Answering student questions about journalism and technology in Leeds

 by Martin Belam, 28 January 2011

On Wednesday I was in Leeds talking to journalism students at Leeds Trinity University College, and I was very impressed with the questions that people asked me after the presentation.

A more diverse audience

One of the first was about whether new media, and the types of digital tools I had been talking about, meant that the Guardian was looking to diversify our audience. I explained that I felt that diversification had happened, and that it was irreversible. UK print circulation in December 2010 for us was at around 265,000, yet we do ~2m unique users every day. Many of these are overseas visitors, who may never have seen a print copy of the paper, rendering labels like "G2" or "the Society supplement" meaningless. That makes for an interesting user experience challenge to convey the context around articles.

Content management culture

A very good question came up about the CMS system that the Guardian uses - which is our own bespoke built Java based system called R2, alongside the API and a host of loosely joined 'microapps'.

I had the unfortunate duty of telling the students that I am yet to meet anyone, ever, ever, ever, ever who enjoys using their work CMS, and that they inevitably faced years of using systems that they would grow to loathe.

Another student mentioned later that they "had learned a CMS, but I've forgotten it all now". It made me wonder if we are doing the right thing in teaching specific CMS usage to journalism students, or whether they should be learning more broadly about the principles of digital content management, and why it is important.

A future for print

One of the mature students explained that they came from a print background, and wondered what all the things I talked about meant for print. I think the business model is only going to get put under further pressure in the coming years, and digital revenue is growing, but not fast enough to cover print costs as display ad revenue declines. Despite being a starry-eyed technophile though, I still think a time when there are no printed newspapers is a good way off yet. We are some way from everyone having electronic devices that can download the latest Metro for a tube commute for example. We went on to discuss some of the upcoming developments in e-ink and flexible digital paper, which may herald another complete transition in our products.

Digital denial

Another question was "have you found opposition to increased interactivity with readers, wither from within the Guardian, or outside it?".

In reply I explained that, yes, there were still some pockets of the Guardian offices that seemed to have a very heavy focus on print, and to whom digital was a distraction, but that these were increasingly few and far between. What is more interesting perhaps is the reaction of the audience, which isn't always positive.

For example, during the 2010 World Cup we had a 'fans network' of people from around the world supporting the 32 different countries involved, all tweeting and blogging about the tournament. I have a slide I use in presentations now that shows a very coherently argued point from a reader, stating that they come to for professionalism sports journalism, not the blogging of amateurs. It is testimony to the fact that for however many people you have wanting to interact with your site, there will still be some people who prefer passive consumption, or don't see value in contributions from other users.

My thoughts on that are that things like the 'fans network' enhance our coverage, they don't replace it, as we simply don't have the resources to have professional sports correspondents in every nation that might qualify for a major tournament. However, you do have to be careful to flag up the differences between 'Guardian' content and 'crowd-sourced' content - just as you would flag up a sponsored microsite or advertorial copy.

It isn't just technology...

As I say, I was very impressed with the range of topics the student asked about. I spoke with a group of them for a while afterwards, and they seemed to be feeling that even though it was quite early days in their course, they were 'becoming more technical', and were curious about different platforms like the Kindle and tablet computers.

Then they explained that they had to leave to go to a shorthand course - a skill that eludes me, and one which I find dreadfully intimidating when I'm at conferences and I see it being used next to me. Learning journalism is still most definitely not just about the technology...


If you want to meet someone who enjoyed using their work CMS, find a journalist who's left and gone somewhere else with a worse system. They can be remarkably revisionist.

I guess things have come a long way since I was in Uni. I remember someone from Grey coming in to field questions from our advertising class in 2005. Despite some of the great online creative they had been doing for the likes of Lady Sovereign and the Dairy Farmers of America there wasn't one question about emerging advertising media. It was a half an hour of discussion about a Grey peanut butter commercial from the mid 90's. An interesting nostalgia trip, but nothing that proved that our class had any intention of entering the field of advertising.

It's great to hear though that, at least in the field of journalism, kids are engaged and already have a fair understanding of their future work environment. I'm looking forward to seeing what the new generation of journalists have in store for us!

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