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Journalism students, put down your pints and get into student media

August 3rd, 2010Posted by in Comment, Training

Joseph Stashko is a journalism student at UCLan and co-editor of hyperlocal news site Blog Preston.

So, you’re studying journalism at university. You’ve paid your fees, bought a copy of McNae’s law, and at the end of three years slogging away at intros, pyramid writing and shorthand, you’ll become a journalist, right?

Obviously it’s a naive and unrealistic view. Getting a job in journalism is more difficult now than ever. And yet the industry saw a 24 per cent surge in applications for journalism courses last year, many of them undergraduate. Clearly people still want to be journalists, and the idea of a vocational degree is still considered attractive.

Considering the uptake in journalism courses, student media offices should be bursting at the seams. So why are so many journalism students unwilling to contribute to student media outlets?

The University of Central Lancashire, home to the first formal journalism course in the UK, currently offers more than 20 undergraduate and postgraduate courses. It has legions of journalism students at various stages in their career, with a wide range of skills and ideas. Yet the student newspaper, Pluto, is run by a skeleton crew.

Pluto’s news editor David Stubbings is hoping to hoping to refresh and improve student media at UCLan by redesigning the fortnightly paper and website and improving the means of communication to students.

“I think a lot of students arrive at university very excited and want to try and do everything. They’ll maybe write a bit but then just lapse and do the bare minimum, especially in first year,” he said.

He pointed out that the blame for a poorly staffed student media also lies with the editors, who should be encouraging more students to participate to avoid an elitist environment.

“Those who are heavily involved must make an effort to attract more contributors and crucially keep them interested. I think there are a lot of students who fail at doing that, so when you see the same writers names appear again and again people start to think that there’s no point trying to get involved.”

The outlook is, admittedly, bleak for nascent journalists. With all that’s written about mass redundancies, newspaper profit going into freefall, and seasoned journalists being laid off, you’d forgive a journalism student for wanting to crawl back into halls and stay there.

But I’d suggest the opposite. Student media, if done well, can offer a forum to throw around ideas (no matter how far-fetched), collaborate with like minded people, and practice journalism that is probably far closer to the romantic ideal of a roving reporter than any entry level job.

Journalism students have a lot to offer in an industry that is constantly in a state of flux. While interning at a national newspaper, I recall pointing out to a senior editor how to integrate his articles into Twitter, engage the readers and help tell a story better with data visualisation and diagrams. Skills which my generation take for granted are still thought of as innovative by many senior journalists, and what students lack in experience they can make up for with imagination and a little creative nous.

Student media can, and should foster this. At worst it can be self indulgent, and have the best interests of its writers, not its readers, at heart. But at its best it can be a melting pot of new ideas, encouraging experimentation and unusual content, all the while in the stable incubation stage of higher education.

In this uncertain time, journalism students can hold the key to unlocking a lot of different possibilities for the future of the profession. So lose your inhibitions, put down your pints, and get involved in your student media.

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  • http://stevenjameslawless.com Steven Lawless

    Excellent article!

    As a student journalist myself I am often annoyed by fellow students on my course unwilling to put themselves out to write a story. How else are you going to imrpove your ability if you refuse to go out, find a story, and build your contact list. Journalism is far more accessible now than ever before, with innovations such as Twitter and the rise of blogging you’d think more students would be showcasing their work to potential employers. – Hopefully this will change!!

  • http://www.twitter.com/jambothejourno Jamie Smith

    Totally agree.

    I edited Degrees North, the student mag at the University of Sunderland, for a year and was staggered at how few people could be bothered to get involved.

    Even when they were writing articles for their course they didn’t want to submit them for publication.

    I couldn’t get my head round it then and I still can’t. You’re not going to get a job in journalism without a body of published work.

  • http://www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk Laura Davis

    Good piece. I’ve been a professional journalist for 10 years now and there is no question that the work I did for my student paper got me my first job. Writing for Leeds Student from 1997-2000 gave me invaluable experience as well as a really strong portfolio built from cutting that you just wouldn’t get from work experience alone. I interviewed MPs, police sergeants and rape victims, wrote features, celebrity interviews and comment pieces as well as a column on my year abroad. As well as all this I mixed with a group of ambitious people who had more idea about how to get into the industry than I initially did.

  • http://www.scotcampus.com Chris Hammond

    I work full-time as editor of Scotland’s only national student/youth paper (Scotcampus). We put out about 45,000 copies, but I rely on freelance mates, my girlfriend and a select few to put it together. It’s a great way to get clippings, I’m pretty liberal with what goes in and for many it’ll be the first time they reach a national audience. That said, I’ll be lucky to get three reliable (and good)student writers over the course of a year.

  • http://www.rebeccahughes.org Rebecca Hughes

    I’ve blasted so many articles like this at my university and I still hit a wall of silence. How does an editor get other people to write and be enthusiastic? I’d genuinely like some advice. I launched a magazine at the Universities of Medway last year, as we had no student media publication, and offers to help were 99% of the time frivolous. I was left largely by myself to generate publicity, writers, photograph, design and edit the mag alongside a ridiculously busy degree and a part-time job. I did occasionally get an offer from someone to write something, but they always wanted me to give them a story. I didn’t want the magazine to be all of my ideas and I really wanted to scream ‘you’re supposed to be a journalist – generate your own ideas’, but I couldn’t because I desperately needed them.

