Aarhus’ Danish School of Media and Journalism is Denmark’s largest journalism school, producing about 200 graduates a year. There are two others in the country, with a further output of roughly another 120 or so qualified members of the fourth estate.
The school itself is a campus located in the outskirts of Denmark’s second city, in a neatly laid out area of low-rise academic buildings, wide boulevards and extensive sports facilities. It is built in that bare-concrete, slightly brutalist style typical of its era, but which in this case is well enough done to look cool and well-maintained, rather than scruffy and hostile like so many less well-designed exemplars of the style.
I was in Aarhus as a “keynote speaker” for a “mini-conference”, this one on the potential for the creation of a European public sphere through the use of social media. The conference was a good and well-attended one, though large parts of it necessarily passed me by, being conducted in Danish. The discussion panel at the end, which included Danish MEP Morten Løkkegaard (he of the report on the future of media in the EU), and which was conducted for my benefit entirely in English, was rich, insightful, and, as always, left many interesting avenues of further discussion unexplored.
However, this post is not about the conference as such, but more to record some interesting discoveries (for me, anyway) about the Aarhus school, gathered in the margins of the conference.
1. Crisis, what crisis?
It is notoriously difficult for young European journalists to get jobs. Or so I thought. Each year, in WebCom, we host something like 8-10 trainees in two five-month batches. I am continually impressed by how good they are – motivated, hard working, quick to learn, rapidly operational and productive. I am often also struck by how experienced many of them are, unexpectedly so for people doing internships. The truth is, as many of them have told me, that it is becoming very hard to get jobs. We all know about the crisis in the news industry, particularly its newspaper component, with falling sales, cutbacks, redundancies, retrenchment being the order of the day. It may be, as one US online editor told us, that the “panic is over“, but that doesn’t mean that the traditional economic model sustaining journalism is not in big trouble and that the new model has yet emerged to replace it.
On top of that, there are specific national issues. I cannot, for example recall an Italian trainee who hasn’t told me of the near impossibility of finding stable employment back home and a consequent search for options in Brussels, Paris, London or elsewhere. Nor are the Italians alone in this, far from it. Meanwhile, it’s a continuous round of short-term contracts, internships and hopeful freelancing.
In Colombia school of journalism in New York, we had heard that graduates were nonetheless still getting jobs, albeit mainly in “organizations which did not exist two years ago”. But that was Colombia, I was curious about Aarhus, a small-country European equivalent.
The answer was simple: yes they do. They all do. This remarkable fact, which so contrasts with the experience of all those Brussels trainees, deserves some explanation. According to what the Dean of the School, Anne-Marie Dohm, told me, the secret lies in a policy of selective entry and a close working relationship with the industry. Media organizations are on the board of the school and participate in the design of its courses. Every student does an 18-month period of internship during the course, and many end up working in the organizations they attended as trainees. So the Journalism school works hand in glove with the industry and, so far, a peculiarly Danish mix of investment, planning and paternalism seems to be doing the trick.
Incidentally, all this helps explain why we don’t seem to get many applications for traineeships from Denmark – they don’t need them…
2. Dream of newspapers, but go online
What do wannabe journalists, well, wannabe? One professor wryly remarked to me that, “you know, the newspaper dream is still alive”. He told me how most of the students still carried within them the romantic notion of the newspaper reporter as the ideal form of their trade, and how, in choosing their options they made sure they never shut down the possibility. “But we stop them aiming just for that, he said, we push them to learn all the online skills, because that’s what most of them will be doing in the future.”
I suppose it’s obvious, but the Aarhus course is now designed entirely to equip these young professionals for a professional world centred on the internet and a broad range of related skills. Which brings me to my third revelation, one close to my heart.
3. Journalism ain’t just journalism any more
Except once, I have referred to the Aarhus institution as a school of journalism. Most people there seemed to do the same. But, as the CEO of the School, Jens Otto Kjær Hansen, explained to me, the current institution, the Danish School of Media and Journalism is the result of a 2008 merger between the Danish School of Journalism and the Graphic Arts Institute of Denmark. The rationale for this merger is what fascinated me. “We aim,” I was told, “to provide all the editorial skills you need for journalism under one roof”.
The concept is that modern journalism is no longer only about research, facts, writing and the traditional skills of the old-fashioned newshound, but also about graphic design, web design, development of online features and apps, and all the rest of it. Aarhus doesn’t pretend to combine all these skills in one person, but considers them interlinked, mutually dependent and to belong in the same educational context.
This boldly and concretely acknowledges what we already know: the dividing lines between “media” skills and “journalism” skills are blurred. Journalists deliver media products, while graphic designers and web developers deliver journalism. Online news organizations, thus in reality all future news organizations, need to report the news using a rich variety of tools and formats. Good writing is vital, but it needs to live symbiotically with good infographics, good design, good video, good interactive interfaces, good technology and so on. The Aarhus people, who, as we saw, work hand-in-glove with the industry, get this and have acted accordingly.
Our day-to-day reality reflects this same trend. A few years back, our job was conceived essentially as a writing job – the preparation of articles, accompanied by a photo, for publication on the website. It was something we could do autonomously and is a (valuable) job we still do. However, the way we actually spend our time has changed. Most of the team are increasingly devoting their working hours to broader internet communication activities: managing social media platforms, preparing multimedia products, developing features for our website and various other online platforms, or devising online strategies within various communication campaigns. All this means we are working daily and intensively in teams with graphic artists, web designers, developers, and their ilk. We will only see more of this as we continue the process of renewing Parliament’s web presence.
4. Happy Danes
I had a little side-project for my trip to Denmark – to try to work out what truth there is in the 2007 finding that the Danes are the happiest people on Earth. I have to confess that my method was unscientific, but I did ask quite a few people in the Aarhus school whether they felt as happy as we would believe them to be. I also naturally made my own observations, including at a professors-students football match which immediately followed the conferences, in which the conference speakers were cordially invited to play (on the side of the professors). Now, that’s a good sign – it’s not every conference where the invitation is extended to sporting participation. Nor did the 12-1 thrashing the professors suffered at the hands of their students seem at all to dampen anyone’s spirits (Morten Løkkegaard played, by the way). My questions on happiness to staff members elicited remarkably similar responses: “yes, well, we are happy. I mean there’s not really very much to complain about in Denmark, all things considered…” However, most of them did also mention a thing called the “Jante Law” which I initially took to be a legal obligation on Danes to be happy, though subsequently discovered to be a bit more complicated than that.
Suffice to say, on the basis of my one-day research project in the Danish School of Media and Journalism on a beautiful June day, Danes do seem pretty happy. Maybe I’ll just leave it at that.
Finally, thanks to John Frølich and Lars Christensen, conference organisers, for their invitation, welcome, hospitality and easy-going friendliness. It was, well, a happy trip.