General media: Might students hold the key to rich, new era of investigative reporting?

JOURNALISM education is one of the great unmentionables in the industry.

If, like me, you attended university as an undergraduate but received your training on the job, from senior colleagues, then you’re likely to think that the words ‘journalism’ and ‘education’ don’t go together.

Currently, I straddle both worlds because I work in the business and also teach it too. On bad days, you fall between the stools; on good days, you enjoy being among the next generation of journalists who are keen to enter our curious and – these days – bruised industry.

My specialist area within the industry has always been in-depth investigative-based articles and programmes. I’ve worked in the UK, Europe, the USA and elsewhere internationally, pursuing stories for Channel 4, the BBC and almost every broadsheet in the UK.

For several years, I have been both working within the industry, doing these investigations, and simultaneously teaching the subject to both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Recently, I have been genuinely heartened with the positive attention an investigative journalism course I run at Napier University, in Edinburgh, has received in the trade press – and over-the-moon that Strathclyde University has asked me to develop a Masters course in Investigative Journalism for national and international students there.

The ground-breaking part of the formula is that fact that the students I teach work on ‘real’ cases – allowing them to call actual contacts; chase down real leads; then write their work up for online publication. Finding good cases to work on, is easy – choosing them is the tricky part.

Mistakes are made; success chalked up; and we all learn as we go along. One of the key elements is exploding the myth that investigations cost big bucks: they don’t. But they do take effort and commitment.

There’s no other course like it in the UK and – as far as I am concerned – Scotland is the best place for it to happen. Sure, the media in Scotland is taking a battering right now, and I know many colleagues lose heart because, instead of working for Ben Bradlee, lead-from-the-front type of editors, they find themselves labouring under passionless editors of formerly feisty titles who are invisible in their own newsrooms and who also adopt a palpable “we’re all doomed” vibe during editorial meetings.

But it’s maybe worth noting that Scotland has, in its own modest way, quietly made its mark in investigative journalism. For example, BBC Scotland’s Frontline, whilst sometimes uneven, has stayed committed to its remit and has chalked up some decent successes, nationally, and now has the award-winning Liam McDougall, formerly of the Sunday Herald, on-board.

Neil Mackay, from the same title, causes plenty of ripples with his work, including his ambitious, recent Iraq title, ‘The War On Truth’.

Former British Press Award Feature Writer of the Year, Michael Teirney, from The Herald magazine, has produced in-depth work from the Middle East which is simply world-class; and other journalists – they know who they are – have caused plenty of pulses at Holyrood to quicken because of their wickedly energetic usage of the FOI Act.

Yes, it’s early days, but maybe a new defiant spirit of Scottish muckraking is starting to take hold. From discussions with both regional title editors and students, I know the single greatest asset to make students employable is helping to train them to sweat on stories and turn up something original from sheer hard shoe-leather reporting.

Maybe some of the eager faces I am seeing on a weekly basis will be the builders of a new investigative-led era of print and online reporting, which – as recent cutting-edge research in the States on investigative projects has proved beyond a doubt – actually produces unique, sellable, powerful, agenda-setting, and hard-hitting journalism that website newspaper subscribers – the Holy Grail of the industry’s future – will be willing to shell out cash to read.

That’s a goal I’ll raise a toast to over the festive period.

Eamonn O’Neill

Eamonn O’Neill is a freelance journalist currently contracted to The Herald and is contributing editor at Esquire magazine. He was runner-up in the inaugural Paul Foot Award for Investigative Journalism – last year.