The importance of updating and rewriting

Image by Media Helping Media and released under Creative CommonsJournalism is an ongoing commitment to update and rewrite.

As soon as we press the save button the news we are publishing is likely to be out of date. The same is true for journalism training.

This means that, as with news, journalism training needs to be continually modified, and text books and online modules continually revised and refreshed. And that's a massive task.

Image is from the newspaper archive room at The Chronicle in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

I was reminded about this when reading a piece by Alexa Capeloto @lexcap on Media Shift last week entitled How e-Textbooks, Online Modules Could Keep Journalism Education Current. The author wrote:

“The long wait between writing and publication usually means at least portions of a book about journalism will seem outdated when it finally reaches the hands of college students. Imagine trying to write about social media's influence on journalism right now for a book that won't hit the market until a year from now, and you get the idea.”

Alexa is spot on. Elements of what we publish or deliver today are likely to be stale tomorrow. Things are moving so fast.

Whether we are producing journalism or teaching journalism, we all face the challenge of ensuring the material we produce remains relevant.

Those who turn their hand to teaching must keep up with changing trends and practices, and the speed of technological development, along with the growth of social media, makes that an ongoing task.

Media Helping Media health warning

All the modules on this site are out of date. They were out of date the moment they were published, more so when they were written.

That is why the modules on this site are continually being updated and rewritten.

To check when the modules were first published and when they were last updated look at the top of each article where the dates are published.

A few people have approached me in the past about publishing a book containing the free training modules on Media Helping Media. There is no point; to think of transferring them to a book makes no sense.

Print them off, sure, but please make a note of the publish date and the modified date (at the foot of each article). And please add comments at the bottom of each article about where they are wrong, need revising and could be improved.

Some of the journalism basics, such as how to write a story and how to apply editorial ethics, can and should be contained in text books that gather dust on shelves, but we also need an ever-evolving learning resource that is continually updated.

And this is particularly important for any training resources that cover modern working practices, online and digital journalism, social media and converged/integrated newsroom working.

Keeping journalism training as up-to-date as possible

So what’s the solution for journalism trainers? Here are some suggestions based on my experience delivering media strategy and journalism training around the world.

  • Never reuse an old training module without reviewing every slide and every sentence between courses
  • Always check for the latest data and statistics to support (or revise) any assumptions and presumptions made the last time you delivered the slides
  • Sign up to a couple of marketing newsletters to ensure that your training reflects changing audience behaviour. I know this sounds strange coming from a journalist, but those involved in marketing are often acutely aware of audience needs. Often the data they provide can be of great use to media managers. Two such newsletters worth subscribing to are those offered by eMarkerter and Advertising Age
  • Be prepared to update your presentations with the latest information between sessions. It's as important to deliver the latest news in training courses as it is in news bulletins. When you get to your hotel room between lectures go through each slide deck and be prepared to rewrite the material
  • Respect cultural differences, and never presume that what might work in Zimbabwe will work in Tbilisi. Also, understand that what might work well for a modern news operation at CNN or the BBC might not only be totally irrelevant to a small media house in Asia, but may also be insulting and could alienate you from your audience
  • Always learn from each training course you deliver, and aim to illustrate the next training with the latest successful models worked out in other territories. Look for examples of best practice from the team you are currently training and, if possible, see if they will be prepared to be quoted and referred to in future training. (My experience is that recent examples of successfully-implemented workflows from similar regions are valuable)
  • Celebrate low-tech innovation and resourcefulness rather than focus on costly technology-assisted news gathering and news production processes that may be so far away from the grasp of your audience as to be demoralising and insulting. Always ask yourself if you would be able to cope in their shoes. Would you be able operate without modern technology. It’s no use talking about new technology if the local power source is a village generator.

Only lazy journalists stand still, news keeps moving

The advice set out above is not dissimilar to the best practice for journalism production that’s been drummed into me over the years.

After reading Alexa’s piece my mind went back to my early days in newspapers. I’d been trained that immediately after submitted an article for approval I was to return to my desk and work on a follow up for the next edition.

If the story was strong enough, I would be expected to explore a new angle. If I didn’t have one, I was expected to find one.

"Only lazy journalists stand still, news keeps moving," my editor would say.

The same was true when I moved to BBC local radio. After reading my first news bulletin I returned to the newsroom. The news editor told me to sit down and rewrite everything.

“We don’t deal in old news,” he said.

Even links that I felt couldn’t be improved had to be refreshed. It forced me to think through all the elements in the story and how they could be developed. It forced me to be a journalist and not just a news reader.

Radio bulletin checklist 1981

There was a checklist for tasks at Liverpool’s Radio Merseyside in 1981.

  • Write bulletin and underline any facts in the story that need to be checked for updates
  • Rewrite the bulletin immediately after leaving the studio and before thinking about making a cup of tea
  • The rewriting should include both the introduction script and the piece itself
  • If necessary, get any audio reports re-voiced if the information is out-of-date
  • If you are using an audio clip of someone in the news always have a selection of at least three alternatives available, one talking about what has happened, another about what they intend to do about it, and the third about what will happen next
  • Never run a voiced report or an audio clip more than twice
  • Realise that all those mentioned in the news bulletin may have fresh information to share after having heard your bulletin. It would be amazing if they didn’t. Call them and see what’s changed
  • Make a note of all the times and dates mentioned in the bulletin to ensure the newscast is not dated
  • Put in another round of calls to police, fire, ambulance and any key players in a developing news story, such as union leaders, bosses, councillors, activists, sports personalities etc

In other words, never repeat a bulletin hour after hour. It’s almost certain that, if you do, you will be delivering old news and old news is no news.

Discipline of updating stands test of time

We had a similar philosophy when we launched BBC News Online in 1997. We were continually checking for new developments, updating stories and republishing the site.

The early training in print and broadcast that most of us had gone through had prepared us well for the BBC’s first move into 24-hour rolling news. It’s interesting how some of those basic principles of journalism best practice appear to be timeless.

Perhaps they are the only elements that stand the test of time. It would be wrong if those of us who train journalists neglect to apply these principles to our training.

Perhaps journalism text books should contain a health warning, written in large letters, explaining that the content might be seriously out of date, and that the information should be used for historical reference only rather than treated as a best practice guide for today’s journalism.

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who founded Media Helping Media, handing the site over to Fojo in early 2018. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He has spent many years delivering journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.

We have more than 100 free training modules in our journalism training section.