Reporter to lecturer overnight . . . a doddle of a
job? . . . academia shows an interest . . . the ‘professor’
paradox . . . sundry prejudices aired . . .
Six months of high-quality lecturing from the captain of the QE2 would hardly equip a desk-bound landlubber to take an ocean liner out to sea. And no-one can sensibly claim that classroom instruction delivered by even the most distinguished of journalists will turn students into newspaper reporters. But there’s a core of journalistic knowledge and skill that most certainly CAN be imparted in the lecture-room. It gives the beginner a flying start . . . the rest is learned from experience.
Universities and colleges don’t ‘teach people to be journalists’, they equip them to enter the profession. And many a regional newspaper editor would testify that a high proportion of college-trained newcomers recruited in the past 30-odd years have been useful from day one in the job.
One Friday, at the age of 38, I was a confident, experienced provincial newspaperman who had been a reporter, a sub and editor of a weekly . . . and the following Monday I was a new-boy lecturer in a further-education college, churning with self-doubt as I faced my first class. How’s that for paradox - there are no training courses for journalism lecturers. On day one, they simply have to take a deep breath and stride boldly into the lecture-room hoping that the youngsters lounging and chattering before them will instantly fall silent in the face of their obvious authority.
It was September 1970. I started on the same day as a fresh-faced young chap who had been an accountant only the previous Friday and was now - you’ve guessed it - a business-studies lecturer. Our induction consisted of a brief explanation about how time-tables worked, a solemn word about the importance of keeping registers, and a reminder that attractive female students were to be treated with the same professional detachment as the spotty, ugly lads. There was a surprise announcement at the end of the session, I recall. The Principal of the college, an unorthodox fellow with science degrees and a disarming smile, told us: ‘One other thing. I manage to remain anonymous among the students, as it’s more interesting that way. If any of you tell them who I am, I’ll kick your teeth in!’ The smile suggested that it was merely a joke to put us at our ease - though he was, we later discovered, serious except for the teeth-kicking bit - and we trotted off in good spirits for planning meetings with our new colleagues. At lunch-time, wandering along a corridor and trying to remember where the refectory was, I met the new business-studies lecturer and his brow was furrowed. ‘I’ve given my first lecture,’ he said, ‘and I’m a bit worried. I think I’ve told them everything I know, and it’s only the first day!’
He was joking, of course. Well, half joking. He’d got the wrong idea about what lecturers actually do. It’s easy to stand up in front of beginners and tell them how effective you are in your profession, whatever that profession might be; the skill lies in helping them to be effective in it as well.
That may sound ridiculously self-evident. But, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I’ll push it a stage further. During my college years, just about every ‘visiting lecturer’ from the world of newspapers made the same mistake. ‘I’ll talk to them about legal pitfalls,’ said one, as if a string of reminiscences about colourful clangers would somehow serve as an inoculation against future sloppiness. ‘I’ll talk to them about getting names right,’ said another, apparently confident that a stern warning about the risk of confusing ‘Ann’ with ‘Anne’ and ‘Thomson’ with ‘Thompson’ would enable his hearers to steer a smooth course through journalism’s troubled waters. ‘I’ll talk to them about interviewing,’ said yet another, before embarking on a solemn sermon about the evils of being rude to old ladies and putting quotes into the mouths of vicars, council clerks and police officers. But simply talking about these admittedly important matters is not enough.
The very word ‘lecture’ carries with it inescapable overtones of ‘I’m an expert, so sit quietly and listen to me’. I have no objection to ‘lecturer’ - it is simply a job-title. (P.E. lecturers, for example, seem to manage very well without pontificating from rostrums.) But, apart from those relatively rare occasions when the simple aim was to impart information, I was never entirely happy with the notion of delivering a lecture. As I saw it, students aiming for a career that would require them constantly to ask people questions should be encouraged to chip in with queries and observations of their own as the session progressed.
