Teaching emerging journalists

Lawrie ZionLawrie Zion


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the LaTrobe University Podcasts. I would be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here today with Lawrie Zion from the Media Studies in Journalism Department. Thank you for joining me, Lawrie.

Lawrie Zion:

My pleasure, Matt.

Matt Smith:

He's here to talk with me today about teaching the emerging journalists. Everybody knows it's a big time of change and adaptation and evolution in journalism. So, what new techniques are you doing to teach the next generation of journalists?

Lawrie Zion:

Well, Matt, we have done a few things. But I guess for me, and you're right, it's a big time of change in journalism in general. It's important to actually try to figure out what journalism means. And even though that sounds like a good thing to mention, in fact what's happening because of the trouble with so many newspapers especially in the States and here to some extent and the really huge changes in the way that news is consumed, that it's a valid question really to ask what journalism is. And it's starting to be asked right across the board, whether you're a practitioner, a student, an academic or what we would traditionally have called the people that read papers. But of course, now you're finding news in all sorts of other ways.

I’ve just been in a conference called Media140, which has been about social media in journalism in Sydney, one of the things I said there is I think it's really important for teaching journalism to keep in mind that when it comes to things like reporting, telling stories, placing context on events, interviewing, finding out what's going on in the world, the practice of journalism itself requires the same schools that one has.

You need to be able to teach people to think critically, to find the right kind of information, to be able to develop working relationships with contacts, to be able to identify when there's more to find out about the story and all sorts of things and to write, of course. And of course, not just to write because these days to be a journalist you almost certainly need to be able to operate successfully in more than one platform. So, one of the things we've done this year, for instance, at La Trobe is to file for a new subject for next year called The Interview, where we've given people assignments to do where they both got to do an interview by email and do an audio interview, pretty much like what we're doing now.

I guess for me the really big change we've made within the journalism part of what we do is setting up a site called Upstart. And the two people behind it are me and Chris Scanlon. He's no stranger to people listening to these podcasts. And the premise behind that really has been that with the media changing so quickly and the imparity for journalism graduates to have published in whatever format by the time they graduate, we need to as a journalism school provide as many opportunities to facilitate that and develop publishing skills with students right from the first year.

And so, we got a grant from the university to develop this platform that we've called Upstart. It's a site for emerging journalists. It's not really just a student site. And as one of our writers who wrote a piece on blogging, her blog about coffee beans, discovered a couple of weeks ago the people who are reading it are not just students. In this case, she got a retweet on Twitter from Mark Scott, the head of the agency who really liked the piece.

While she was pleasantly startled by this, I've been following the blog steps since we launched Upstart in January, looking quite closely at what kind of places the hits are coming from. And what's being really great for us is I guess the development of an audience that we've fostered through posting details of our stories on Facebook and Twitter. That goes way beyond La Trobe and includes writers and students at other universities. But it also has a following I guess within the media more generally. And I guess one of the things I hope for is that the site itself will become a resource for journalists even more in the coming years.

Matt Smith:

What skills are journalists being expected to have now? And how is something like this going to give students a start in that sort of area?

Lawrie Zion:

I think just having the ability to write to a brief for something that's going to be published and to understand a bit about who the audience is as well. Twenty years ago I worked at Triple J and at that point I was in my 20s. And so, I was nationally writing for something to some extent my peers, for people my age. And I think that gave me a lot more confidence in developing broadcasting style.

And so, to some extent I think what's happening is students were writing or putting up stories for Upstart. They already have some sense that generally it has got to interest people like them as a bottom line. What it does though, I think when people get stuff published, this gives them a sense that their careers are already up and running. It has been obvious from the response that this has attracted outside with some of these people got from work experience or even get other freelance work, that this is something that is actually creating a really good impression within the industry itself.

Matt Smith:

Has somebody's article on Upstart managed to transform into something else to move on to some other sort of media opportunity yet?

Lawrie Zion:

Yeah. Well, one of Tom Cowie's pieces actually, which was I think an opinion piece on Gen Y got picked up by a site called Online Opinion. They just said that they really liked it, they'd like to republish it. In other cases, Erdem Koc wrote a review of the David Copperfield show which through a tweet we did got splashed on Crikey and Crikey's has got a huge a range.

And so, we actually didn't suddenly realize why we're getting so many hits onto Upstart, because of the link back to Upstart. And three of students, two of which I've mentioned Tom and Erdem, and another one Kelly Theobald who has just graduated, all just got 10-day scholarship takeaway for Australian journalism students. And I think the fact that they were selected to go certainly had a lot to do with what they could show the person who was choosing to get on that plane.

Matt Smith:

So, what has been the article that has gotten most response from the public?

