Tuesday, 16 December 2008

What I learned in 2008

... is the question over at The Learning Circuits blog. The big question.
Background first; I do many things these days but first and foremost I earn my corn at the BBC College of Journalism. Somebody thought that after thirty years in the front line - I edited the BBC's biggest domestic radio news programmes, including Today with some 6 million listeners - I might have something worth passing on to the rest of the organisation.
Not an unreasonable assumption ... except that I did my learning in a world very different from now. So different that the past couple of years have been more about discovering how journalists learn today than they have been about systematising my own learning from the past.
Example: everything I know about journalism I learnt from other journalists - ones I admired, feared, resented. It happened in pubs; in cutting rooms; in cutting corners; in salving wounds and pride; from that one piece of intelligence that transfigures understanding and from the revelation that came from riding the Story Curve (hence the title of this blog). Oh, and from that feeling you get after putting down the phone, bested by a politician or spin-doctor.
The common factor in all of this? Time.
Time to talk, reflect, experiment, understand what's just happened to you and to construct a principle for the future; time to go to the pub; time to talk about the edit; time to use short Anglo-Saxon words outwardly while embedding a piece of learning inwardly.
And what is it that our young journalists don't have now? Quite.
So part of my learning about learning in 2008 has been trying to find ways to use our website - sadly, still internal to the BBC but going global in 2009 - to recreate something of the power of that way of learning.
Some has been easy; journalists still want to learn from admired experts; they want critique - inwardly, at least ... outwardly they put on a good show of shrugging off anything that looks like criticism or learning. They want 'just in time' advice; intelligencing and a sniff of the Story Curve. Some simulacrum of this we can fashion online - but it only goes so far.
So here's the other thing I learned; organisations like mine can put social networking tools in place and we must and we should and we have ... but even if they're used (more on that in a moment) on their own they're not enough. The way journalists have learned traditionally captures a truth that we all now theorise - the piece of learning comes initally wrapped in garish emotional wrapping; the crashing, heart-stopping moment when you realise just how wrong you were ... how easily you could have got it right; but then moves - sometimes at dead of night or in an unguarded moment - to realisation, rationalisation and resolve. Deep learning self-generating away from the learning stimulus in other words.
On this, here's the thing I have still to learn; how to use online content to 'create' time or its illusion; 'create' the crashes of the learning moment; 'create' the opportunities for that deep learning.
Here's something else I learned; try to understand the learning networks that already exist - don't try to reinvent them. We did a lot of work in the middle of the year around how organisations use networking to support learning. It was good work, but it overlooked one thing; BBC journalists were already sharing learning, links and intelligence like crazy - millions of transactions a day amongst the 8,000 or so journalists. They were writing stuff that was in every respect blogging ... it's just that no-one called it that.
Like most newsrooms, the BBC uses a computerised real-time news production system to read news agency wires and write scripts; that news production system has an informal instant messaging system as part of the package. It's used routinely for every conceivable purpose from conducting questionable social lives to passing the most profound intelligence and thinking around breaking or moribund stories.
We - those of us delivering online learning to our journalists - shouldn't try to create an alternative to this. But here's the challenge; one very senior executive is reported - almost certainly unfairly and out of context, for it is ever so - to have said, "I go to blogs and read stuff ... but that's not learning".
Getting that particular executive to acknowledge formal/informal learning - that's to say, the informal learning contained within an enterprise like the College of Journalism website and blogs - is a bit of an ask. Getting him/her to acknowledge the rich learning contained in the instant messaging around programme production ... oh dear.
Here's the final thing I learned in 2008. Everything we journalists work with changes each time we use it - not just the technology to gather, produce and distribute our content but journalism itself. The story is dying ... but we're still not entirely sure what to put in its place. Our former audiences are talking back to us ... but we're still not entirely sure what to do with what they say. We stumble on fantastically successful formats ... but lack the confidence to read across from them to other content.
That's the big learning challenge/opportunity for 2009 - how to teach the 'meta-skills' of journalism ... or raise awareness of them and find some resource to wheel in behind. Not 'here's how you do this' or more accurately 'here's how we've always done this in the past' ... but 'here's an idea about how you could think and be to be able to deal with whatever it is that journalism becomes'.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The end

The Times' George Brock, one of journalism's old boys (sorry) writes in the TLS that journalism is approaching its end - at least, the 'professional' sort is. Excerpt:
"Journalism is in trouble as an idea. Does this matter? The fourth estate cannot, thank goodness, be managed, reformed or even considered as a coherently organized profession. But journalists could think more clearly than they do about how to improve the level of trust in their work. The case for the professionals needs making all over again. With humility."
He writes in review of Bob Fox's new anthology of reportage 'Eyewitness to History' - a 2,000 page lintel. And paradox to boot.
'The case for the professionals' can't be made without accepting that their/our base currency - the story - is dead. And that we 'professionals' need the people we used to think of as our audiences to keep us honest or 'improve the level of trust' in our work.

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain. But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since ...