Ben Falk: new recruit to Coventry

Coventry’s rise up the university league tables has astonished many in academia. Positioned at 15, it ranks well above Birmingham, York, Edinburgh and many other ‘old’ universities. New recruit, Ben Falk, explains the transition from London Met to starting as senior lecturer in the journalism department and discusses the challenges ahead.

There’s few things more nerve-wracking on your first day at a new job than sitting in an all-staff meeting.

ben falkLooking around the room, seeing people reminiscing about their summer, glance furtively at the notes they’ve scribbled down on the train or just shovel a sandwich into their mouths before it all kicks off. You don’t bring a sandwich in case some mayonnaise ends up on your freshly-ironed shirt.

But as the meeting progresses, it soon becomes apparent that regardless of the institution, the same concerns, goals and desires remain. What do the students need? Are they getting it? How can we provide it for them? How do we improve ourselves?

Moving to Coventry from London Met this year – the first academic move I’ve made in five years – I’m focused on those questions more than ever. I like to think I left the latter in pretty good shape, having worked hard along with my brilliant ex-colleagues to make it into an exciting and challenging place to be.

But Coventry is a different beast. It has soared in the league tables, is the number one modern university in the UK and has been shortlisted for the Times Higher Education magazine’s University of the Year. I’m under no illusion about what’s expected of me.

And yet, I’m not afraid. Nervous, of course. A new set of workmates, a raft of fresh students. As lead tutor for the second year, I’m tasked with helping our cohort transition from wide-eyed newbies to the crack team of all-but-professional journalists they will hopefully be by next autumn.

That’s no easy feat in an era where students work dozens of hours a week elsewhere to pay their fees. When I was a student at the University of Nottingham, the only thing keeping me from the recommended reading was laziness and beer. That’s still true of course, but now it’s probably also a long, taxing commute or a bar shift until 2a.m. These are not easy times to be a student.

They’re exciting, though. Coventry University journalism students have access to incredible technical facilities (and – gasp – their own Macbook), as well as top-notch skills tutors. We have a mini-Tricaster and we’re in the midst of building a state-of-the-art TV studio.

The fact of the matter is however, that these are now no longer options, they are necessities. I’m of the opinion that there’s no point in a student doing a journalism course unless by the end of it they can shoot and edit their own footage, record and edit audio and understand studio equipment and etiquette. And this of course is on top of learning how to craft a great news story, conduct a penetrating interview and build a compelling website. That’s not to forget, OBs, presenting, social media management, teamwork, subbing, leading an editorial team and well, you get the idea…

Coming to the West Midlands, I’m excited to bring some of my multi-platform expertise to the 2nd years and beyond because with a tougher-than-ever job market, portfolio careers and the ability to turn your hand to anything a newsroom or online media enterprise might throw at you is fundamental to your survival in the profession.

I’m hoping I can convince my groups to throw themselves headlong into their course, grabbing the initiative while I lead them quietly from behind-the-scenes. It’s why I’ve never liked the idea of lectures. The worst part of university for me was some (obviously clever but nevertheless dull) tutor bloviating from the podium. I longed for the immediacy of tutorials, the chance to thrust and parry with my teacher, even if it meant me coming unstuck. One of my favourite moments in my own university career was during a film module, when we watched Ben-Hur and I spent the following class explaining why the hero was secretly gay. The annoyance of my film studies teacher was grist to my mill.

As we begin another academic year, the world of journalism continues its sense of ambiguous fluidity. Rebecca Brooks is back in charge at News UK. The Daily Mail is apoplectic about the election of Jeremy Corbyn, as indeed is much of the Guardian. The courts are still considering charges against various Sun hacks and there’s some Youtube vlogger who just trumpeted on my Tweetdeck timeline about getting a column in a top men’s magazine.

It’s a confusing time to be a journalist, but also a great one. Students either starting their courses or heading back to university this year are in a unique position. Never before has it been so easy to define your future. I know students get frustrated when guest speakers come in and talk about how they fell into a job with the local paper and that started their progression to becoming a Times foreign correspondent. But they look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. It’s always been hard to get a job as a journalist – it certainly was for me and I’m the son of one.

I only began my career in 1999 and back then pretty much all I had was print hack, telly researcher or radio journalist. Students today have those opportunities – hey, SOMEONE’s got to do those jobs, why can’t it be them? – plus so much more.

That’s what I plan to encourage as I start my new position as a Senior Lecturer in Digital Journalism. My goal this year is to get them turning their student website into a Tumblr interface onto which they can put the best video, photos, sound and words (WordPress is over for me). I want them to set up a pop-up studio and make a sports show live from the Ricoh Arena. I want them to have their own YouTube channel. Fancy trying to launch a local magazine using Kickstarter? Why not?!

Giving our students the essentials is crucial, of course, but just a tiny part of my reason for moving to Coventry.

Embracing change, confronting fear, doing something they thought impossible – making them believe that there is a place for them in this increasingly fractured and fragile media world…That’s what I really hope for.