Lawrie Zion:

Well, actually the most popular we ran on Upstart, and this might surprise some people, is called "A Beginner's Guide to the Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival". And it's by a guy who started this year I think four or five times, Ben Asgari. He's doing first year journalism at La Trobe now. He has done first years at other universities. He has taken a year off so he's about 23.

And we're having a discussion and tutorials talking about the things we're interested in writing about. I think something came up. He's interested in horse racing, which I happen to be very interested in as well. And so I said, "You know, the Spring Carnival is coming up in Melbourne. Why don't you try and write something for people who have never been to the races before?" And so, he wrote this piece and he has followed it up with previews of all the Spring Carnival meetings. So, it's up to about seven or eight articles now.

That piece has really been by far the most popular on the site. And we got a bit of flack on Facebook I think at one point when we set up a sports section a couple of months ago from people who said who needed sport and student publications, sport everywhere. Well, I beg to differ. I think teaching people how to write really well about sports is one of the really great things that we can do at LaTrobe or within any journalism school.

And there's certainly a huge interest in sports amongst students and across communities as well. It's not a surprise to me in a way that racing itself is something that is getting a lot of hits within our sports section. I think what has been really great with Ben is that his writing has just improved so much over the course of the semester.

And he was invited with me to go on ABC radio on 774 at Flemington at the races on Melbourne Cup morning and talk about the fact that he's they feel like the youngest racing journalist now on the block because his material is being noticed by so many people that he literally is I think an emerging journalist. He has had offers for other work. He has absolutely discovered that the thing that he has the most passion about is something that he can actually write about and the people will read.

Matt Smith:

Yes. It's also a great way to get a student like that motivated. So, hopefully he won't do the first year six times.

Lawrie Zion:

No, he's going into second year next year. He's operating it on his level and I'm very happy to say.

Matt Smith:

That's a great way to get used new students motivated then.

Lawrie Zion:

Yeah. And I think that's part of the thing. There's a lot of people who will ask you, and I get this all the time, "Gee, it must be terrible teaching journalism at a time when there are so few jobs." I actually don't think that's true. I think that, yes, there are few of those traditional newspaper cadetships and there are fewer of the heritage jobs around perhaps than they were 10 years ago.

But I think that what is really interesting is some of our students who graduated and gone on and worked in journalism jobs are doing jobs that didn't exist a few years ago or even a year ago. Another case in point, a guy that graduated is now working with a company called Pro Bono and forging a new service for the nonprofit sector. So, that's a job that's an online job that has really just been created in the last few months. In this case, the qualifications a student got by following up an international relations degree with a couple of years of backpacking and working for ad agencies and then doing a journalism have perfectly positioned him for that. He's doing really well there.

So, these things come up I think also in an era where the practice of journalism, if you like, has moved outside of just journalism or media institutions. And so many of us need to be able to be actively involved in participating majors participants. I think that the skills you acquire through doing the journalism degree, and that includes when you write something, learning how to promote on social media or learning how to write a really snappy introduction because it's different when you put something up online, perhaps a really well written long discursive paragraph in an essay.

All those essays I think are going to provide people with grounding, perhaps even go and do things that have got nothing to do with the profession of journalism. But those skills will be invaluable and open up options in whatever career they end up going to.

Matt Smith:

Looking forward a bit, what do you think the skills are that you need to address the journalists?

Lawrie Zion:

I got two answers to that really. One thing is that things are just changing so fast. Twitter is the platform that everyone is in love with this year. Who knows what it will be next year? But I think that if everyone teaching journalism had to be across all of these all the time, it would just become very difficult. And I think students could also easily get confused if you're not placing enough emphasis on core skills and then looking at this is the easiest fashion; these are how you do things.

What I think we really need to do more of and over time is as journalism evolves in this area where people are expected to be able to deliver stories, if you like backpack journalism across a range of formats, and also to be able to market themselves. And so, we're beginning to do these now, by the way, that we have Upstart presences on Facebook and Twitter. But I think that we really need to make sure that students who come through here have got an understanding of what the marketplace is for writing, how they're going to be able to function within that and how to develop the kinds of skills. We're going to give them the chance to make their voice heard and for them to be able to do great stories in whatever format that needs. So, it's an ongoing challenge that is brought about by the fact that maybe journalism is changing very quickly in industry terms.

I think the other thing we really want to do more of is have more co-productions if you like between what we do in subjects here and with existing publications, radio programs or whatever. I'd like to see us become even more integrated into the industry and write from an undergraduate level. So, I think that's actually to me one of the things that I think will not only make the course make itself more interesting but I think will give people a really good sense of belonging, if you like, to the media before they graduate.

Matt Smith:

Dr. Lawrie Zion, thank you for your time.

Lawrie Zion:

A pleasure.

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