Nature vs Nurture – are journalists born or raised?

A panel of academics joined with students from the University of Melbourne and Monash University for a candid discussion on teaching journalism. Charlotte Ryan reports.

Nick Richardson from News Limited said the session’s title “Textbook Journalism” was “somewhat slippery”.

“The passage of time hasn’t really changed the relationship between the academy and the industry, but it is a relationship that is now characterized by mutual suspicion,” he said.

Mr Richardson was joined by lecturers Alexandra Wake of RMIT, Chris Nash of Monash University and Matthew Ricketson of the University of Canberra, together with Wes Mountain and Julia Milland, students from the University of Melbourne’s Masters of Journalism and Monash University journalism undergraduates Gina Xing and Patrick Hutchens.

Whether journalists are born or taught roused some heated discussion from the panel and the audience. 

“Journalists are born, and in the current climate, they are damned as a result,” said Ms Wake. 

“But even if you have all the skills, that alone doesn’t make you a good journalist.”

Ms Wake spoke of her experience as a 17-year-old cadet and how, in retrospect, she wished she had understood the context behind the stories she was writing about.

“I had no idea what it meant for interest rates to increase by 17 per cent,” she said. 

Masters student Julie Milland said studying journalism as a post-graduate had already taught her a huge range of skills.

“With newsrooms shrinking and fewer cadetships being offered, how else are journalists going to learn?”  

Chris Nash was optimistic about his students’ job prospects, saying there was no difficulty in placing students in internships and employment with a range of organisations. 

“The so called ‘crisis’ is really only large sector media, where the business model is failing,” he said.

“The ‘sky is falling’ reaction is coming from those already in the profession - not those entering it.

“Journalists need to be across all media."

“Two journalists won’t be sent out to the same story, so the one that is there might need to write and take video.”

Matthew Ricketson was asked whether universities were doing the right thing in offering journalism courses where job opportunities are limited.

“There will be a media industry in five, 10 or 15 years,” he said.

“However it’s configured, there will still be a need for journalists to be trained and skilled.”

He said new journalists would have to “future-proof” their degree.

“Technologies change all the time, and while you can’t future-proof to the extent that you know what Twitter 3.0 will look like, there will be a need to be flexible, to adapt and to be innovative.”

For student Wes Mountain, learning how to build a community and be “entrepreneurial” were key lessons from his studies.  

Fellow student Pat Hutchens agreed, adding that his generation of journalists may be the first to work out how to circumvent the issues that the mainstream press currently faces.

From the audience, Dr Margaret Simons from the Centre of Advanced Journalism said it would be wrong for universities to ignore the huge demand for media and communications courses.  But she added there was room for greater collaboration between the academy and industry.

“Universities are large institutions with cultural power, and in many ways they are invulnerable. It’s a bit like what The Age in the 1980s felt like.”