist makes a person middle class, then it is logically impossible to bring more working class people into the trade – because once they’re in, they become middle class. So I think that we need to recognise that there are in fact more working class people in the trade than is sometimes acknowledged.

We also need to recognise, and I know this is a point I keep making, that journalism isn’t just about news and newspapers. It certainly seems to be true that the upper echelons of our newspapers and broadcasting organisations tend to be dominated by people from similar backgrounds and colleges – it would be foolish to deny the influence of networks and the old school tie. But look further afield and you’ll find a greater diversity of backgrounds. Working mostly in the magazine sector for 20 years, I worked with and for mostly female bosses from working class backgrounds.

So the picture is not quite the one that has been painted, but what is true is that journalism is becoming more elitist. That’s partly, as some of the writers above have pointed out, because of the growth of journalism education and the belief that a degree is needed as a basic pre-requisite for success. I’ll return to this subject in more detail in another post, but it’s true that the chances of a raw talent from a working class background has less opportunity to learn the trade while doing the job than they used to. I wonder if some of my very good former bosses would get their chance in today’s media.

Finally, there is an obvious point to be made; a point which some of those commenting on various blogs have made but which hasn’t really been picked up. And that is that the government which commissioned the study into social mobility, and which now bemoans the fact that professions and trades are dominated by an elite of graduates from well-off backgrounds, is the government that introduced student loans – the very measure which prevents those from the poorest backgrounds from getting a degree. When I went to college I had to take a cut in income after working for two years, but I still had the benefit of a full grant. Without it, I could not have afforded to go to college, would not have got into journalism, and my life would now be very different.

There are a number of things which can and should be done to tackle the problems Unleashing Aspiration identifies. But there’s one very effective measure that can be taken straightaway if the government is serious about what it wants us to believe it is saying. Get rid of student loans.

Journalism ain’t broke

I rather liked this piece on Fleet Street Blues. It needed to be said, although I don’t agree with every dot and comma. FSB qualifies a couple of points very well in a follow-up post though. I’m not as cynical about college journalism courses or NUJ training courses as FSB is when he says, “Here’s a secret – and one that journalism academics, media commentators and the NUJ with courses to flog will do everything they can do to avoid telling you. If you want to get good at journalism, you have to practice it.” Time to declare an interest – I teach journalism and I value and contribute to the NUJ’s training programme. What I, and many others, always emphasise is precisely what FSB refers to – that journalism is about finding stuff out, about telling stories, and that all the buzz about medium should be looked at in the context of the message.

I think FSB makes a valuable contribution, and I don’t see it as another attempt to spark a battle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. And I think more than a few of us are saying the same thing. I found this post on Freelance Unbound a good read, too.

That was the week that was

Suzanne Breen’s court victory in her battle to protect her sources, and – it’s no exaggeration to say, her life – was welcome news in a week which showed that, for all the talk of crisis, there is still much to engage, stimulate and celebrate about the media. Suzanne’s was the latest victory in the long struggle to protect that most basic and vital of principles – that journalists have the right to keep sources confidential. She was backed all the way by her union, the National Union of Journalists. The union is often criticised, but it plays a vital role in helping to defend the basics of the trade, and this should not be forgotten for all the arguments.

Sources have been much in the news this week, with much debate over the unmasking of police blogger Nightjack by The Times. Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog, always a good point of reference, carries a round-up of views while tending towards disapproval of The Times’s action. While I appreciate the expressions of regret, I tend towards the view expressed on FleetStreetBlues, which says, “Why should newspapers be prevented from naming the author of a published website just because they’d rather not be named? There is no automatic right of privacy in the street – and neither should there be on the information superhighway.”

Tough questions

But there are some tough questions to confront. The most obvious is the old chestnut of what exactly does ‘the public interest’ mean? All media uses it as justification for publishing what it wants to, but clearly there are degrees, and viewed another way ‘the public interest’ often seems to be little more than the interest of increasing circulation. Another question that needs some thought is whether there is any contradiction between arguing for a journalist’s right to protect the identity of a source and the journalist’s right to expose the identity of someone who wishes to remain anonymous. My view is that there are important differences, but we need to be clearer and more consistent in our application of the public interest defence. If we’re not, we allow those who seek tirelessly to restrict the media’s ability to operate – relatively – independently the opportunity to blur some important boundaries.

Journalists are not the only people who need to ask hard questions about the consistent application of principle. Contrast the frequent attempts by government to intimidate journalists into revealing sources with the unwillingness to publish details of their expense claims. It seems many MPs believe in Freedom of Information About Other People. I’m not going to go too far in joining the national sport of slamming greedy politicians – while this is of course an important story which does not paint the political class in a good light, I wish we’d debate the value of politicians based on their policies. (But I suppose that would mean they needed to have some in the first place.) What really strikes me about the whole affair is the utter stupidity of publishing information in a heavily censored form in the full knowledge that the censored information is already in the hands of the press. I can’t make up my mind if it’s stupidity or arrogance, but either way it doesn’t say much for the mental faculties of those who are supposed to be running the country.

New links

I’ve added a couple of links to the media blogs section. FleetStreetBlues, as mentioned above, and Playing the game are both very readable, challenging and necessarily pithy commentaries on the trade. They are also very entertaining, showing the much-underrated power of humour.

