This week I entered a Johnston Press newsroom after a five year hiatus to build my academic career.

In that time I have completed a PhD, had a baby, travelled to Australia and been appointed head of the journalism team at Sheffield Hallam University (in that order).That is a lot of changes, in not a lot of years. And newspapers have seen a similar amount of upheaval in that time as I discovered on my return this week.

I previously worked as a health reporter, news desk assistant and features editor at a regional, daily newspaper printed twice a day, from its own press on site. In my last couple of years at the Northampton Chronicle & Echo the internet was starting to take off and we crudely broke news on our website and had begun producing online video. My editor would not allow me to write a blog about life in the newsroom and Twitter was some strange new phenomenon that I wrote an explanatory feature about.

We had subs, photographers, feature writers, secretaries and even receptionists to welcome the public. Very few of these still exist in regional newspapers today. Going back to work at the (severely cutback) Johnston Press weekly newspaper, the Derbyshire Times, this week, was therefore something of a challenge.

The first trick was getting into the building, which is on the outskirts of Chesterfield and not open to the public. Once buzzed in, I had to find the correct floor and then stand at a locked door and wave my hands until a friendly looking journalist decided to let me in.

During the next two days I had hands on experience of the life of a regional newspaper journalist which was invaluable for informing my own teaching.

I shot video, took photos, uploaded content to Twitter, Instragram and the DT website, conducted interviews, wrote copy, imported photos, wrote photo captions, wrote headlines, laid out pages, edited video, created photo slideshows … and this was a fraction of the work a regular reporter was expected to do! I learnt that much has changed, for better and worse, but reassuringly some things remain the same and perhaps always will do.

This is a summary which may inform ‘hackademics’ teaching journalism in Further and Higher Education today.

What remains the same

  • The biggest hindrance is still slow, clunky and glitchy IT systems.
  • Reporters and photographers still spend time on foot hunting down stories (I walked round Chesterfield for nearly two hours to find two arson spots).
  • The public are still friendly and helpful to local journalists.
  • Newsroom discussions still occur around issues of decency and other ethical quandaries.
  • Editors still engage closely with their communities.
  • The public still complain about inane, bizarre and illogical things.
  • Journalists still drink A LOT of tea.
  • Journalists still moan about having the hardest, worst paid job in the world but remain addicted to their job.
  • Journalists still have a healthy but sick sense of humour.

What is different

  • It is all about being multi-talented, multi-skilled and being able to multi-task and use multimedia.
  • Journalists don’t have to just worry about the ‘copy’ they have to write headlines and photo captions and identify photographs to go with their story.
  • The art of page design is all but lost and reporters write straight into boxed templates (good for control of your own story, bad for spot checking mistakes and time pressure).
  • Journalists are writing straight to the web without any checks from a second party – media law training is more essential than ever before.
  • Going out to a job no longer means just taking a notepad and pen and jotting down some quotes. Reporters now have to take photos and video on a smartphone and live report where appropriate. Broadcast, photography, web and print skills are equally important.
  • Knowing how to use Twitter and Facebook is not enough. Reporters need to be able to use Instagram and a range of other social media platforms.
  • Reporters need to be so much more software savvy and have a good basic understanding of In Design, basic editing software (e.g Windows Movie Maker) as well as being able to quickly pick up the basics of company software such as Mediagrid, Brightcove and Mark IV.
  • Reporters constantly have to flick between newspaper mode and website/online/digital/social media mode and understand the nuances of each platform.
  • Reporters have to write tight, accurate, legal copy and there is no room for error or reliance on subs to pick up mistakes.

What I learnt

  • Technology may have made the news process quicker but it has made the job of a journalist harder as they are expected to be able to use it in so many different ways and do the jobs of multiple people.
  • Being able to seek out a good story, get information from sources and knock out copy is no longer enough. You have to be good with technology, quick at everything you do and be able to multi-multi-task.
  • I learnt that I can still write in shorthand and it is a subconscious and invaluable skill that I immediately slipped back into whilst conducting an interview.
  • I soon realised that live reporting drains the battery on a smartphone and you always need a charger and ideally a backup phone.
  • I learnt that I hate writing headlines and photo captions and wished I had been trained to do this.
  • Whilst going between ‘jobs’ I discovered that it is quite difficult to walk and tweet at the same time particularly on a sunny day and particularly if you don’t want to get run over.