Great technical skills must not eclipse the basics of journalism

No Press
Gazette awards ceremony is truly complete without some sort of
controversy, the new proprietor, Piers Morgan, reminded us after the
Student Journalism awards, and this year was no exception.

But for the judges it was no pleasure withholding a prestigious award from hard-working and enterprising students.

And
love of controversy aside, I’m sure it wasn’t what Press Gazette would
have wanted at the same time as it announced the “Press Cadets”, a
highly worthwhile scheme sponsored by Camelot to give two journalists
longterm paid contracts.

So just what came over us, the panel of
four judges of the television and radio awards – or the “four scrooges”
as I heard one participant call us?

Why did we (I was joined by
Lorna Dunlon from BBC News, Mark Gallagher of Camelot and formerly of
ITN and Caitlin Pike from Press Gazette) give the radio award to Mike
Wendling from Goldsmiths and stop there?

For starters, the field
was depressingly small. We considered a shortlist of six entries – five
of which were from one clearly highly-motivated college – Nottingham
Trent. I understand there weren’t many more entries than made the
shortlist. It was a mystery why almost all the other award categories,
from online journalism to feature writing, seemed to have a least five
different universities and colleges shortlisted.

Why didn’t more
colleges enter such a worthwhile scheme, encourage their students to
take on the competition and get the career boost and leg-up that even
being shortlisted provides?

Technically the entries were really
impressive. As Britain’s newsrooms have gone digital, we’ve required a
higher and higher level of expertise and demanded an ever increasing
amount of multi-skilling. From my experience of seeing scores of young
journalists down the years at ITN, Britain’s colleges have delivered,
with a noticeable hike in the quality of new recruits in recent years.
For the record, Nottingham Trent has an excellent reputation in these
areas – it was one of the first universities to establish a degree in
broadcast journalism.

But we found that unquestionable technical
expertise was in some cases eclipsing the journalism. There were good
sound mixes, imaginative camera work and proficient editing, but the
accompanying strong story selection and enterprising journalism was let
down by weak structures and storytelling.

The clear narrative, so evident in other less technically demanding categories, seemed to come second.

Wondering
whether what we saw was unrepresentative, I contacted one of the senior
tutors involved in teaching postgraduate students at Nottingham Trent,
Richard Ventre. He says it is “fair comment” that the drive to give
students technical skills means journalism has, in some cases,
suffered. He adds: “This is inevitable when you are being asked to
develop skills across a broader and broader range.”

The friction
between the competing editorial and technical demands is something
tutors and their students are aware of and debate regularly, he adds.

Adrian
Monck, formerly deputy editor of Five News and now professor of
journalism at City University, says: “We’re first and foremost
journalists.

It’s tough, but it’s about getting the balance right. Journalism has to come first, and everything else second.”

So
it’s time to ask whether the industry is putting too high a premium on
multi-skilling. Are all those hours spent on ever-increasingly whizzy
special effects, which come with alluring graphics packages, to the
detriment of journalism? How best can course tutors cope with the
increasingly wide range of skills they need to impart over the course
of one year?

Our purpose is not to dispirit young hopefuls up and
down the land. It’s not designed to paint a picture of doom and gloom.
Far from it. I’ve met some brilliant and dedicated students who are
every bit as good as their predecessors, and technically brilliant too.

From
the admittedly limited evidence we saw, I think there is a need for
greater competitive ambition and a re-focusing on the editorial heart
of TV journalism on our university courses and trainee programmes.

Dominic Crossley-Holland is controller of current affairs, arts and religion for ITV

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