Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dive into digital exposes need for modern skills

This piece first appeared in the Press Gazette's journalism training supplement:

NEL, FRANÇOIS (2006) “Dive into digital exposes need for modern skills” Press Gazette,  Journalism Training 2006, pp.12-14, 27 October 2006.

Once suspicious, even hostile towards the Internet, most mainstream media groups are now diving into digital. But it’s not only the industry attitude towards technology that is getting a rethink. Demand for new skills and fresh approaches have news organisations reconsidering their stance on staff development, too.
Time was when a reporter with aspirations for the top job was expected to pick up most, if not all, that was required for promotion by being resourceful and imitating those further up the ladder. In a pinch, a working hack would be sent off for few days to pick up this or that new production skill. Or, perhaps, to brush up on the latest in media law.
“There is no tradition of mid-career training in British print journalism,” Prof Hugh Stephenson of City University noted in his 2003 report for the European Journalism Centre. “Indeed, the national newspapers have in the past not been involved in serious journalism training of any kind, relying instead on being able to recruit experienced journalists from regional newspapers.”
Thus it was that editors were apprenticed and, once appointed, seldom entertained hints that there might be more to learn – especially not from outside the fraternity. While most industries came to see investment in staff development as a norm, turning MBAs into a must-have for executives and phrases such as ‘our people are our most important asset’ into clichés, journalism relied on a cliché of its own - the School of Hard Knocks.
The result: “The journalism side of media organisations are managed by people with less formal training for the task that they are expected to perform than would be found in any other comparable activity,” said Stephenson. His observations were confirmed in a study of 148 senior newsroom staff that University of Central Lancashire colleagues and I conducted last year: a small minority of respondents - four per cent – reported having any formal postgraduate qualification in management and more than 40 percent said they had had no management training at all. Indications are that is changing.
Yes, editors still like to reminisce about the days when reading newspapers was a national habit and profits flowed like ink. And, yes, some still lament the oft-repeated trio of demographic, economic and technological forces that is pushing down circulations and endangering newspapers as a vehicle for journalism.
But increasingly editors also appreciate that fending off profit-hungry investors by focussing with efficiencies - slashing expenses and firing staff – has limits. Even if they haven’t read Philip Meyer’s book, “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Digital Age,” many have heard of the University of North Carolina professor’s calculation that, at the current rate of decline, the last American newspaper reader will recycle his final paper copy in April 2040. Even those who dismiss Meyer’s premise as fear-mongering have a niggling sense that where there is smoke, there may just be fire.
Many news executives now also concede (in private, if not in public) to what Tim Porter, the associate director of the Knight Foundation-sponsored project, Tomorrow’s Workforce, calls the “unpleasant truth”: journalists - and their managers – need to share responsibility for the decline in readership and relevance of newspapers.
Why is that?
Writing in a recent edition of the Harvard University Nieman Reports, Porter doesn’t mince his words: “Risk-averse newsrooms have spent several decades with their collective heads in the ink barrel, ignoring the changing society around them, refusing to embrace new technologies, and defensively adhering to both a rigid internal hierarchy and an inflexible definition of “news” that produces a stenographic form of journalism, one that has stood still, frozen by homage to tradition, while the world has moved on.”
'Risk-averse newsrooms have spent several decades with their collective heads in the ink barrel'
Having raised their heads and come clean, media executives are now primed for change. The Big Question: “Where to from here?” Alert to the knowledge cul-de-sacs in their own organisations, they’ve gone looking for answers - and talent – elsewhere. Some have raided from old rivals - the Telegraph lured their new media director Annelies van den Belt from News International; others have hunted further afield - Johnston Press found their digital director Alex Green at the Virgin Group.
Parachuting in key expertise to help develop strategy is understandable, often essential. But it is only a part solution. The key challenge facing the industry is not simply the ability to conjure up a new multimedia formula to replace the old print ones. It’s not even to update the technologies and adapt to new work practices. It is changing the newsroom mindset. Just ask Ulrik Haagerup.
The editor-in-chief of the Nordjsyke Medier in Denmark, Haagerup was a key player in the unremarkable regional newspaper group’s transformation into a world leader of media convergence. From a single newsroom, Nordjyske Medier now tell news stories through a website, a radio station, television channel, digital notice boards, mobile phone alerts, a free commuter paper and, yes, a daily newspaper. And they’re doing it with the same number of editorial staff – and mostly the same people – that they had to start off with. In the process, they’ve reversed declining market share, re-energised the workforce, and advertising revenues are up 33 per cent from 2002 to 2005.
Not surprisingly, Haagerup and other NM colleagues are in wide demand internationally as speakers and their newsroom has seen a steady march of visitors – foreign newspaper bosses and academics (including our team at UCLan) keen to see how the Scandinavians have done it.
Some, like the Daily Telegraph, are said to have used NM’s hub-and-spoke newsroom as a blueprint for the design of their own new offices. Though it’s still way too early to judge - especially from the outside – reports suggest that the Telegraph’s implementation is especially, perhaps even needlessly, messy. Writing in the Media Guardian, former Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent and recent Harvard Business School graduate Philip Delves Broughton put it down to one thing: internal mismanagement. If that is true, it would not be surprising. And it would confirm the relevance of the advice Haagerup repeats like a mantra when asked about the key to his organisation’s success: “This is about people, it’s not about technology, it’s not about organisational charts, it’s not about money - it’s about people.” And, for that reason, staff development - ongoing and comprehensive – is non negotiable, says Haagerup.  
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Haagerup is bullish about learning; after all, five years after completing his undergraduate degree in journalism he headed off to spend a year at Stanford Business School. However, it would be wrong to dismiss his comments as opinion grounded in the experiences of a single, exceptional individual. Amongst Danish journalists, Haagerup’s attitude and even his educational background is not unique.  
Unlike in the UK, there has been long and strong tradition of staff development in Denmark following a 1979 agreement between the Danish Newspaper Publishers Association and the Danish Journalists Union that all journalists should have one week’s paid training leave a year, which may be accumulated for up to six years.
Yes, the British experience is very different. But the investment by Johnston Press, Cumbrian Newspapers and the Guardian Media Group in courses such as those offered by the Journalism Leaders Programme is one indication things are changing. News organisations have come to realise that to survive in this era of heady change and intense competition, investment in talent is essential. Those that aim to thrive are training their journalists. They are developing their managers. They are learning as institutions. Together they are discovering that change is a thrilling phenomenon – and learning is the oxygen for growth.

- For more from Tim Porter see this recording of the 4th Journalism Leaders Forum. There's a short and powerful interview with Ulrik Haagerup and colleagues here.
- To join in the 6th Jounalism Leaders Forum on 15 May 2007 see the latest details.
- To join the recently-established Digital Editors' Network, get hold of the initiator Nick Turner of Cumbrian Newspaper via the blog.
- If you, like The Indepedent editor Simon Kelner or The Sun managing editor Graham Dudman, you graduated from a journalism programme at Preston, link into our alumni network and you'll get information about the series of special events planned to mark our 45th anniversay over the course of the 2007-8 academic year. Yes, we've been leading journalism education in England since 1962.