Any journalist who has been mentored by a more seasoned hack will understand the benefits of someone deleting the first three pars of your story. It’s harsh but effective – you’ll write a better lede next time.
Newsrooms are environments where new journalists learn quickly while on the job. The process of being commissioned, filing the story (going out to do it again) and watching it evolve through several rounds of editing is a fairly efficient way to improve.
Throw in a firery editor and a grumpy sub and there are plenty of reasons to lift your game.
In Convergent Production this semester some of these newsroom practices are being employed … the editing – not the firery bit. It’s a hands-on approach that I hope the students will get a lot out of, in particular confidence and improved technique.
The start point is news conference. Weekly workshops begin with a chat about what stories everyone is working on. For assessment, students need to submit a story a week for four weeks, then, later a multimedia package that they work on in a team. In conference they pitch their idea to the ‘editor’. They need to have an idea of the angle and who their main sources are. It’s a discussion, and others are encouraged to make suggestions. The aim is that they leave the session with a firm idea of the story they are working on and what they need to do to get it up.
Noon each Friday is deadline. Stories need to be filed to JACdigital by then and they need to meet the publishing criteria. The UQ School of Journalism and Communication has developed an extensive style guide that students use throughout the course. Like all newsroom style guides, it covers grammar, punctuation, use of names and numbers and everything in between. It’s a chunky document – 82 pages – and includes the JACdigital style and production guide. This is sets out the site’s production and publication requirements.
Producing publishable work is a key aim of the production course. If stories don’t meet the publication requirements they fail, although students do have the opportunity to correct their work and resubmit.
I’ve attempted to find a correlation between the university’s seven-point grading scale and industry expectations of strength and quality. The grading matrix I’ve come up with has one criteria: publishability. Each level has some notes about story characteristics.
In the first round of story submissions this semester about a third could be published. There were a handful – about five – that fell over at the threshold. The remainder had potential, and this is when the journalist mentor/grumpy sub turned up.
In workshops I sat with each student and went through their story, pointing out style or production issues or, in many cases, explaining how to restructure sentences, rearrange paragraphs or suggest further reporting. Once they’ve made the changes the stories are published.
It’s labour-intensive, but in my view the quickest way to lift the standard. With a class of 33 split into two workshops it’s achievable. The students can then begin their next story armed with the lessons of the first. Over the course of the four stories the overall quality should improve … I’ll monitor it.