A slow train to nowhere

Everywhere I look I seem to see a journalism training course. Some are long, some are short; some are done by experts, some by people who haven’t been in a newsroom for years; some are skills-based, others are there to promote an agenda, like the plight of refugees, or environmental issues. But there is no shortage, that’s for sure.

Why, then are there still problems with journalism skills in our region? Where is all this training going?

The truth, the hard truth, is that much of this training is wasted. Either it is poorly executed, or the wrong learners are in the class, or the wrong teacher is in front of the class, or it is the umpteenth version of this course offered by different institutions within a few months, or it bears no relationship to what is actually needed by working journalists.

One of the worst problems is when courses exist only because funders – rather than journalists – want them. You can usually tell these courses by their high-flying names and the words ‘human rights’ in their titles.

Another common problem is the number of people who are signing up for courses in order to come to Joburg for the partying and the shopping. You can identify these students because they save up their per diems and skip the last day of class to head for Eastgate or Cresta clutching rands and dollars.

We have bred the professional course participant: journalists who have done something like three courses in three different countries in the last six months, and have spent so much time in classrooms and workshops that you have to wonder when they get to practice this profession they are so eagerly learning.

We are soon going to have one person, one training course. There’s a bunch of journalism training institutes, of which my programme at Wits University is one, and then there’s a whole bunch of other institutions who jump in as well. Recently, for example, the SA Institute of International Affairs ran a training course for journalists.

The truth is that there s a lot of journalism training going on, but not enough of the right stuff done in the right way. As journalism educators, we need to grasp this prickly nettle for the sake of our own credibility.

One of the things I am going to do in this blog over the next few weeks is try and grapple with this. What kind of training do we really need? How do we match up to it? What do we do, if anything, about the surfeit of bad training?

Join me in this discussion.

12 thoughts on “A slow train to nowhere

  1. I believe we are too taken up these days with journalistic “issues” — ethics, duties, responsibilities etc — and not enough with practical newsgathering and communication. The ethical environment in which journalists operate is important, yes, but much more important is equipping a young reporter with the skills not only to to write clear, concise, accurate and ordered prose, but to deal successfully with police, government officials, PRs and the myriad spokespeople and issue-activists who populate the information landscape. How many courses are up to providing this? Becoming a good journalist is like riding a bicycle — you can attend lectures on the theory of pedalling to achieve balanced forward motion, but you actually have to get on a bike to find out if you can do it.
    More students in newsrooms please — but not as cheap substitutes for experienced staff.

  2. Your column is interesting. I agree there are a lot of courses without enough substance being offered. These are not only from seemingly obscure (journalistically speaking) organisations like the SA Institute of International Affairs, but also from our public universities. Too often, lecturers teach “what they know” rather than what their students need to know. I know one head of a university journalism dept who has neither worked as a journalist, nor has any training as a journalist. How can we expect to produce useful graduates when so often the trainers themselves are sadly remiss? I think we ought to implement a practice where any journalism educator has to have actually worked in journalism for at least 5 years (I think the Columbia Journalism School insist on their faculty having at least 10 years’ experience). That way, we are far more likely to offer good courses that are of more use and interest than shopping in Cresta or Eastgate.

  3. I never had any training and learnt on the job when I became a journalist almost by default. This makes me hesitant to enter this kind of debate. However, I am now an (almost) elderly hack still at the coalface of journalism – sub-editing or writing eight hours a day. I also work mostly with young people and have done so at weekly and daily newspapers (ranging from high quality to tabloid) as well as a news agency and magazine. I’ve now also become a trainer of sorts by default. What I need to tell my younger (well-trained, over-trained and often much better educated than I will ever be) fellow journalists in order for them to survive their bosses and get stories into print seems a lot of the time to be absolutely the opposite of almost anything they expect it to be. It also includes hammering in the what where- when- who- whatever-stuff (in any order now, since times have changed and the pyramid has gone splat). This is curious, since reading my old favourite daily papers (and some not so favourite ones as well) I throw them at the wall in frustration because often I still get no basic information even in stories of so-called record. And I’m bored to boot. At least sometimes, with the tabloids, I feel as if there are human beings and real life behind the stories (Sowetan and Daily Sun both). Elsewhere the world is gray and bleak and all I get is the verbatim version of what bureaucrats and politicians say while I want to know what things mean. No one tells me (except perhaps sometimes radio). In the mean time Saturday’s Financial Times remains my personal favourite read of the week. Is anyone training new journalists the lovely stuff we need to talk about and practice PLUS the nitty gritty which will make them survive the first year or so of donkey-work and so in a newsroom? That was when I learnt most long ago. Still, it’s still a great job and I still read the news. Can’t wait for most these young ones to really oust some of us older ones either.

