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Online journalism education in the UK: the trouble with adapting to an online age

When I went to journalism college in the middle of the last decade, the online element consisted of a few half days spent building static pages with outdated web design software. However, the course’s overall core skills were rigourously taught and I ended up in a reporting job immediately after graduating (albeit through somewhat unconvential means), so I can’t really complain.

Journalism student Rob Wells is just a little bit more critical of his course at the Lincoln School of Journalism and lays down a lengthy challenge to his journalism college at the University of Lincoln and calls for action now: “Students aren’t taught anything meaningful in their first year, and online is dismissed as ‘blogging’”, he says. “Meanwhile, the second- and third-year print modules’ online aspects consist of a static Dreamweaver template.”

I’ve heard such complaints from trainee journalists across the country over the past few years. But @journotutor, aka Marie Kinsey, director of postgraduate journalism at Sheffield University’s journalism department, told me via Twitter that she’s tired of all journalism courses being dismissed as outdated…


So I asked Marie to tell me what Sheffield Uni is up to: how, exactly, does the department prepare students for a multi-platform, real-time news environment? She emailed to say…

Preparing young journalists for the new media world is, without doubt, the single biggest challenge facing journalism departments all over the country…”

Students at Sheffield on all four of the department’s courses should leave with, in Marie’s words…

  • Knowledge of how and why the web is different
  • The ability to use a content management system
  • The ability to shoot and edit video, record and edit audio in ways that enhance a web page The ability to write in a form suitable for the web
  • The ability to combine audio, video, text and still pictures in creative ways
  • Students also take part in “digital literacy workshops”, involving finding, checking and using information from social media and online sources.But it’s not always so easy to adapt: “Making root and branch changes to course structures, especially three year undergraduate programmes, is a bit like moving an oil tanker. HE procedures, if anything needs formally revalidating, can be cumbersome and slow.” She continues:

    Even where tutors are as light on their feet as possible, know the shortcuts and what they can get away with without attracting the attention of the quality police, changes planned now may not be implemented for some months – or more than a year in the undergraduate case.

    I asked students and recent graduates on Twitter to give their take on what the online element of their various courses was like (I’ve mostly not named the instituions involved and neither have these correspondents), and the results ranged from the good…

    @KevinGilmartin: That doesn’t sound like Caledonian at all. We were assessed on use of WordPress & Twitter, had intro to Dreamweaver and had a guest lecture on managing your personal online brand. ‘Brand You’ (I missed that but my colleagues said it was excellent).

    @_cric_: Our course (same as @KevinGilmartin) is quite comprehensive for non-geeks, tho not given as much weight as it should get, given that it is the future of journalism. Most other students don’t understand how relevant it is. For us geeks it’s an easy ride and quite enjoyable,especially guest lectures covering from writing for online / consumer behaviour online / creating a personal brand.

    @tictors: It was quite comprehensive, although a lot of time was spent learning about citizen journalism…

    @gemzmackenzie: Online teaching included setting up a blog, twitter, learning about ‘brand-you’. really useful

    …to the bad…

    @OmarOakes: Print journalism course last year: online teaching was very poor; treated as an ‘extra’ rather than core skill

    @CatNeilan: I graduated in 2006; i’d have to say pretty poor! mostly just looking at blogs and being told “you should do this”

    …to the fairly indifferent…

    @jenlipman: Bit so-so, teacher usually shows us cool blogs rather than explains how to do things – don’t feel I’ve learnt anything abt css.

    @VernPittFrom specialists it was fairly good, but now of course out of date (i graduated last summer) From other journalists not as great.

    What were your experiences on online journalism training? Are courses unfairly maligned, having come to so far in recent years? Let us know in the comments…

    UPDATE: What about making entreprenuerial journalism a mandatory part of the NCTJ syllabus? As prof Jarvis reports, US journalism colleges are going in that direction and are all the better for it…


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    • An online editor

      I’ve recently reviewed a huge stack of applications for an entry level position that involves working both in print and online.

      I won’t go into detail, but it was very clear from these CVs that certain UK journalism courses have evolved a great deal in recent years and have finally started to turn out the sort of multimedia native journalist every editor is desperate hire.

      But it also confirmed my suspicion that a lot of young journalists are still not getting these skills on their courses or don’t appreciate their importance enough to highlight them on their CVs. Very few listed URLs of their blogs or portfolio sites, for example. Even fewer mentioned having learned skills such as video editing or SEO awareness.

    • http://traffic.de.com Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

      I am not trained as a journalist, but rather as an information scientist (and information retrieval is but one cornerstone of this field).

      I think many journalists are STILL not aware of the Wisdom of the Language ( http://past.blog.com/gaggle-info-wiki/miscellaneous/articles/wisdom-of-the-language ) — yet this is a big part of why, whereas a site like jaiku (meaningless) fails, a site like like twitter (meaningful) succeeds.

