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Debunking the myths of journalism traineeships

With journalism undergoing so many changes, opinions diverge about what journalism trainee schemes should actually teach. DW Akademie traineeship coordinator Michael Karhausen gets to the truth behind the myths.

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Multimedia training at DW

Talking about the state of the media is a bit like talking about football. Everyone has something to say (whether they actually know enough to say something meaningful or not is another story) and everyone thinks they are right.

"There's no news in the newspaper anymore," is one complaint you'll often hear. And if you, dear reader, aren't scared off by reading these portends of content's demise, then well done. Obviously, you aren't easily put off in your search for substance. That means you are persistent, have a positive attitude and are open to new experiences – all the characteristics, in fact, that a good journalism trainee should have, and characteristics that a good journalist trainee program should support.

A journalism trainee scheme is a paid training program offered by a broadcaster, newspaper or publishing house that's often only open to university graduates. In Germany, the traineeship usually lasts somewhere between 18 months and two years; similar schemes offered by the BBC in Britain or ABC in Australia run for a year. Typically, journalism trainees rotate through different areas of a media organization to build a broad range of skills. Some traineeships, such as that offered by Deutsche Welle, also incorporate theory courses, workshops and project work.

In Germany, journalism trainee schemes are the traditional way to break into the profession. Competition for the schemes (called a Volontariat in German) is stiff and the selection process is arduous; at DW we received more than 700 applications for ten traineeships in 2015. But the trainers and mentors are usually working journalists with a wealth of experience to share and it's a fantastic opportunity to learn the theory, experiment with new formats and hone skills in real working conditions.

The journalism traineeship at Deutsche Welle has a great reputation. And we want it to stay that way. This means we need to learn from our mistakes and make sure we're not guilty of false advertising. To help others in the same position, here's our opinion on nine statements you'll often hear about how journalism trainee programs should or shouldn't be.

1) It was easier to be a journalist before the digital revolution.
Not true. Journalists in the past didn't necessarily have it easier. What they did have though was more certainty about the skills they needed; print journalists wrote for print, radio journalists made radio and TV journalists made TV – and never the twain would meet. Now, of course, everyone needs to be able to do a bit of everything, which means training schemes need to let trainees conceive and produce work across all media. And while many journalists these days still end up specializing, by trying a bit of everything, trainees can discover their individual strengths – eventually, one of them will get passionate about film, another will dive into investigative research and a third will discover their talent for organizing bigger projects. But it is important that the trainees realize that journalism these days is about teamwork; they will only achieve their goal by working together with colleagues who have strengths in other areas.

2) It was harder to be a journalist before the digital revolution.
Not true. It was harder to chase contacts, do research and file stories before computers but on the other hand, writers weren't so tied to deadlines, had bigger budgets and were often permanent staff members, with all the associated perks. Journalists today are faced with a string of temporary contracts and long periods of freelancing. Because of this, today's journalists need an entrepreneurial spirit, a strong profile and an understanding of media organizations as clients. Therefore, it's essential that trainee schemes teach journalists how to market themselves.

3) Cross-gender-data-drone-journalism sounds fabulous and should be in the training curriculum.
Not necessarily true. The basic question journalism traineeship managers should ask themselves is, what is the core business of journalism? The answer, in our opinion, is thorough research and accurate reporting. Which is why trainee schemes still need to incorporate traditional subjects such as news reporting and interviewing skills.

4) Learning the craft of journalism is out-dated.
Not true. Journalism is a craft. And the only way to ingrain basic journalism skills is practice, practice, practice in the same way that children learn their ABCs and times tables. Craft is necessary to be able to tell stories in the best possible way. Yes, structure and narrative rules can be broken, but it's important to learn them first, otherwise journalists can run the risk of gimmickry rather than serving the story.

5) Hooray, we've done the lesson plan for 2023.
Not at all. A training scheme should be flexible, which means it shouldn't be planned years in advance. Of course, as we have already mentioned, there are basic skills that we feel should always be included. But it's important to let some of the vast ocean of possibilities flow into the course.

6) Yaah, now we are 'paid' journalists, we have a cleaner who'll clean our training room for us, and a technician who'll check the camera.
Completely untrue. Trainee journalists need to learn the importance of keeping their production room and their equipment clean and ready to use all the time. Because a trainee who returns incomplete VJ equipment or forgets to charge the batteries not only jeopardizes the story, they also haven't learned the elementary rules of teamwork.

7) Journalism is mainly about writing or presenting.
No and no! You don't need to be a brilliant writer or fantastic in front of the camera to be a journalist. Journalism is also about forward planning, organizing, editing and developing new formats. Trainees should try out all of these possibilities during their training and discover just how versatile and challenging the profession can be.

8) We're off to our practical placements, see you at the end of the traineeship.
Of course not! A traineeship coordinator doesn't just select the applicants and wave them off as they head to their various divisions – a good coordinator accompanies the trainees throughout their whole time in the program. Coordinators need to keep an eye on how trainees are developing and know when they perhaps need individual coaching or support and advice. This means it's essential for coordinators to keep in touch with the responsible editors, visit trainees during their practical placements and ensure they are being mentored effectively there.

9) Good advice isn't as good as it used to be.
On the contrary, some advice just keeps getting better, such as that by as the Irish writer Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Almost sounds as if Beckett wrote an early guide to journalism training.

Michael Karhausen

Michael Karhausen

A radio and TV journalist by trade, Michael Karhausen has been involved in DW's journalism traineeship since 2003 and is currently coordinating the scheme. Karhausen also regularly holds in-house multimedia and transmedia workshops at DW and travels abroad as an external trainer and media consultant for DW Akademie, primarily to Laos, Myanmar and Ghana.