On the one hand we are lucky. We have some time available to prepare for the radical changes taking place in journalism on other continents. With print circulation stable and readers still growing, we have time to strategise, train and find a new way of doing journalism before the full tsunami brought on by disruptive technology sweeps onto our shores, bringing with it a complete overhaul of the process by which we conceive of and produce stories for our readers and audiences.
But, on the other hand, our skills and training problems have only been compounded.
We were just starting to look at what we needed to fix in our journalism and to take cognisance of the political imperative to get black people into all the nooks and crannies of journalism, as well as editor seats, when web 2.0 hit us and sent “digital” and “multimedia” skills rocketing up the training charts.
The surveys of journalists in 2002, and first-line managers in newsrooms in 2005, showed us what we needed to do then Ã¢Â€Â“ but this is now, and now the emphasis has already shifted decisively to how we’re going to get ready for a journalism future that will be profoundly different from everything that’s gone before; ever since the invention of the printing press if you believe the digital apostles.
By 2012, Jupiter Research tells us, a quarter of the world’s population will be online. By then South Africa may even have overcome its bandwidth constraints.
So what were we dealing with before this digital stuff came along and moved training in a whole new direction; towards the creation of so-called “platform agnostic” journalists, able to tell a story whatever the medium, or super cross-media collaborative teams capable of producing quality journalism in a variety of formats?
We were focusing on how to restore eroded basics, such as interviewing; how to develop life skills and better general knowledge among a slew of entry-level and junior journalists; how to fast-track more black people into sub-editing and senior “gatekeeper” positions, and how to bolster the knowledge and skills of first-line editorial managers.
Herman Wasserman, writing on the dangers of “churnalism” in which journalists simply regurgitate PR or other people’s material (!_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM, June 2008), says the media must be willing to be scrutinised “from the outside as well as the inside”. And “do something” about the results. I differ with him in that I think the media, or at least journalists, do scrutinise themselves and they certainly get plenty of outside criticism as well. But what is the right “something” to remedy the situation, is the million-dollar question.
It was always going to be a tall order to get the basics right and deliver the required employment equity profile amid a severe national skills shortage that makes it difficult to find trainers of quality, never mind quality entrants into the profession or specialist areas. And how do you persuade people into sub-editing as newspapers on other continents slash and burn their subs rooms and talk of outsourcing or handing copy editing over to reporters?
There have been a number of initiatives since the 2002 SANEF (South African National Editors’ Forum) skills indaba, which could be seen as attempts to remedy some of the problems uncovered by the two skills audits and to implement the action plans coming out of the indaba. Several of the plans of action agreed on in the Stellenbosch Indaba commitment, such as to “put trained coaches in newsrooms to work with reporters” or “train industry journalism experts as assessors and develop closer relationships between training institutions”, have proved unmanageable or unsustainable, or have been done in such a constrained way as to make little impact.
After a long and confused gestation, a group from industry and higher education gave birth to the first vocationally focused, outcomes-based qualification in journalism at the end of 2004. It attempted to address many of the skills problem areas. It made it mandatory to learn how to report on HIV/Aids and it provided the first coherent work skills programme introducing people to sub-editing, as well as a skills programme to prepare people for newsroom leadership.
The existence of this national certificate, however, has made little impression in higher learning circles or in the industry in general, although it has meant that media houses such as Media24 and Avusa can get their graduate trainees, contracted for 12-month, in-house programmes, nationally certified and run official learnerships that contribute towards BEE ratings.
Another development intended to help improve journalists’ legal knowledge (a weakness uncovered in the first skills audit) and help improve accuracy, was the publication by SANEF of the !_LT_EMReporting the Courts!_LT_/EM handbook and guide.
There have been other developments which should contribute to improving media skills: Paula Fray has set up a business focused on media training and development which offers workshops in particular areas of journalism, or customised coaching and training to those who need it.
Print Media SA, the umbrella organisation for media owners, has established a People Development Advisory Committee which has, as part of its mission, the development of a stronger relationship between industry and tertiary institutions so as to ensure the production of relevantly skilled talent for the industry. But handbooks, short courses, workshops, curricula changes and qualification tinkering are not sufficient.
What is needed is for journalism leaders to stop citing juniorisation as the root of all journalistic foul-ups, or reduced newsrooms, and start looking at how they themselves are going to better manage the learning that should be going on in their newsrooms, junior or otherwise. For centuries, the media has stood by the belief that journalists can only truly learn the ins and outs of their craft in the newsroom or on the job. So that is where we should be focusing our attention.
If many of our junior journalists are not doing what they should be doing, it is not necessarily their fault, or the fault of their trainers, but of the leadership in their newsrooms. One of the simplest ways of improving standards is to hold people to standards, have consequences for when people do wrong, and praise or reward those who do well.
This needs to be done sensitively and consistently. Laissez-faire attitudes don’t produce quality journalism, whether in print, radio, TV or online. Simply allowing the rewriting of an intern’s poor work without making them redo it or go back to the source, or without giving them feedback, is a dereliction of duty.
The real focus for media training as we go forward into uncharted territory and work out how journalism should respond to the changed habits of the people we are serving and informing, should be the skills of editorial managers and leaders.
Managing for continuity is one thing; managing for change is a whole new challenge. Like it or not, editorial quality in the future is only going to be possible if journalism seniors, with journalism skills, work on developing their skills in the areas of coaching, managing and leading with vision.
This is not a job to be farmed out to external trainers, human resources departments, training directors or specialist newsroom coaches. Now is the time for all good editors to come to the aid of journalism training and development.
Paddi Clay has been in journalism for more than 30 years. For the past 15, she has been involved in media training for radio, print and now digital journalism. She is the head of the Avusa Pearson Journalism Training Programme.
This piece first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine.