Universities and the media future

There’s few Christmas presents quite as unwanted as delayed invoices, but that is the reality for a lot of people trying to make a living from journalism, and it seems to worsen year on year. It has been fairly widely documented that freelancing as part of a flexible labour force has severe impacts on your wellbeing – this is the same whether you are a journalist, a budget airline pilot, an Amazon warehouse worker or (as is increasingly common) an academic on a temporary contract who has to bid to teach courses each calendar year.

Conditions for journalists working in or for traditional media companies simply will not improve under current trends, and as a general rule if you get a lucky break at a magazine or newspaper today it is because you are young, your labour is comparatively cheap and your employer can get away with not tying you into expensive pension and severance packages.  Even click based content churn sites are struggling financially, and despite an initial bubble the whole thing now looks strangely transient as the relative enthusiasm for click media amongst investors has subsided and drowned in a sea of imitators.

There is a tendency within corporate management towards storytelling as a means of defining corporate purpose. Even media companies in the midst of laying off half their workforce like to imagine themselves as arbiters of society and responsible guardians, even when their business and editorial practices suggest otherwise. Sitting here in an academic office at an institution whose tagline is “influencing the world since 1583”, it seems pretty apparent that when it comes to corporate storytelling universities are no different. Because so much of their activity takes place below the waterline, they can struggle to convince people of their worth when all the general public are often aware of is their undergraduate degree courses and the somewhat arbitrary university rankings published each year that upper middle class parents who habitually still buy physical newspapers fret over. The current proposals from the UK government for streamlined degree courses are a case in point, seeming to misunderstand what universities are at a fundamental level.

Universities like to think of themselves as an idealised civic space, a machine of parts which provides expertise in and contributes to all aspects of society. Just as in the real world, universities are increasingly interested in entrepreneurialism and profit over universalism as a guiding principle, yet they still offer a rare platform on which to do two things. Firstly they offer institutional space for non-commercial research on how society works, and secondly they possess an almost overwhelming level of expertise in the important contemporary issues that are the bread and butter of journalistic inquiry.

Should academia seek to save journalism then? My argument is that it can and should, at least in the medium term – in a future where journalism is no longer a wholly commercial undertaking and where media giants have shrunk, media departments and researchers can move from teaching skills to be applied in an industry which no longer exists to actively influencing the future of that industry. There is already some precedent for this crossover in the form of increasing efforts by university press offices to get their academics into the media by authoring pieces for established titles or for The Conversation, the university funded opinion platform. Commercial media companies love academics because they will provide expert analysis but with externalised costs, and The Conversation is actually funded by the universities themselves and does not pay its contributors in anything but bargaining chips for academics seeking to impress their line managers. Last year I was actually told by one editor that they didn’t want me to pitch comment pieces on my areas of expertise as I demanded a fee and academics would happily write about the same subject for nothing. The Conversation is interesting in that it shows there is both money and a desire to bring academic research into public life, yet by modelling itself on click sites and news blogs (including an almost painful addiction to topicality and zeitgeisty headlines) it undermines what it is nominally trying to do.

Another challenge is that many of the best universities with the best resources have considered journalism and media studies to be below them. Much journalism education in the UK has developed from vocational training, so although journalism courses teach people how to be reporters and to gain the qualifications that might get them their first job, they often fail to equip their graduates with an understanding of the social context of journalism or of the complexities of some of the things they might be tasked with reporting on. In a cannibalistic industry, journalism education in its conventional form can all too often also resemble a pyramid scheme designed to ensure employment for those teaching it as much as those on the lecture hall benches.

Tied to this is the question of what and who you want journalists to be. If you want journalists who are versatile and critical you have to train and deploy them somewhat differently to mere news-gathering functionaries. The way the economy works today, there is little incentive for media companies to offer training or personal development to staff, let alone freelancers. There are a few interesting examples around of degree courses trying to create ‘new’ journalists who can be both expert and journalistic practitioner. The University of Toronto for example now has an intensive programme which takes people with high skill degrees and teaches them how to be specialised but flexible freelance operators, with their graduates landing gigs including health reporting in West Africa, climate change and corporate governance.

That all leaves the thorny issue of how the whole thing is paid for. Crowd funded journalism does not necessarily mean running kickstarter after kickstarter with an ever-declining return. Slow journalism is about economics as much as what you produce. If you as a media organisation are in it for the long haul then you can afford to take five years to go from two to twelve journalists. Of the majority of activity in any media organisation, the question always asked by managers is what it is for. You are either generating income (advertising and marketing), attracting readers (journalists with an emphasis on sports and headline news, or human interest), or you provide a sheen of respectability in some other way that enhances the product.

If you look at journalism from the other direction though, and take a journalism first approach, the picture suddenly changes. Media organisations begin to look very different – they can consist of a handful of people, be more horizontal in how they operate, and the journalists who work in them can behave very differently.  From a Scottish perspective, where there have been multiple failed or stalled attempts to provide some kind of diversification in the public media, start ups have tended to either have overly optimistic financial streams, have positioned themselves as counter cultural and thus fundamentally self-limiting, or been run by people with little experience of the complexities and challenges of media work, what is reasonable to pay contributors, and how editorial processes have to work to maintain quality.

Journalism as it previously existed is no more, but in the way it is taught and researched we often labour under the illusion that academia can watch, take notes and relay rather than assuming the burden of developing new journalisms and using the institutional strength of the education system as a foundation for resilient quality media. If the stated leadership aims of universities about influencing, improving and transforming society are going to be made concrete then journalism is a good place to start.

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