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Dare to be different

Young journalists looking for a job should find it easy to set themselves apart, writes SIMON HOLT in our latest issue of The Bulletin. But all too often, job applications look like form letters.

IT should be easy to stand out from the crowd when looking for a job in journalism. Express yourself, share innovative ideas, and dare to be creative.

The formula is simple. Show an understanding of the basics – and break from the formula.

Why then, do sharp young minds seem to fear breaking the mould? Why is it that when being put to the sword in a job interview, they shy away from expression, fall devoid of ideas, and seem ill-equipped to deal with the needs of a modern newsroom?

Something within the education system is letting them down. Sure, the curriculum ticks all the right boxes, covering off modern story-gathering and story-telling techniques. The issue lies not with content, rather a scale of priorities. Modern newsroom needs are still a secondary thought – an add-on to the same course material I was taught 25 years ago.

That means students can write well, be across legal obligations, be morally sound and have a solid grip on the principles of journalism. But does that necessarily make them employable?

I speak from recent experience. Of 200 applications for two recent entry-level positions, about 80 per cent were adequately trained or qualified, about half were within basic first-round criteria, and 25 per cent were chosen to complete a basic writing task.

There is a distinct positive in that equation. The pool of talent is deep. And after smoothing some rough edges, about 20 of the applicants would have been suited to a working newsroom (editors, feel free to call me if you need staff).

However, it’s a buyers’ market. I wanted more. I wanted the brightest graduates to tell me how they were going to show entrepreneurial flair, how they would create a brand and source news which would be of appeal to a mass audience on multiple platforms.

Then there was hope that someone – anyone – might show modern news-breaking intuition, share thoughts about how enterprise journalism would connect with an audience, or how they might tap into modern techniques to enhance story-telling display.

I secretly wanted to hear stuff I didn’t know. Greed, after all, is the right of the editor.

Instead, form letters were a virtual template – one after the other saying almost the same thing. They stressed the importance of accuracy and grammar, albeit with varying degrees of success; many attached published work, either as a link or in print; and some told how they were edging their way into the industry by volunteering their services to various organisations.

Granted, there were fleeting moments of intrigue. Some pointed to a personal blog, and a couple to a personal website, indicating a passion for their craft.

None – not a one – submitted an “intrapreneurial” case for innovation; a business case outlining how they can add value to our business, acknowledging that gone is the top-down newsroom where journalists merely perform a role; a list of mundane duties as presented to them by their editor.

How would they perform in an accountable world, a place where all journalists are expected to offer up ideas and to innovate? If sharp young minds are the new drivers of the business, who is prepared to lead the way? It’s a bold ask, but it’s a bold new industry in which we work.

Perhaps a reason for the soporific drone-like stream of applications is an overwhelming fear of failure. That is, everybody is so keen to say what they think they should be saying that they’ve lost sight of a need to create a point of difference.

More likely, the education system is a production line. A theoretical knowledge of journalism, an idealistic view of what it should be like, and a superficial knowledge of modern journalism techniques is nice – but it’s no longer enough.

Enthusiasm needs to be rewarded with a licence to think differently; a ticket which allows creativity; a mantra which propels basic journalistic principles into a practical and modern forum. If there is an underlying message, it’s that universities need to be leading the change management process.

Some institutions are altering their curriculum to suit modern needs. We can be optimistic these changes will add a renewed sense of vitality to the education sector which not only follows global trends, but which drives innovation at a grassroots level.

Disclosure: On behalf of Fairfax Media, I have constructed a course titled “Innovation in Modern Journalism” which will be piloted in two universities this year.

Simon Holt is the managing editor of the Brisbane Times.

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