Consider, for a moment, Visiting Speaker A. He spends an hour warning his hearers, through vivid and humorous anecdotes, about the dangers of getting it wrong. He’s charismatic, clearly competent, and an excellent speaker into the bargain. The students enjoy his visit. They even clap at the end. Speaker A thinks he wouldn’t mind becoming a journalism lecturer one day - it’s not only a doddle of a job, it’s an enjoyable doddle of a job. The students, laughing and chatting, go off to lunch. But have they learned anything? Will they, by some eerie osmosis, tend to write more accurately now that they have been exposed to this literary colossus? The answer is almost certainly no. Now consider Speaker B. He starts on a light-hearted ‘Hey, just write down this news par’ note, and dictates no more than about 30 words. Then he asks the students to make the par crisper and simpler, and to do so anonymously on a slip of paper. No problem - dead easy, they think. Speaker B collects the slips of paper and redistributes them around the class. It’s great fun to criticise someone else’s work, so everyone is happy to read out the re-jigged versions. But . . . of the dozen rewrites, half have somehow gone slightly wrong. Criticism flows freely. It’s all anonymous, so no-one really minds. How did the mistakes occur? How could so many people get a few simple facts in such a tangle? If this is only one paragraph, what are the chances of accurately re-writing a ten-par story? Wow, as bad as that! Each individual privately knows how good or bad his or her own effort was. The lesson that’s been learned is one that no lecture could teach. In this most basic of sessions, the subject matter is irrelevant - conflict in Kosovo or a car-parking controversy at Crimpleton Parish Council. The important thing is getting it right.
In this example, Speaker A was possibly a top journalist, a successful editor perhaps, commendably showing an interest in newcomers. But Speaker B was probably a full-time journalism lecturer, and his seemingly simple ‘re-write this paragraph’ exercise would be the result of much experimentation in how best to give his students practical help.
The common assumption that any top-flight journalist who’s unlucky enough to find himself redundant could immediately switch to being a top-flight journalism lecturer is no more true of the newspaper business than it is of banking, or surgery or piano-playing. There are experts in every field who can explain clearly and skilfully how they do what they do - but there are also many, equally expert at their work, who mysteriously lack the capacity to share the secrets of their ability with others.
That old jibe of ‘those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ reinforces the notion that any has-been or never-was could simply become a lecturer in his subject if he suddenly fell on hard times. He could, of course, become a lecturer - the word, as I have said, is merely a title. But this particular piece of uncomplimentary quippery undervalues all those who, successful in some profession or other, have later become skilled in the quite separate business of analysing the workings of that profession and enabling newcomers to understand them and put them into practice.
In my early years as a lecturer, the National Council for the Training of Journalists ran courses at only six colleges in Britain - Sheffield, Preston and Darlington in the north, Harlow, Cardiff and Portsmouth in the south. It was a small enough operation for us all to keep in contact and, in a spirit of friendly rivalry, to compare performances. The 36-week full-time courses ran from September to June, five days a week. There were visits to courts and councils and a few other outside assignments, but students generally spent more than 30 hours a week at their desks facing various specialist lecturers and the journalism tutors. There was no such thing as a ‘journalism degree’ - indeed, we all took a pride in our essentially practical approach to the job and tended to snigger about American centres of learning that turned out graduates who could produce two-hundredweight dissertations about the newspaper business but couldn’t sit at a typewriter and knock out a decent 100-word news story.
Today there are countless colleges and universities offering journalism and the choices for new entrants seem almost limitless. As always, those who are positively busting to get into the exciting world of newspapers will try the old ‘give me a chance’ method with local editors, whereas those who are in no blazing hurry can spend three years on a degree course if that’s what takes their fancy.
I remember an ill-defined feeling of mistrust and surprise when academia started sinking its teeth into journalism in the Eighties. Scholarly visitors suddenly expressed interest in our work - or, more accurately, in the numbers of students we attracted. I attended a few ‘exploratory meetings’ at which the emphasis seemed to be entirely on the kudos that would immediately attach to journalism courses if the word ‘university’ appeared on the leaflets. Students were none too pleased, I recall, when they found out later that it wasn’t only kudos that was attached - it was a fatter fee as well. We learned that ‘credits’ would enable them to study at other universities at a later date. Why, I asked naively, would they want to become students again when they had told us at interview that all they wanted in the whole wide world was to be reporters? The visitors looked at me as if I simply didn’t understand these matters. Perhaps I didn’t.
