It’ ll be 20 years soon since I first stepped into a university to work with students. I was nervous. I had no formal experience teaching, but had trained scores of journalists and worked for a number of high profile broadcasters, such as Newsnight and Channel 4 News. I was just leaving Channel 4 News to join the Dotcom world.
The explosion of ideas, and curiosity of students pulled me in. Ideas beget others and it was a joy to interact with their thoughts. Often, I was learning too with topics that squarely fell outside my expertise e.g. history, feminism etc. I’d find myself gaining an eclectic book library.
Often it made me recall my own days as a student; being asked by Dr West. “Mr Gyimah would you mind explaining to the rest of us (33 seated) how a Sn2 nucleophilic attack of nitrogen on benzene forms 2, 4, 6 Tri-Nitro Toluene”. Organic Chemistry eh!
The ensuing years would see me grow into my role and acquire both a better understanding of what was required of me, but also what I felt was needed. The two aren’t always mutually exclusive, but I often compensated.
In early 2000 I was given the reins to teach online writing and web design, the psychology behind them, and what made the online space unique. Students would enact death marches to launch their sites.
Others in documentary would recognise they were being pushed in not just the acquisition of norms, but to find their own voice in a new market space.
Mostly all agreed with the journey we were embarking on; we framed it up front, so it was a fait accompli. Naturally not every student was swept along. “He sent us out to shoot and didn’t tell us anything”, said one student.
I had earlier told them I wanted to see who already had a natural eye for storytelling and hence how I might change my style to accommodate theirs. More often than not I’d say, we need to get past this traditional before I tell you what you’re doing requires a fresh approach.
A friend of mine, a BAFAT award winning filmmaker and Oscar nominee puts it more matter of fact. And yes he worked in a news. We both worked for the same outfit. The distinction in forms is a fallacy, he says. Play video.
His point centres around the fluidity of journalism’s forms and that the initial hard segmenting of them requires interrogation. In the 1950s the BBC could’t accommodate some items into its defined form of news, so invented the word, “current affairs”. Documentary existed before it was given a formal shine by Grierson who looked to cinema for help and proclaimed documentary was the creative treatment of actuality.
I’ll remember 2010, to 2011 as a transition point, a year when fee paying was introduced and the relationship between students and lecturer changed. “I pay your wages, one told me, so you’ll do what I want”. This phrase was more or less repeated years later.
Yet after it quietened down, and fee paying was the norm, there were those periods of explosive ideas again. Students were willing to jump off knowledge ledges, explore inter-disciplines. We’d go to google and the BBC where senior managers would critique their work offering high praise.
One major part of a university is to service the job market, get the students ‘oven ready’ to slot into pre-visualised roles in industry. The challenge in 2005 onwards was that technology was racing ahead of pedagogy. Dot coms, start ups, your Facebooks were yielding a mighty parallel work stream.
To quote that seminal video “Did you know” jobs were being created that didn’t exists a few years earlier, such as App developer, SEO specialist or Podcast producer.
How could universities cope with this? Some did; many didn’t have to as they were strong feeders into established markets. Others were engaged in re-thinks. This was evident as I could grab a sneak when being sent to assess how a university was doing courtesy of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council — the body that guides universities to what they should teach student prepping for the market.
Then other patterns started to emerge: social media and the rise of influencers suggested DIY was a rich alternative approach to getting the job done. Here’s how to make a documentary Rosenthal would write. But YouTube showed the many alternatives, sometimes from practitioners with relatively little experience but possessed an audience to give their approach a kick.
Technology was enabling a faster, swifter way to results, new results. This didn’t make teaching obsolete, but it did make one cognisant of how to be an innovator, whilst acknowledging traditionalism.
The changes too could sometimes be profound. From the number of students who wrote in pen in 2000, note taking, fewer would in later years. The mobile had become ubiquitous in catching voice data and a quick message. For one set it was the norm, but you couldn’t help but think of how the lack of a visual canvas of paper was impacting learning.
Enough studies have confirmed how writing with pen and paper strengthens the neuro networks for memory, aiding recollection. We also know paper usage is depleting a resource whose impact is becoming obvious by the day.
The attention economy, and habit inducing affects of social, can also often disrupt info-flows. In the real world, you’re likely to be engaged in three screening with television, laptop and mobile phone, but what’s the evidence that gazing at your social media feed in the midst of new knowledge flows in lectures suggests you’re taking in all this new extraneous stuff? Mind you I used to doodle a lot at school.
How do you prep students for an industry that requires reform? How do you prep students, many of whom compared to their predecessors pre-2000, tend to have relatively little prior industry experience? It used to be compulsory that to study on a journalism MA you had to have experience. There were fewer courses compared to now. This presentation produced by my dear friend Oksana highlights trends in journalism studies across Europe. It’s in Russian with English translations.
I’ve seen vast changes in the thirty odd years since entering journalism. Nucleophilic attacks didn’t quite work out. Many of those changes have been to technology and the number of different exciting fields that have emerged such as data journalism. But largely its story form and approach is the same as 70 years ago. In the mid 1990s the then Director General of the BBC John Birt introduced a structural form to journalism storyteller called ‘Mission to Explain’. It focused on context for stories.
The idea that journalism requires root and branch reforms is not just me saying this. A set of frameworks suggest how and why something is journalism and news when society and the condition that framed its maturing have long changed. The world in 1950 is not the same as 2021.
Does anyone ever teach the importance of diverse voices and people being represented in journalism output. Not really, because supposedly it’s not one of the tenants. But the very same pillars of journalism such as objectivity and impartiality sit within the very circle of diversity.
That may not have been the case twenty odd years ago, but it certainly is now. Because if not, one story, one side, the same dominance of a group continue to shape everyone’s understanding of the world. This is just one example. But watch Channel 4 News today and see how their output is modelled on this conscious attempt to diversify voices and personnel.
If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep on getting what you get. Five years ago colleagues and I hit a stream of thinking. Perhaps in the space of storytelling was something else that challenged conventions whilst students were learning them. Perhaps an interdisciplinary approach to creating and problem-solving was an answer. Could you rapid prototype, learn from problem-solving and challenge cohorts to bring new ideas to the table? Their ideas. This, below, from our Lab which I’ll write more about soon.
In principle it sounded good and it worked, but would it require the sort of student who was intensely curious at learning and knowing knowledge could atrophy? The alternative is the student who wants knowledge poured into them — a feature that’s been there from time which is why Feynman takes issue.
Lock down has yielded new observations and with some distance sociologists will be able to give more sanguine assessments of how the brain copes with learning by looking intensely at a screen. And that the Udemys with their 100s of 1000s of onliners know something about the long tail to build an audience which can pick and choose its offerings.
A good friend is about to start an online presentation for a well known social platform. The care, attention, and psychology into his deliverables, that embraces what he’s wearing, to the studio setting studio leaves nothing to chance. He marries the classical with innovation. It’s a lesson that’s staring the journalism industry squarely in the face. I asked a question recently, which turned into a 90 min presentation to a streaming conference.
What happens when streamers like Netflix and HBO get into news?
Don’t sniff, because it’ll likely be something you’ve never seen before, but works. Remember how in the 1940s famous Hollywood directors turned to factual events in war reporting?
Today, let’s collaborate towards changing the way we view and report the world.