It’s more than just a PR stunt

Old-style independent journalism is under threat from the spin sector, writes Martin Chulov

. . .

Early last year, the University of Queensland abandoned its straight journalism program in favour of a School of Journalism and Communication. The argument for doing so was that a repositioned school would give its graduates a much better opportunity of getting jobs. Evidence had emerged that newsrooms were looking for more than the basic news gathering and production skill sets offered by straight journalism courses � Fairfax, News Limited and the ABC have said they weren’t satisfied merely with media degrees when they went recruiting. The new UQ course was to offer journalism as part of a platform for entry into the employment market.

But not everyone was sold.

“I was depicted as if I was swimming against the tide,” says Professor John Henningham, who left UQ and set up his own straight journalism school, the J-School, in disgust. “Our industry advisers were of the view that we were better as we were, our students protested outside the academic board . . . but there was this push .”

Henningham says that in the last year of his tenure at UQ, there was far less money flowing into journalism training than into other faculties, with the upshot being that his school was “hundreds of thousands of dollars” out of pocket.

If there is any such thing any more, Henningham is staunchly “old school” � someone who believes that in the past the strength of journalism stemmed from its independence. He claims journalists gain little from exposure to the ways of the opinion shapers � at least not early in their career. And, to the contrary, PR practitioners gain a lot.

“Part of the problem in having PR people in the program is that they are in a sense validated by being in the company of journalists,” he says.

. . .

Mike Smith [former Age editor and issues management consultant] deals regularly with journalists of all types wanting access to his clients, but he claims that, over the past few years especially, a lack of core training and dedication to news gathering has led to a fall in the calibre of the younger crop.

“The training of journalists is not the same as it was in the past,” he says. “About half the staff of a major paper is doing magazines and lifestyle stuff, which is part of journalism, but it’s not the hard core. And hard-core journalism values are not necessarily being developed. It’s very tempting for young journalists to be doing film reviews and TV quips and to get their picture and byline in the paper, but what they miss out on is the critical grounding that previous generations got doing the police beat, the courts and using their eyes and ears as well as telephone and email.

“It’s been going on for 10 to 15 years, but getting more pronounced all the time.”

On this score, Smith has a powerful industry supporter, News Limited chief executive John Hartigan, who made the candid admission earlier this month that journalism is not what it was.

“In days gone by, the most venerated journalists found their news among the people,” said Hartigan in a speech about the future of newspapers. “They congregated in pubs, among the coppers and crims; they sniffed out their scoops in bars and public places, and they talked to people, face to face, living the truism � you don’t find news hanging around the office.

“Today we find our reporters from tertiary-educated backgrounds, where so many seem to aspire to present A Current Affair � but know nothing of, and seem to resent, the years of experience and work it takes to get there.

“Today we are in danger of producing a generation of journalists who know people only over the telephone � and then, only hear the views of spin doctors, whether they be corporate or political.”

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