Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2011

Image: Adam Westbrook

The signs of autumn are easy to spot: leaves turning golden brown, England in the grip of an Indian Summer (usually after a rubbish actual summer) and a new raft of young journalism students starting courses across the land.

Anecdotally at least, universities are not struggling to fill their places and, where possible, are opening up more spaces: all this despite the bad news surrounding the industry, and the prospect of starting on as little as £14k a year – if you’re lucky enough to get a job.

Because of this, new students this year face a challenge: there are now nearly 100 journalism courses in the UK – that is a lot of wannabe hacks all with the same ambitions. We’re far enough into web 2.0 now that most of these students use social media (the majority of new students I’ve met at Kingston University do); many of them are multimedia savvy (although not nearly enough) and loads of them have got work experience under their belts.

Having an MA in journalism? It’s not good enough any more. Writing a blog while you’re studying? Not good enough either. Getting a pass on your video module? So what. Making noise on Twitter? Everyone’s doing that.

If you’re going to stand out from the crowd you’ve got to bring your A-game to the table. Nothing else will cut it. Yesterday I gave a talk to the new MA students arriving at Kingston University, and suggested ten things they can do to really excel in the short nine months they have before they hit a turbulent industry.

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

.01 write every day: if you’re in this because you love writing, then write -and write often. And write without thinking too much: as Seth Godin puts it: “No-one ever gets talker’s block”.

.02 blog every week: I said it’s not good enough to have a blog, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. It’s a great platform to force you to write, as above, but also to test ideas (and therefore have ideas). You must be comfortable with creating and publishing to the internet – no excuses.

.03  learn new platforms: you need to be all over Storify, Bundlr, Tumblr, Vimeo, Audioboo, again – no excuses. You don’t have to be prolific on all of them, just pick one and run with it. Student Joseph Stashko’s used Storify to great effect this way.

.04 practice your multimedia: chances are you’ll learn how to shoot video, photos and audio on your course. The key word here is practice. A semester-long module won’t equip you with the storytelling experience you need to stand out from the crowd. Force yourself to create content every week for the next 9 months. A guarantee: you’ll get better.

.05 read more. watch less TV: I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: the best thing you can do is cut TV from your life (or drastically reduce it). It’s amazing how much time you gain and brain cells you retain. Use that time to read. I know, pretentious or what, but like I said, we’re talking A-game here.

.06 watch more films: films teach you two things: how to tell good stories and how to tell them visually. A LoveFilm or Netflix subscription is a good start.

.07 teach yourself web skills: I’m talking HTML and CSS. You don’t need to know more than the basics but it’s a huge advantage not to get intimidated by code. The key phrase here is “teach yourself” – don’t pay to learn it, go online and find free resources.

.08 data and run with it: if you have even the slightest affinity for numbers or know how to interrogate an excel spreadsheet there’ll probably be a good job for you at the end of your MA if you can prove it. But you’ll have to prove it yourself, creating mashups, infographics and stat-based stories in your own time, and using a website to publish them.

.09 go to lots of events: if there’s one thing journalists like to do, it’s hold meetups: discussions, debates or just booze-ups. The web makes it easier to find out when they are, so start going to them. If you’re in/outside London or any other major city you really have no excuse. If there aren’t any events near you…start one! Simples.

.10 for the really smart and brave: if you’re really in this to win it, my advice is to start your own publication while you’re still studying. Pick a target market and a niche, get together with some other students and set up an online magazine. It’ll cost you about £50 and take a weekend to set up. Then use your free time to fill it with content: articles, video, interviews and use social media to share it. Why do it now? It’s really hard to justify the unpaid time when you’re in the real world, so university is your best chance.

Don’t think it’s possible? Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E…….and I could go on.

If all this sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. You have to be motivated, ambitious, determined. You’ll need to sacrifice nights out and hangovers to get up early to shoot that video or update the magazine. You’ll have to become shit-hot at time management in order to juggle all this plus your actual studies. You’ll need to be constantly coming up with ideas – and keeping a close eye on developments in the industry.

In other words you have to make yourself really good; the Darwinist in me thinks this challenge to the next generation will be good for journalism in the long run.