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Why resilience is the big buzzword for the future of journalism



[l-r] Mark Allen, Hannah Fernando, Michelle Johnson and Julian Read at the 2018 NCTJ Journalism Skills conference (© twitter/@HCJournalism)

Last Thursday the NCTJ – the UK’s journalism training body – held its annual Journalism Skills conference at my former school, Harlow College. I was delighted to be invited to speak on a panel about the future of magazines alongside the brilliant Hannah Fernando, group editor at TI Media; Mark Allen, founder of his eponymous publishing group; and my former editor, Essex Life editor Julian Read.


I won’t lie, it wasn’t exactly an easy sell when you consider the delegates there were all working journalists, professors of journalism or aspiring journos themselves. Talking about the future of magazines, when those of us in the profession are all trying to work that question out ourselves, is no mean feat – not least because we were following fascinating talks on subjects like the rise of data journalism, community reporting (and social media), and safety and wellbeing.


But there was a common thread in each of the talks on Thursday, as well as at that evening’s NCTJ Awards, and that was the notion of resilience.


During a talk on safety in journalism Sandra Laville, who has covered war zones, court cases and environmental issues in her Guardian career, spoke about how we can deal effectively with trauma, stress and wellness in the workplace, and the importance of setting up a structure of a ‘mindful leader and resilient student’ in more than just the most obvious situations.


Resilience is quite simply the ability to remain flexible, determined and focused through tough times

“I covered Afghanistan and war zones, and when I got back there was a whole team rallying around me to offer support and make sure I wasn’t traumatised,” Sandra said of her experience of returning from reporting on the frontline. “Then I covered court cases involving sex crimes, child abuse and violence against women, but there wasn’t the awareness or support there that there needed to be.”


Sandra describes these harrowing cases as ‘the warzone at home’, and admits that she found herself struggling with constantly reporting on such dark material. “I became passionate about wanting to report it, and sometimes it’s hard for an editor to pull you away or for you to see that you’re going down a dark path,” she told us. “There has to be some kind of touch point for reporters both at home and abroad.”


And while many of us in the industry may not have the remarkable burden and privilege of reporting on such intense subjects as Sandra and her co-speaker Angelina Fusco, former TV News editor for BBC Northern Ireland, their advice and experience is invaluable to us all.

As both journalists pointed out during the talk, resilience isn’t ‘manning up’ or suffering in silence. In fact it’s the opposite, and both were keen to point out the strength in asking for help, in providing support, and in setting up structures in organisations that cater to employee’s mental health and wellbeing as much as the physical.


Resilience is quite simply the ability to remain flexible, determined and focused through tough times, whether that’s doggedly chasing a traumatic story at the peak of your career or staying late to complete a mind-numbing forward planning list on your first week of work. The fact is, we can do that much more easily when we understand our own needs and the support available – as is being shown with each new study on mental health and mindfulness strategies both at home and within the workplace.


Other forms of resilience within journalism include telling your subject’s story faithfully, with unflinching truth and impartial reportage, rather than trying to fit it into your own narrative or getting too involved in the story. While there’s valuable space for what speakers at the conference often referred as ‘I’ or ‘Me’ journalism, there’s real skill in traditional reporting too. There was also a general feeling from new recruiters that many aspiring journalists left the office bang on time and reacted poorly to criticism, when in fact it’s the ability to stay to the wire and embrace the red pen that makes great journalists stand out.


Resilience is finding creative solutions to problems – something that we’re all definitely looking for within the industry during this tumultuous time – and not balking at the thought of trying something new or that might be a bit of a risk. It's present in great interns and great editors, and everyone in between.


What I think will stick with me the most though, is how similar phrases resonated so strongly in so many of the conference’s talks – whether we were talking celebrity magazines or hard-hitting broadcast, local or national publications, print or digital content – and that the vast majority of journalists at the event saw the same three qualities as key to the industry’s future success.


So what is the future of magazines? Well, if this year's conference is anything to go by, at its heart the future will see a return to the basics: a focus on truly great content, on knowing our audience, and staying true to the core of resilience that we value so highly.


[l-r] Dr Karen Fowler-Watt, Angelina Fusco, Sandra Laville and Colin Pereira at the 2018 NCTJ Journalism Skills Conference

Photos: LFCC 2018 & 2019 © Colin Hart; Spaghetti premiere © Tasha Best Photography/tashabest.com. Portfolio images © articles of respective publications or Michelle Johnson; all other images © Michelle Johnson unless otherwise credited

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© 2020 Michelle Johnson