  • http://josephstashko.com Joseph Stashko

    Hi Rebecca,

    Sadly I don’t think your plight is very unusual. It’s very difficult to get people to do things off their own back for seemingly no reward. Yes, you can ply people with the idea that it looks good to have a folder bursting with clippings, but the payoff isn’t instantaneous.

    I find it fairly disheartening and even upsetting when people don’t get involved. That UCLan (and many other universities that offer a wide range of journalism courses) have such a huge bank of potential talent to draw on makes the reality even harder to bear.

    I think a skilled student media editor knows how to mediate between giving and taking. That is, giving students enough incentive and ideas for stories when they start off to build their confidence, but then letting go of the reigns once they’ve been through a sort of trial period. It’s a very fine line, and easy to either scare everyone off with “generate your own ideas”, or basically just handing out press releases to rewrite that are just a way to an easy byline.

    I don’t have a solution at present, but as I go forward it’s something I’m really interested in improving and monitoring. Besides, the fact that we’re having this discussion at all means that there *are* people who care about student media. Though it does feel like an Everest-like uphill struggle sometimes, that in itself is encouraging.

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  • http://www.edwalker.net/blog Ed Walker

    Great post Joseph.

    I’d argue it’s a good time to be a student journalist, as long as you’re engaged, motivated, committed and willing to try new things. Plus you’ve got the basics all sown up.

    One good thing about a recession is that it sorts the wheat from the chaff in businesses, companies have to innovate to survive and opportunities will come. These will go to bright, innovative and creative people (well that’s my theory anyway – feel free to shoot me down).

    However, as others have pointed out in the comments – trying to get a job without a published portfolio is like trying to be a professional footballer without having ever played a match.

    It’s interesting, the issues you touch on in this post are similar to what we discussed in 2005 when wrestling control of the student paper, Pluto, at UCLan. We turned it back into a newspaper, ditched the magazine format, and eventually got it to win some awards and built a strong and large team of contributors.

    @RebeccaHughes – Some advice. I eventually become editor of the student paper at UCLan. I’d worked across nearly every section, subbed, been assistant editor. There’s a couple of ways to get people engaged:

    - Up your print run and distribution (I used to spend friday morning running around campus/Preston with bundles of papers, aim was to have got rid of nearly all of them by lunchtime. We used to do countbacks as well, so pick up the old ones on way round to see how our readership was doing). Get the newspaper in people’s faces.

    - Find stories that go beyond the campus. Get scoops that generate press interest outside the campus, e.g. regionals, local radio, bbc, nationals and you’ll suddenly see a big uptake in writers and people noticing the paper/magazine

    - Be inspirational. You need to be one step ahead of your reporters, you need to have your finger on the pulse of the campus. Always have a feature idea in your back pocket. Know the rules of hockey better than your sports subs. This will lead to respect, this brings loyalty and people will follow you blindly into 4 AM finishes with just a cold slice of crap pizza for company.

    - Never give up. Keep going to talk to students who might be interested, keep emailing your contributors list, keep appealing for more writers. Never stop talking about your paper/magazine/website. Give a shit about your people, talk to them, have an open door, share a pint with them – but don’t get too involved.

    - Some people won’t want to work for you. Unfortunately some people think they are above it. Fine, let them do their own thing, it’s not for everyone. Focus on who you’ve got.

    Feel free to drop me an email or tweet @ed_walker86 if you want some more advice

    Ed

  • http://www.nickpetrie.co.uk Nick Petrie

    Hey all, I just wanted to ad my two cents, I have just graduated from the University of Birmingham where I spent all 3 years heavily involved in the paper (Redbrick) in some way, the final year as editor and I have experienced all of the frustrations expressed here.

    Trying to figure out how to up engagement and to get the students to care about genuine issues both on and off campus was the conversation that reoccurred most in the office and this often started with how disengaged our writers (news in particular) could be.

    One thing we tried was a ‘News writers workshop’ where we gathered new and existing writers one day, told them what we expected of them in terms of finding stories, quotes, developing contacts – everything needed to either write a good piece or be a good reporter and then we sent them out in pairs with 45 minutes to find a story.

    It was hugely successful, only one pair did not return to write up what they found, everyone else rose to the challenge, enjoyed it (the feedback was stunningly positive) and found some great stories for the next issue. – We only wish we had thought of the idea in first term.

    I agree with of Ed’s comments – being an inspirational leader is the absolute number one in my opinion. If you can light that fire under other members of your team then you find an explosion of ideas (and commitment) which can only take the paper forwards.

    And never giving up, you talk about the paper to anyone and everyone, you never know who will have a good idea, a contact, a network that can help you out.

    Most of all you have to innovate, student media is the most risk free environment you will ever be in. If you are not prepared to take risks at this level, you will never be able to take risks when your income or reputation might depend on it. So what if one idea after another flops, take on the next one.

    I can’t stress this enough – talk to your CS students and see if someone will help with the website, look at redesigning the paper – start bringing in online advertising revenue, live blog, tweet, podcast, introduce graphics, use maps.

    Build a community and then constantly engage and respond to it.

    Again I agree with Ed – this is the best time to be a student journalist, we are in a position to redefine how journalism works, we don’t have to sit back and watch. We can be at the forefront of everything good that is happening in journalism – I truly believe this.

    @petren

  • http://www.suzanneyada.com Suzanne Yada

    At my university, the student newspaper is a required course. You must write 33 articles in half an academic year or you don’t pass. It’s boggling to me that other journalism schools, both here in the States and abroad, don’t have similar requirements. I don’t know how our daily paper would survive without it.

    Are there any UK schools that have a required media lab as part of its curriculum?

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