'Students, don't get swept up in cynicism about journalism's future'

Student journalists may have been given a battering at the Society of Editors Conference last month but they shouldn’t be deterred from a career in media, argues BBC’s Washington multimedia correspondent.

‘Now is not a good time to get into journalism,’boomed the newspaper executive. He was sharing a panel with me, as we answered questions from budding journalists.

On the face of it he had a point. Students contemplating a career in the media are faced with a barrage of headlines and stories of doom and gloom in the industry. But as my fellow panellist painted a picture of grey clouds and thunder, I felt forced to chip in.

‘Now is actually a better time than ever for many of you,’I said in an attempt to mitigate some of the negativity.

‘How many of you can shoot and edit your own videos, or make your own web pages?’I asked.

A sea of hands went up, and it was then I told the group that with skills in multi-media journalism production they could be streets ahead of many people I knew who had been in the industry for decades.

When I started out ten years ago I was trained in reporting for TV and radio. In recent years I have learnt how to write for the web, how to shoot and edit my own material, and the technical know-how to edit pictures and internet sites.

The students of today come equipped with all these skills. Picking up a camera and filming a compelling piece of video is second nature to many, as is making a website. They don’t need to go on training courses. They already ‘get it”.

The way we do our jobs is changing, because the way our audiences are consuming news is changing. We know full well that it is no longer a given that people go home and turn the television on for their daily news fix.

Now, all they have to do is log onto the internet or look on their smartphone to be updated with what’s going on.

The audiences we get for online are very healthy – the BBC News website attracts ten million users each week. When I write a feature I often get more than half a million hits in a day.

On big set piece stories, such as during the US election in 2008, it was perfectly normal to register well over one million hits in less than 24 hours on one story. That’s an audience not to be sniffed at, and while traditional platforms like TV and radio should not be ignored, it’s also important that we are serving our audiences with news, in the ways they want it.

One area of particular growth is video for the web, a specialism many budding journalists I’ve met already excel in.

At a recent talk I gave to a group of teenagers in South London I was approached by a young girl who wanted to know how she could get work experience. As we chatted, it turned out she had already made her own 30 minute documentary about the artist Tinie Tempah, having filmed and edited it in her own time. I was impressed. She’d achieved what many, me included, probably couldn’t.

None of this is to say that traditional skills of making good radio or good TV will become obsolete. It’s just that being a good online journalist has become just as important.

On a recent trip to the US for the mid-term elections I worked on features across TV, Radio, online and video on-demand. We re-versioned everything we did to make it right for each outlet, and managed to hit a large number of programmes in one trip. Aside from online, we reached everything from the Six O’clock news to PM on Radio 4, from World TV’s World News America to Five Live and BBC local radio. The online piece took as long to write as the TV piece took to cut or the radio piece to edit.

It’s not, as some people still think, about copying and pasting a radio script and moving the commas around. Writing for online is just as much an art as writing beautifully to pictures or making the sounds come alive on radio.

Multi-media journalism is about getting more out of what we do. Colleagues across the BBC are working in this way more often than not – it is hard work, but also rewarding that your journalism can travel on so many different programmes and platforms.

Is there a lesson to be learnt, for the journalists of tomorrow, the ones who were told that the future wasn’t very bright?

Yes there is. It’s easy to get swept up in the cynicism which often surrounds the future of journalism.

Things are tough, but those who hark back to a halcyon era might want to consider this thought. Ten years ago when people wanted work experience, they’d have to send hundreds of letters, to get the chance to make tea and photocopy in an office, as the first foot in the door.

Today, it’s much easier to get out there and get noticed. The internet means you can start a website from your bedroom, or upload your own videos to YouTube. You don’t have to beg an editor to give you a byline. You can create one yourself.

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