16th April 2010: A Journalist In 30 Minutes

Tonight at a party in Melbourne’s Nicholas Building, collaborator Ben Eltham reflects to an academic on the problems he has had with past journalist graduates. “Some of them were useless,” he quipped. “I can make you a journalist in 30 minutes. Here’s a chair. Here’s a phone. Here’s a story lead. Call someone. Now.”

The academic replied: “Perhaps you hired the wrong graduates?”

Despite a purported industry crisis, journalism is seen by some universities as a ‘hot’ area for potential students who are interested in Web 2.0, citizen journalism, and other topics. It provides a meta-framework to bring a range of academic backgrounds and skills into a cohesive department. If there’s a demonstrable market and student demand, it’s also easier to get courses through Academic Board approval and course quality assurance processes.

Eltham’s quip points to another reality: journalism is a craft or practice that requires a combination of sense-making, situational awareness and action. At some point, you have to go out and Do journalism, like a writer staring at a blank page, or a stockmarket trader placing a trade. For Eltham and myself, this approach perhaps comes from our mutual experiences in the student press and writing/editing for online publications. In 1994 student elections I suggested that student media and journalism departments follow the model at many US universities, where journalism graduates do an internship with the paper.

In contrast, at some of the new university journalism courses are attuned more to a Web 2.0 paradigm. To me, you can learn the basics of Del.icio.us, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress,
wikis, or whichever platform you choose, also in about 30 minutes. Yes, it’s a powerful amplifier or ecosystem, with its own dynamics. Yet it’s not a replacement for core skills, if you have ambitions to research, write, edit and publish original material, instead of reposting or relinking to existing material, via social network sites.

Perhaps that’s why Eltham and I are also fans of long-form journalism that requires these skills. And, as Barry Saunders and I found, perhaps also why the very best investigative journalists are emerging from other arenas that share this focus on craft and tacit skills — investment banking, intelligence analysis, police detective work — and not necessarily university journalism courses.

You can forward or re-post a message in 30 seconds. You can learn the basics of journalism in 30 minutes. A social media platform can amplify this, and build in recursive audience feedback and reflection cycles. It can take a lifetime however to master and deepen your appreciation of journalism’s craft, sense-making and tacit knowledge.