In my opinion: Martin Boyle: It’s good the NCTJ chose Scotland for its annual conference

THE opportunity to bring the NCTJ’s annual Journalism Skills Conference to Scotland was a timely chance to highlight the fact that many challenges, but just as many opportunities, exist for Scottish journalism.

Representatives of outlets from across the media spectrum – as well as journalism courses across Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales – tackled the challenge of ensuring that trainees are ready to tackle an ever-changing media landscape, with two days of discussion at BBC Scotland and Hampden Park, the first time such a major event has been held north of the border.

Of course, the current media climate has thrown up many difficulties for everyone – from students scrambling for a ‘foot in the door’ to bosses battling to balance the books.

It is good, therefore, to see both Westminster and the Scottish Parliament continue to make encouraging noises about protecting the future of Scottish journalism, with a growing recognition that pressure on local and regional news throws up the danger of a democracy deficit and the very real prospect of towns and regions losing the collective memory which journalism has provided.

These are the vital services that the journalism students of today and tomorrow will inherit, so it is incumbent on their trainers, irrespective of level, to ensure that they are fully trained and prepared to meet the ever-growing challenges of the modern newsroom.

There aren’t hoards of bloggers and citizen journalists at local council meetings and courts, and, while they will have a place in the media landscape, it is our responsibility to provide a different level of quality journalism and journalists.

While courses rush to embrace new technologies we must always remember that each student is entering the ground floor of this industry – and, more than ever, they need the basic tools of the trade that set them apart: the ability to recognise a story, follow it up and tell it in a clear, accurate and safe fashion. Throw in a healthy dose of shorthand for good measure and that is where the central core of the NCTJ examinations succeeds.

Of course, beyond that, the trainees that we provide to newsrooms up and down the country must know how to successfully handle stories for the web, audio, video, stills and mobile phones, delivering the story in multiple formats to suit, with an eye on everything from search engine optimisation to video editing.

At Cardonald College Glasgow, we believe that the college sector is ideally placed to meet those training demands of industry, providing a practical straightforward approach, designed to train and prepare the journalists for the newsroom.

According to broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, last year, on average, people now spend around 12 hours a week online, and the amount of time 16-to-24 year-olds spend online at home has increased by 50 per cent in two years, and 20 per cent of people say the internet is the one medium they couldn’t live without.

So there’s no doubt we’re past the time when we get hung-up on ‘old’ media and ‘new’ media, and the current environment has to be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Call it ‘multi-media’ if you will. I prefer to simply call it ‘journalism’.

But delivering high quality, effective media in the digital age is still new ground for many. Almost all students, in my experience, read and view their news online and on an iPhone, and it is here that the industry’s new frontiers will continue to lie.

Whether it’s subsidies for new start-ups, news subscriptions for the young or subscriptions, more and more new ideas and models continue to emerge, but one way or another paying for quality journalism has to be as simple as buying a single on iTunes or downloading an app to my iPhone.

Channel 4’s 4ip public service broadcasting fund has already thrown up a few groundbreaking initiatives that traditional outlets can learn from – the Audio Boo iPhone app allows people to record and post three-minute sound files quickly and easily to Facebook and Twitter.

And the Battlefront project is perhaps also a template that traditional media can follow – it asked groups of teens to plan their own campaign, and then gave them the tools, using the web, social networking and mobile phone technology, to grab the headlines. This is perhaps a method which would allow other media to identify the genuine concerns of their audience and allow them to interact and generate content in a completely new way, while also dragging back young readers.

A quick look at how Channel 4 has managed to make its programme, Skins, so successful online is also relevant. A massive 45 per cent of people who watch the show also interact about it online – it’s normally nearer to one per cent for most shows.

This does highlight that the young audience that so many outlets and advertisers covet are still out there – they‘re just interacting with the media in a completely new way and waiting for us to catch up with them.

However, one thing that is arguably missing from the internet is the serendipity of flicking through a newspaper on the train or stumbling across an unexpected article in a magazine.

The internet has failed, so far, to deliver that, but the most positive aspect of all is that the student journalists of today are right at the cutting edge of the debate on where the media is heading. And to their credit they’re doing that while fitting in a full-time course, work placements stints, one or two jobs, and the odd Christmas party along the way.

Martin Boyle is a senior lecturer and course co-ordinator, HND Practical Journalism and NCTJ Journalism, Cardonald College, Glasgow.

* This article is adapted from a speech presented to the Journalism Skills Conference, Hampden Park, Glasgow, December 4 2009.