This was many years ago, of course, and much valuable work is now being done in the universities. But among working journalists there is still a lingering whiff of the notion that academia should stick to what it does best - cognitive neuropsychology, 19th century art and ethnicity, vertebrate palaeontology, you know the sort of thing - and resist the temptation to introduce a thousand scholarly complications into the fundamentally straightforward business of journalism. And, tricky though it may sometimes be, journalism is a straightforward business; it’s a matter of listening, understanding, observing and then getting it right - on paper, or at the microphone, or on camera. It’s a noble profession, but it can’t seriously stand on the same bookshelf as nuclear physics or, come to that, cognitive neuropsychology (whatever that is). Some would like it to. But no Master’s Degree or Advanced Diploma is going to help a reporter who’s racing off to cover a train crash or who’s trying to establish the truth or otherwise of a potentially dangerous rumour about an MP.
In the case of the word 'academic', the Oxford Dictionary presents a delightful irony; the (admittedly secondary) definition reads ‘abstract, theoretical, not of practical relevance’. I wish I’d noticed that when our donnish visitors were so generously offering to raise our lowly ‘college of further education’ status back in the Eighties.
Raising the status, incidentally, seemed to necessitate rewriting any brochures about courses to make everything sound more . . . well . . . academic. After leaving my full-time college post, I conducted one-day-a-week classes in ‘writing for newspapers’ at the University of Derby. I wrote a brief, clear description of what the classes entailed and handed it over as copy for the relevant brochure. I was surprised to find later that it had been enthusiastically and creatively subbed. It bore the obscure heading ‘Indicative Content’ and read thus: ‘This module widens the range of writing styles open to students, and helps them to develop conciseness in writing any informative prose, thus continuing a dialogue about the way in which any writing involves our own perception of “reality”. In particular, it teaches them about what is required in writing for newspapers, training them in the basics of newspaper writing and concentrating on clear thinking as essential in achieving clarity’.
One offshoot of all this was that journalism professors were created overnight. The title ‘professor’ has always been troublesomely imprecise as far as newspaper reporters are concerned. It sounds altogether more cerebral than 'senior lecturer' - in my case that may have something to do with childhood images of those bearded bespectacled professors in Rupert books - but the subtlety is hard to pin down. The professor, it seems, is simply the top dog on his particular patch. The dictionary, not terribly helpful this time, delivers a curiously circular verdict: professor - holder of a university chair; chair - a professorship. (I remember being embarrassed when a visiting American student referred to me as his professor. When I put him right, he explained that back home in Utah all college lecturers were called professors.)
There is an intriguing paradox here. In recent years, a few journalists switching to a new career in training have started as professors. None of that ‘learning the job and climbing the ladder’ business. It has been assumed that if you are a successful editor you not only already know how to teach journalism but can run the whole training operation. Would this work in reverse? What sort of reception would await Septimus Bloggs if one Friday he tired of being a professor of English literature and decided that on the Monday he’d be editor of a national newspaper instead? We are talking about two completely different jobs here. I remember no instance, in my early years, of a newspaper editor even considering taking up a lecturing post. Had one done so, he - or she - would have had to join the team at one of the N.C.T.J.’s accredited colleges and start learning how this very different job was best tackled. But the headline on one Daily Telegraph piece about training announced that switching from editor to teacher was ‘not a bad career move after all’ and added that more Fleet Street executives were now ‘happy to switch from the newsroom to the classroom’. Easy as that, eh?
Despite my yesterday’s-man grumpiness on this issue, I’m sure everything will work out well in the end. Dealt a higher calibre of student than some of those I remember, the professor doesn’t need to spend 15 hours of his working week in shirt sleeves at the front of the class, engaged in the sort of work that is described later in these pages. The relatively easy option of offering a programme of entertaining lectures from war correspondents, ‘investigative journalists’, sociologists, professors of ethics and so on can be justified if painstaking selection has ensured that all the students can already spot a good story, spell, use quotes with sensitivity and skill, write crisply and accurately and think clearly.
I still worry, though, about the products of this ever-burgeoning training industry. In the 1970s, working to a realistic target based on the NCTJ's research into the industry's needs, a total of about three dozen lecturers used to train about 300 students a year. We could confidently promise all of them that they would get newspaper jobs and then start to climb the ladder towards whatever journalistic niche attracted them most. But there must be well over 300 people teaching journalism today. Thousands of hopefuls are emerging with ‘media qualifications’ of one sort or another. Where do they all go?