  4. I also know a head of journalism dept who does not have formal education in journalism/media studies. How is that person going to educate students at varsity level. Experience needs to be combined with formal education to produce professionals.

  5. One of the things I liked most about the NYTimes over the years is that few (none) of its journalists had studied journalism as their major in university. The Times hired people who knew a subject — science, art/culture, law, business — who were schooled in that subject. Sometimes I worry that the world of journalism is overly populated by people who have studied the techniques but not the topics. Beyond subject education, I suspect real shoe leather journalism is moving beyond most journalists because of the apparent ease of doing research via internet sites and only incidentally by actually checking out the territory.

    As a semi-journalist in print and electronic media, I suspect that the one thing I have been able to bring to my journalism work, such as it is, is a real knowledge of a couple of fields.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents….

  6. Too much training of journalists these days comprises of talkshops heavily disguised as workshops: trainers standing in front and talking at participants.

    But what young journalists – and, sadly many who have been around for longer – really need is practical, hands-on training that teaches hard skills, like writing, research, information gathering and interviewing techniques, to name just a few.

    The dead giveaway is a short (one or two day) workshop packed with lectures on worthy subjects by a succession of “experts” who often have never worked in a newsroom and, more often than not, come from a pure academic background.

    And there is also the problem of the content of the training being offered being dictated by funders with their own agendas, rather than what is really needed.

    With all this, it is no wonder that we have such a skills crisis in our newsrooms?

  7. I apologise in advance for taking the “in my day” route, but in the early 70s young reporters at Die Burger had to report to a senior editor and sit next to him in agony while he questioned every fact in your badly typed report and commented on every grammatical and spelling error – and then sent you back to correct. You learnt very fast to get the necessary information, verify all facts and use the dictionary.
    During the past five years, we have employed two UNISA students who had to do journalism assignments on “pyramid articles” and various other exotically named forms of reporting … I knew as little about what they were talking about as they understood when I asked about verification and reliable sources.

  8. Perhaps these institutions are attracting wrong students into journalism programmes therefore robbing our media organisations with the right crop of graduates who will continue to maintain excellency that is so unfortunately lacking in our journalism at the moment. Institutions should attract students who are really passionate about the craft, not those who are only glamouring to be famours. Most students seem to have this illusion that a journalism qualification is an automatic ticket into the celebrity culture and stardom which our popular media has successfully cultivated in the minds of young people over the past twelve years.

    For instance i normally hear students idiolising radio and TV presenters and most of these young people think that studying journalism is the ultimate entry into that celebrity world of radio and TV personalities. If strict selection or admission criteria are put in place, journalism schools and institutions will attract the right students who will rescue journalism from midiocrity which it is so gradually degenerating into.

  9. I am a semi-journallist who came into the profession by accident – without any formal training – and have no regrets. I have benefitted a lot from the so-called numerous journalism workshops and courses and I am proud to show off my work.

    I am not after glamour as I am way past glamourous life, but will not stop at improving myself if a chance presents.

  10. intresting debate.i am a student of journalism and i was so suprised speaking to one of my fellow students at school.i asked him why he was studying journalism and he said that he heard they is a lot of money in the industry.now really, what kind of journalists are we going to produce if we are attracting the wrong students.i have always believed that one can never be a journalist unless one is really passionate about it.

  11. I remember studying Journalism and reading “You have been warned” (a book about the Rand Daily Mail) and looking at the contribution that you guys made to media and freedom in our country.

    I remember thinking, now that is what it is all about. Fighting the man, taking the consequences for what you say, and out smarting all the unfair media regulations.

    Now I have this education, I am more proficient than most in my writing, but I am working a manual labour job just to pay the bills. What was all this for?

    And you talk about students you will all be given these great opportunities and all they want to do is shop and party and all they really want is to sell themselves into wage-slavery without really caring about their profession. Meanwhile my heart sinks whenever I read the newspaper because of the standard of writing.

    Makes me sad.

  12. Good that you should mention the whole journalism training course debacle. Your wits journalism programme is a good one, but my issue is that I was sent away from the Vuvuzela, which I think that you have every right to do so if I am not studying journalism at Wits. I was interested in job shadowing, but I was givena whole list reasons why I couldn’t. Don’t you think that the Vuvuzela should not be entirely exclusive as it is and maybe open up to Wits media studies students, just a few number of them, just to experience what goes on in the newsroom, because we do know theoretically what goes on, but just to get a glimpse.

    i am aware that media studies and journalism are two completely different fields and some of us went into media studies with the belief that it was one and the same thing.

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