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What Keynes can teach editors about journalism education

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Reg Rumney's picture

Most business editors in South Africa probably regard themselves as eminently practical people. So it's no surprise that a recent survey of business editors found them emphasising the practical aspect of the further education of journalists.

There was no consensus, but a report on my survey, Editorial opinions: What business journalists need to know (download here), published last week, even detected a strain of anti-academicism. At least one editor of the 18 editors I interviewed in January this year believed journalists needed no formal education, which is a bit old-fashioned in our degree-inflated world.

Moreover, sitting as I now do in a university after many years as a business journalist, I find the distinction between the practical and the academic, between praxis and theory, can mislead.

As I mentioned at a presentation of the survey results to editors in Johannesburg last week, the great economist John Maynard Keynes observed that we underestimate the importance of theory. His quote about practical men being "slaves of some defunct economist" is worth quoting in full.

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."

Graphics expert and author Robin Williams expresses the notion of the power of ideas with admirable clarity in the introduction to her popular manual on design, The Non-Designers Design Book.

She remembers that having been given a book on tree identification, and seeing a picture of the conspicuous Joshua tree, going out to find one in the neighbourhood, something she considered unlikely. As it turned out, 80% of the homes in the immediate vicinity had Joshua trees - and she had never noticed a single one before.

"Once I was conscious of the tree - once I could name it - I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you're conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You're in control."
It's not that the editors didn't see the value of training. They all complained in one way or another about the shortage of skills in their area. This was the common theme. And they generally saw the value of courses done outside the work environment. One editor complained that work pressures made on-the-job training a thing of the past.

I think they were suspicious because what they remember as teaching and training was the old "transmission model" I remember from my student days. The lecturer droned on and on in abstractions that needed a lot of translating into the specific to be properly understood. But understanding was your problem, not his. As a student, you took down notes and were expected to reproduce in exams or essays a version of the truth he (or, rarely, she) expounded. Higher education theory has moved on from this model of teaching and learning. One model for instance, experiential learning, fuses theory and practice.

In general, I surmise from the responses that editors also see little point in courses or lectures that try to make journalists into what they are not. So a course on tax that sets out to make tax experts of journalists is bound to fail.

What editors want is some way to teach journalists to create good business journalism, articles and TV inserts that go beyond the boring recitation of numbers to the real story, which is the consequence for the human beings involved. In business journalism this can mean understanding what it is really like to run a business, big or small. I would argue that good business journalism includes the consequences for a range of stakeholders, including consumers, workers and the society at large.

The Centre for Economics Journalism is taking up the challenge of educating journalists in two ways, building on what Rhodes University is already doing at the School of Journalism and Media Studies.

We have already started running short courses for journalists. These courses aim to teach business, finance and economics journalism rather than business, finance and economics, an important distinction, and one that will surely be welcomed by the industry. What we tried to understand through the survey of editors is what the industry requires.

As I have pointed out, good general business journalism is one aspect. Another need identified was an understanding of company reports and markets. And of course there will always be a need for courses on general economics, especially on the workings of key institutions such as the Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

Secondly, we are launching a Post-Graduate Diploma in Economics Journalism at the School of Journalism and Media Studies. This will be part time over two years. It will comprise eight modules and a project, and again, it will be for journalists and with journalism in mind. Each module will be an accredited five-day course, dealing with an aspect of economics journalism, such as globalisation, trade and investment.

The school already offers a Post Graduate diploma for economics and commerce graduates who want to get into business journalism. What this latest Post Graduate Diploma does is to give working journalists the opportunity to move into the more lucrative field of business journalism.

Coincidentally, it also gives effect to one of memorable saying by Henry R Luce, publisher of Fortune magazine.

"It is easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers," he said.

As a former writer of verse, and later a business editor, I like to think this is true.