Why going back to school will prepare BBC journalists for the digital age

By Caitlin Pike The BBC wants to develop “the world’s best
journalism website” as part of its £5 million college of journalism
being developed by director Vin Ray.

Ray, former BBC deputy head
of newsgathering, has ambitious plans for the new college: “First of
all, I am going to set up the world’s leading journalism website, which
will make best use of all the BBC’s talent. The site will be full of
films, blogs, columns, articles and forums, which, eventually, anyone
interested in journalism will be able to tap into.”

The website
could become highly valuable, but Ray is quick to stress there are no
plans to make a profit from it at the moment. “With the BBC, there are
always fair-trading issues. We have to be careful that we are not
distorting the market, and there is no intention for this to compete
with universities or colleges. But that debate [on how the training is
opened out to a wider audience] is yet to be had,” he says.

Masterclasses
will feature top BBC talent, including Jeremy Paxman, John Simpson and
security correspondent Frank Gardner. There will also be seminars
involving members of the public involved in major news stories.

They
include the mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, the vicar of
Soham and the family of Iraq hostage Ken Bigley on what it is like to
be in the eye of the media storm.

Although the college will be
web based, Ray says he is not fond of established new-media labels: “It
has been described as being virtual, which is a phrase I don’t like –
it is only virtual in as much that there isn’t a campus in Sussex, but
I think the ambition, in the end, is to get some kind of facility in
all the main buildings the BBC has.”

He adds that things work
best at the corporation when they are close to “the business”, so Ray
is keen to make sure all training is either online or in locations
easily accessible from the newsrooms. “The more you detach something
like this from the business, the less effective it is,” he says.

Unification
The idea of a BBC college of journalism was conceived by Ron Neil, who
led a review of BBC journalism following the Hutton Inquiry in 2004.
But Ray believes the college would have evolved without Neil’s
recommendation – just not as quickly. “The college would have happened
anyway because of the founding of the journalism board chaired by Mark
Byford. Unbelievably, when that was formed after the Neil report, it
was the first time that journalism across the BBC was brought together.
There’s now a commonality of approach from all the different divisions
in the BBC that do journalism. Once we got to that point the college,
or some form of it, was inevitable.”

Ray explains that training
at the BBC was, prior to Hutton, non-compulsory and rather confused:
“It had a degree of serendipity to it. There were isolated examples of
ground-breaking training, but what was being learnt by one newsroom may
not have been available to any others.” One of the college’s main roles
will be to make sure that all entry-level journalists coming into the
BBC will understand the corporation’s key journalistic values outlined
by Neil: accountability, independence, accuracy, serving the public
interest and impartiality.

“We’ll brainstorm with programme
editors on, say, impartiality, so that they are then able to pass on a
deep understanding of the issues to anyone who joins their teams. In
that way, it will filter through to everyone,” Ray says.

Some key
courses, such as journalistic values and media law, will become
compulsory to promotion, which he believes will introduce a level of
incentive to training that had previously been lacking.

Ray, who
had been deputy head of newsgathering at the corporation for the last
five years, is clearly very excited by his new role. “I am going to
have so much fun in this job. The focus of my work for the past few
years has been managing our on-screen talent, and now I’m going to use
it to pass on expertise to as many people as possible,”

he
enthuses. “It will be a test of the relationships I have made.” But
with offers to contribute to the college from a raft of award-winning
BBC journalists, it seems those relationships have been good.

Classes
offered, both on the web and face to face, will be in a wide range of
subjects from the craft of journalism and legal training to dealing
with trauma and deconstructing awardwinning news films.

There
will also be career guidance from senior production and editorial staff
on the range of jobs on offer to journalists at the BBC.

Along
with the more traditional classes, Ray aims to make the training as
varied and interesting as possible: “I am keen to bring a bit of edge
to the training. For example, last year we ran a seminar at the BBC
entitled ‘On The Receiving End’ with Sarah Payne’s mother and the vicar
of Soham, and it was one of the most fascinating things we have ever
done. I know John Pilger has some very strong views on the BBC and
impartiality – it would be great to get him to hold a discussion.”

Ray
says one of the most important things the college will achieve will be
to “lift everyone’s sights to understand what’s around the corner”. He
sees it playing a major part in improving journalists’ grasp of the
change from a news landscape dominated by appointment-to-view bulletins
to a fully on-demand world.

“We are in transition from linear
bulletins that are on at the time we tell you they are on, to an
on-demand world where you choose entirely what you want to watch and
when you watch it,”

Ray says. “What nobody understands or knows
is the speed of that transition and where the balance will lie. It’s a
very difficult balance – the audience are still over here, but we know
they are migrating over there. The college will play a big role in
showing audience and market trends, technological developments and
keeping people abreast of where things are heading.”

Ray
explaines that because of the changes taking place in the way people
consume news, classes in expert headline writing will be on the new
curriculum. “One of the things we discovered is that in an on-demand
world, headline writing will be one of the most significant skills you
can possibly have. People will be choosing from a menu of stuff, so you
are only as good as your ability to get people into that through the
headlines.”

Ray says the ‘college’ will transform training at the
BBC and he is determined to make it interesting. “With all the
training, I think it’s really about engaging people. If you ask
journalists to come and listen to the BBC’s five-year strategy they
will say ‘bugger off’, but if you say there’s a session being held
revealing why their programme will be dead in three years, then they’ll
be there.”

Vin Ray CV

CAREER PATH

Vin Ray is the
BBC’s director of the college of journalism. Prior to that, he was
deputy head of newsgathering and was in charge on both 9/11 and 7/7.

He joined the BBC in CEEFAX in 1987 and moved to the Nine O’Clock News as a producer in 1989.

He
then moved to foreign news, where he spent the bulk of his BBC career.
He worked in Kuwait during the Gulf War; with John Simpson in Moscow
during the Gorbachev coup; and he was with Martin Bell when he was
injured in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

In 1993, he was
appointed TV foreign editor. Two years later, he became the bi-medial
foreign editor across domestic TV and radio.

In 1996, he was
asked to merge the newsgathering operations of the World Service and
the domestic News and Current Affairs, becoming world news editor – the
first person to take charge of the BBC’s entire foreign newsgathering
operations.

Influenced by the deaths of colleagues and the
changing nature of war coverage, Ray has also been at the forefront of
developing safety procedures within BBC News.

He is a trustee of
the Rory Peck Trust, which is dedicated to the safety and security of
freelance media workers in news and current affairs broadcasting
worldwide.

In 1999, as executive editor, he was asked to look at
improving the storytelling skills of the BBC’s reporters and
correspondents, developing masterclasses, one-to-one sessions and
seminars. This work provided the genesis for his book, The Television
News Handbook.

He is visiting professor of journalism at New York University.

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