      Smart journalists would also succeed if they utilized the wisdom of the language more — i.e. also paid more attention to what the practitioners in my field have known for decades.

      One such tidbit, for example, is that citation indexing (which is about 50 years old, and is also the basis for Google’s search algorithm) is VERY unreliable (it was by and large abandoned by information scientists decades ago.

      I call people who ignore such observations and blindly follow the masses without paying attention to the advice of experts “GooTards” (in the case of Google’s algorithm), “TwitTards” (in the case of undifferentiated “social media” mesmerization), etc.

      And BTW: The English Language ought to be the brand that journalists pay the MOST attention to (as CBS did when they acquired the CNet portfolio, and as NBCU did when the acquired weather.com).

      :) nmw

    • http://adamwestbrook.wordpress.com Adam Westbrook

      It’s important more than ever for j-courses to be completely up-to-date, even if that means changes the syllabus every year. When I trained at City Uni in London in 2006/7 I was the only student with a blog; now they make it compulsory for students to run one.

      But we were also being taught to shoot in three person crews – with a soundman (which went out of date in 1992!) so there you go. I still value the core journalistic, storytelling and writing skills I learned though.

      And now, as a journalism lecturer myself, I think it’s important to inspire students too. They’re going into a very difficult career environment, and I think they need to be injected with some go-out-and-get-it energy to create their own future rather than waiting for work to come to them.

    • http://joshhalliday.net Josh Halliday

      Hi Patrick, nice post and nice-looking new blog too.

      Speaking from experience*, the danger is that online journalism is ghettoised in degree programmes. Online newsgathering and publishing should should be inherent in all modules – all should have an online element as, sure enough, all have a print element.

      At my place*, I’m the only one doing an online final project (http://SR2Blog.com), the rest are doing magazines; as far as I know the same was true last year. That, I believe, is the product of ghettoisation and a lack of clarity in communicating ‘what actually is online journalism?’, ‘how do I practice online journalism?’, ‘what’s different about online journalism?’, ‘how could I be a great online journalist?’ etc etc.

      University institutions are relatively inflexible beasts, but I think in general they’re getting better. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to stick on an after-hours class on RSS, for example. I think all journalism faculties should put together an OPML file of essential reading RSS feeds (Paul Bradshaw did). I think they could also be doing some work with hyperlocal, embed it into the programme – for me, cutting my teeth on the bread-and-butter local journalism, going to Resident’s Assoc meetings etc has been invaluable.

      *I’m a third-year journalism undergrad at University of Sunderland.

      @JoshHalliday

    • http://predocsblog.blogspot.com/ Sara McConnell

      Interesting posts and comments. At my institution (where Adam Westbrook also works) we’re constantly updating our courses to reflect industry changes. But as Marie Kinsey says, we’re also fighting against the heavy hand of university bureaucracy in which changes can take more than a year to be implemented, as well as having to go to endless meetings to ask for resources. One problem is having to guess what software etc we’re going to need more than a year in advance, by which time it can be out of date and we’ve decided we need to teach something different…

    • http://alexwoodcreates.com Alex Wood

      I have to agree with Adam’s comments on inspiring students.

      As a recent graduate of City’s postgraduate school of journalism, I can tell you the emphasis on online journalism and Web 2.0 skills has vastly improved.

      But many students are stuck in the mindset of “I want to be a TV presenter” or “Online is too techy for me”.

      I start as a lecturer in online journalism as London Southbank this month and plan to as Josh points out, make web 2.0 tools part of not just my online module but of their whole journalism careers.

      @alexwoodcreates

    • http://www.centreforjournalism.com Rebecca Hughes

      The degree programme at Kent started a year and a half ago now. Our online training comes the module “convergent journalism”. We don’t just learn how to blog, we look at online in much more detail. We did a six week block in our first year, in which we covered Dreamweaver, Flash, blogging and SEO, and other tools like Vuvox. I think we are looking at online and interactive magazines this year.
      We all completed a work placement with the KM Group last Easter and our multimedia skills were incredibly useful. We weren’t just learning, we were also teaching them new skills.
      On live news days we’re encouraged to mix mediums. For example, on a radio news day we often refer to our website which will include multimedia aspects to accompany our radio show.
      As for our final year projects, it is compulsory that we include an element of online. We can do print/radio/tv but we must also create something for online. Similarly, you can take online.
      I guess being a new course means we can be more flexible.
      This wasn’t supposed to sound like a puff piece…

    • admin

      Thanks to all for engaging in the debate.

      One problem that I still think pervades the news industry in the UK and (some of) its educators is the false divide between digital and non-digital reporting disciplines – the conflict of “print” and “online”. But students literally will have no choice – if they want to be employed in journalism in the next few decades, they will need online skills.

      Plus the ones that get the right skills now will have a better chance of succeeding compared to Luddite naysayers.

      @alexwood is exactly right: courses should aim to make web skills not just part of teaching modules module but of students’ entire careers.

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