Oh God! What have we done?

I have had a bit of a techie/worky week this week, hence the slightly lighter and more ‘kit’ oriented posts.One of the things I have been doing is trying to get round the issue of spam and sploggs.

Splogs are blogs made from other people’s posts, harvested by computer programmes, to provide a wrap around for ads. It’s a pretty crappy idea and I had noticed a couple of trackbacks from splog sites across my blog and the blogs we run for students. I’m still looking in to that one.

As for the spam, Akismet seems to have sorted me out .  How it works – hey, I don’t care, it just does. But the story behind it is interesting. It was created by, WordPress creator, Matt Mullenweg. Here’s a potted version of why from an interview with in the Guardian last year:

Mullenweg has created a service he’s called Akismet, which enables bloggers collectively to block splogs. It is penance, he says, for ‘a stupid mistake’ he made 18 months ago. Then Mullenweg was exposed and denounced by fellow bloggers for signing a contract allowing WordPress secretly to host search engine spam – tens of thousands of articles containing hidden keywords to help companies get a high ranking on search engines.

‘I was raised Catholic and I can get incredibly guilty about mistakes,’ he says. ‘Creating an anti-spam service that’s blocked hundreds of millions of spam for hundreds of thousands of bloggers is, in some ways, my penance.’ Akismet has repelled more than 225,000 spam comments on his own blog (photomatt.net) alone.

That carried an extra resonance for me this week

Out of an equal measure of curiosity and academic interest, I set some of my students the task of reading Mindy’s post on how to get and keep a job in journalism – I’m sorry Mindy for the pingbacks that must have generated – and then post a response on their own blogs.

Here are few snippets:

But the basic skills that students such as myself need to learn to become an accomplished journalist mustn’t be overlooked just so i can make a nice website.

It is sad that the typical British persona of a man with a bowler hat, umbrella and newspaper may be slowly fading; bowler hats have given way to baseball caps, the newspapers are slowly giving way to internet connections, but the need for an umbrella in Britain will always remain.

Anyway, as much as it pains me to say it. I think she’s right. She isn’t saying that online is the only way forward, but that we should at least understand how it works if we want a half decent job and pay off that pesky student loan! So I suppose I will give trying to learn some online skills a whirl. If anything else it might make people jealous of my improved MySpace. Ha!

Personally, I am a little sceptical on the idea.  Each individual budding journalist has a dream, whether it be to become a leading print journalist or a leading broadcast journalist.  To start channeling people into a career they are simply not interested in is likely to disillusion them and push them towards an alternative career.

We have been supporting student blogs within the department for a year or so. That doesn’t mean the students haven’t blogged outside, but we decided that this year we would provide the facility and actively push them to try it. The result is a real mix of stuff as, I guess, blogs should be, but many are taking to it well.  But I digress.

The general response to Mindy’s post was possitive. But what  was interesting in the discussion that went around the post , was the idea that Online Journalism is a medium, just like print and TV.

Of course it is a medium just like print or broadcast, but rather than thinking it defined a skillset for all journalists, many of the students had a view that it was something separate, something definable that you went in to just like print.

When we started the MA Online Journalism course at my department in 1999, we also created an online journalism route for the final year of the Undergraduate course – students would do 2 years of ‘general’ journalism and then could specialise in Print, broadcast or online. This was as much about recognising that there where something distinct about practicing journalism for online publications, as it was the other mediums reluctance to engage with the medium.

So we have pressed on for nearly eight years, defining and refining online journalism and its associated skills. And in realising that, I had my Akismet experience.

We may have managed to get online skills in to the main journalism curriculum over the last few years and it seems the students are ready to take them on and run with it. But we may also have done a lot to contribute to the artificial divisions that we are dealing with now.

So what do I do?

This year we have the chance to tweak the MA, as we have done every year, and it feels more important than ever that we look right across the range of what we are doing.  And in September I hope I will have a cohort of bright shiny students for the Digital Journalism Production course. Three years of integrated, digitally informed journalism training.

This isn’t a mea culpa. We did what we needed to do to harness the momentum in the late nineties for the medium and make sure that we where reflecting the real world for our students. The students we have put in to jobs in the ‘online’ industry prove we where on the right track. No, it simply means that it’s time to work harder at bridging the gaps. The students are obviously ready for it.

2 thoughts on “Oh God! What have we done?”

  1. Very interesting post, Andy. I think you nailed it when you said we have all reinforced this idea that online is somehow “separate” in our (early) attempts to get it into the journalism curriculum. Now those of us with separated modules in online need to go back and dismantle those. Others who still have no separate “online” modules should not create them but rather begin to add online assignments within the existing modules. Yes? (Do you agree?)

  2. I agree 100% Mindy.

    We are trying that in my department at the moment but its hard going. The offer of free blogs etc, was slow on the take up as was integrating assignments rather than just adding an online element. With people still nose to the grindstone churning out meat for the trad journo mill we still have a long way to go but you have keep pushing don’t you.

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