Mention of the fundamental skills I have just listed leads me to the much-maligned ‘Proficiency Test’, a hurdle that awaited all journalism students throughout my full-time-teaching days and one that, with a different structure, still exists as the National Certificate Examination. The old ‘Prof Test’ had its weaknesses, it’s true, but I never understood the criticism - from almost all students and from a few editors - that it was in some way rendered valueless because the stories were not ‘real’. Students who failed horribly in one section by clumsily confusing the driver with the pedestrian in the report of an imaginary road accident would insist that they would have got it right if they had been in the office doing a ‘real story’. Those who, wading through a mass of statistics from the fictional Oxdown Public Health Department, failed to spot a trebling in the incidence of measles would argue that it wouldn’t have escaped their notice had it happened in ‘real life’. More significantly, those who seriously misquoted Councillor Thomson (and made it worse by inserting a p in his name) would claim that there had been no complaints about their reports of meetings so the test result was obviously unfair. I rarely offered sympathy on these occasions; my stance was that the Proficiency Test was well named, and that those who were paid for reporting the words and actions of others ought to be prepared, nay, eager, to demonstrate that they could do it properly. The cry of ‘but it isn’t real’ I simply dismissed; does a trainee dentist who makes a hash of extracting teeth from a dummy mouth claim that it would all have gone well if he’d been given a real patient who was genuinely in agony? Does an airline pilot who crashes during simulator tests tell his examiners that he could have done it properly if they had lent him a Boeing 747 for the afternoon? (More of this in Chapter Three under the heading of 'a hilarious conference in London'.)
It was no doubt partly because they were convinced of the validity of this ‘unreality’ objection that some newspaper groups set up their own in-house training schemes. Junior reporters, it was argued, could get on with the job instead of going to college, and their progress could be assessed by careful monitoring of the ‘real’ stories they were handling. There is clearly much to be said for well organised on-the-job training. But the ‘real stories’ boat has a hole in it that any college lecturer could spot a mile away - sub-editors (or ‘assessors’ in this case) have no way of knowing if the facts are right, no way of knowing if Mr.Smith actually spoke those words, no way of knowing if Miss Jones is 27 or 37, no way of knowing that ‘expensive redecoration’ should really be ‘extensive redecoration’. The only reliable test is to check the written report against its source, every word, every subtlety, every inference. This painstaking process distinguishes, at the upper end of the performance scale, between those reporters who have merely ‘got it right’ and those who, by skilful choice of word and phrase, have captured the spirit and essence of what’s been said. It’s a laborious procedure - ask anyone who has ever marked Prof Test papers - but it produces a more accurate assessment of a reporter’s competence than does a sheaf of ‘real’ cuttings that may well contain a score of hidden errors, subtle and not so subtle.
I remember well-intentioned passion for in-office ‘training records’ that were so crudely simplistic, both in concept and execution, that they were laughable. The typical assignments of a first year at work were solemnly ticked off one by one as the novice reporter encountered them - parish council, wedding report, obituary, drama criticism, football match, golden wedding, retirement and so on. Now I come to think of it, they were ticked off not one by one but two by two - to ensure even better training, you understand. When all the sections had been ticked by the editor the fledgling reporter could safely be relied on to cover pretty well anything that the office diary might throw at him. That was the theory. But it all meant nothing. College lecturers knew for certain that young Fred Twinge couldn’t write three paragraphs without making half a dozen little mistakes, whatever his well-ticked training record might say. Strangely, editors would occasionally defend young Fred in cases like these. He does a good job for us, they’d say, on the shakily negative evidence that there had been no complaints from readers. But, as we all know, for every one reader who writes in to complain about a mistake there are dozens who merely sigh and say ‘They’ve got it wrong again’. The basic idea of the training records I have just described survives to this day in the form of what are known as ‘log books’. Trainee reporters submit a selection of their routine stories so that, in addition to marking their performance on one day of tests, those who sit in judgment over them can examine the sort of copy they turn in from day to day. It’s an improvement, I suppose. But stick-in-the-mud old codgers like me, viewing work presented in this form, still tend to ask ‘Yes, but how do we know this is accurate?’
I have now aired most of my prejudices and treated the various bees in my bonnet to a whole chapter of buzz-time. So . . . how did journalism training actually work in the 70s and 80s? Many of today’s top operators on national newspapers and magazines, radio and television, were then sitting at formica-topped tables and trying to master shorthand, public administration and law. At Richmond College, Sheffield - and no doubt at the other colleges - there was a lot of laughter, much frustration and a great deal of what is now described as ‘workplace stress’. But, in general, I think it worked well. Judge for yourself . . .