I’ve also been enjoying the #nicerfilmtitles trend on Twitter (my favourite so far is The Brides of Frank and Stan) and sharing the fascination with the micro-blogging service’s emergence as an organisational tool in the wake of the Iranian election. Spending some time at #iranelection also provides a great lesson in how and which of the traditional principles of journalism need to be applied when following a story on Twitter. The most obvious thing that struck me was how easy it is, when caught up in the rhythm of the feed, to accept some ‘news’ as true before verifying it.

End of college term

It’s something which, if I’m teaching at the London College of Communication again next year, I want to introduce as a topic. I’ve heard good news about how students on one of the courses I helped teach on have done, but no news so far on the other. One of the problems of being a visiting lecturer is that we are often outside the loop. It’s been a challenging first year teaching, but it has been encouraging to see the abilities and enthusiasm of a new generation, and inspiring to see that in the midst of all the – often justified – gloom, there are still people who want to be journalists, and who have new and good ideas.

One-day course on pitching, writing and publishing a book

I’m running a one-day course on pitching, writing and publishing books on 22 June. It’s part of the programme offered by journalism.co.uk, and details can be found by clicking this link. You’ll also be able to book via that page. Places are limited to eight delegates, which I hope will ensure some in-depth discussion of individual’s projects as well as providing some general hints and tips.

Sport, lecturing and video debates

A swift round-up to keep things ticking over, ahead of a busy five weeks. Which, in the current climate, I’m not complaining about. 

Editing new books at Vision Sports Publishing 

VSP Autumn 2009 catalogue page showing Pocket books

I’ve just started a stint at the offices of Vision Sports Publishing, helping to edit a number of new books due out this autumn. This includes work on a series of Pocket books (see left) I’m also contributing to as a writer. Working with VSP’s head honchos Jim Drewett and Toby Trotman has been a real pleasure since they published the first edition of The Spurs Miscellany in 2006, and working more closely with them as the company grows promises to be one of the treats of the summer. Details of all VSP’s new books are available on the rather smartly revamped website linked above, with highlights being a sumptuous coffee-table tome on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, produced with the All England Lawn Tennis Club, and what promises to be a fascinating autobiography of Spurs legend Martin Chivers, written with Paolo Hewitt. Another highlight is Andy Mitten’s Glory, Glory – the inside story of the Manchester United team of the early 1990s featuring interviews with Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and former chairman Martin Edwards. 

Work in the coming week will probably conducted somewhere in the vicinity of cloud nine, after Jim and Toby’s team AFC Wimbledon effectively secured promotion to the Blue Square Conference amidst emotional scenes at the home of local rivals Hampton & Richmond on Saturday. 

Video of debate with Roy Greenslade

A video of the debate on outsourcing at Publishing Expo 2008 is now available to view at the revamped website of InPublishing. I took part, along with Roy Greenslade, PA’s Tony Watson, Robert Berkeley of Express KCS and Alistair Moxey of PF Publishing, and was the only one of the panel to question the prevailing wisdom about outsourcing the production function. I’m glad the film is now up, as the report of the debate in Press Gazette, which prompted extensive discussion on various blogs, didn’t mention the angle I took. It’s hard not to make that point without sounding like a miffed ego-tripper, but I do think that if a challenge to what is becoming accepted as conventional wisdom is made it’s worth reporting. You may disagree with what I say, but at least now you have the chance to find out what it was.

Final term teaching at college

For the next five weeks I’ll be dividing my time between working at VSP and teaching on the final weeks of term at the London College of Printing. I’m helping to supervise student journalists on the sports desk of the live editorial project, and teaching on the first year production unit I’ve been asked to lead. It’s been a tough first year on that production unit, with journalism colleges – like the industry itself – finding our way in the new media landscape. As we start the new term, the impending funding crisis across higher education and the likelihood of huge job cuts is casting a long shadow – making a tricky situation for journalism students even more difficult. For me, in my first year of teaching at LCC, it’s been a mixed experience. I’ll be working some of my impressions into a piece I’ve been asked to write on journalism education once term is over, and I’m still looking for contributions I can use, so if any readers have views or questions on the vastly complicated subject of educating and training the journalists of the future, please get in touch.

Where the hell’s he been?

That’s what the massed ranks of readers would be asking if, indeed, there were any ranks to mass. Sunday was entirely taken up by the League Cup final at Wembley. Spurs gave a better than expected performance but still lost due to an innate inability to hit the target from 12 yards out. The bloke behind me – that great staple of the football crowd – was there with his dad and asked: “Dad, do you think I’ll ever see Spurs win a penalty shoot-out?” We’ll be back on Wednesday night for the relegation clash with Middlesboro – managed by nice Gareth Southgate, but surely one of the dullest teams ever. There, I’ve jinxed us now. If we go down it’ll be all my fault.

Monday was a college day, working with the sports desk on the live project at LCC, with an evening at the Marx Library to launch the Printers’ Collection – archives from the print unions and guilds of Britain and Ireland.

Today, as you may have noticed, I’m tinkering with this site as I get more familiar with WordPress, and with raising my visibility via RSS feeds and social bookmarking. I took a break to post when I realised that a well-connected but sparsely-populated site was not ideal. I’m starting to wonder if I should maintain separate personal and professional blogs, particularly after the recent debate on The Guardian’s blogs. Is it possible, or desirable, to categorise myself as different entities? I’m mulling it over, but planning a post when I’ve thought stuff through.