Journalism lecturer Mia Lindgren has just completed a different sort of ‘internship’ at Radio National.
For the last four months I’ve been journalistically replenished. I have returned to working full-time as a producer of long-form radio documentary for ABC Radio National. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy teaching others to produce radio. But doing it myself again was like returning to the old country (I am a migrant). At first my mother tongue was a bit rusty and I worried that I would make cultural faux pas having been away for a while. But it all came back to me, and after only a few weeks I returned to being a native speaker of radio journalism again.
I have just completed an inaugural production-based secondment with ABC Radio National’s Social History and Features Unit, at Southbank in Melbourne. As part of the secondment I have produced radio features for the network’s history program, Hindsight, and for its program 360Docs. It’s been great to be back. I have found myself obsessing about the craft and language of producing ‘built radio’ again: whether my interviews and audio grabs are strong enough; the sound quality of my recordings; how to create mood with music and other aural tools, and how to write scripts to get the story across. This is what I used to do before I became an academic. It was second nature to me then – it was my native tongue as a journalist and broadcaster.
Like many other mid-career journalists I followed a well-trodden pathway when I moved across to academe. I was keen to share my experiences with students and I was looking forward to having the time to research and reflect on journalism. But I was baffled by how hard it was to maintain my journalism practice.
Doing journalism was clearly valued by students and colleagues, especially in practical courses such as radio production. How could I maintain my street cred, my creative and critical engagement with the craft, my expertise, if I didn’t DO journalism? Staying relevant is more important than ever in a rapidly changing media landscape.
Universities pride themselves on having lecturers and tutors with real journalism experiences on staff. Yet unlike many health academics who see patients as part of their job, journalism academics don’t have practice in their job description. University funding is based on student numbers and research publications, so journalism practice doesn’t easily fit it.
Journalism academics have tried to solve this dilemma by arguing that journalism should be counted as research. I even wrote a PhD about situating radio documentary production in an academic framework. There is no doubt that some types of journalism, such as long-form documentary and feature production, and investigative reporting, should be counted as academic research. But there are also many news stories that are just news stories – not pieces of replicable research outputs. If universities want to attract academics who continue to call themselves journalists, they need to find other ways to value journalistic practice.
Universities have internship programs for their journalism students, with the aim to feed them into future jobs. But there is no pathway for getting experienced journalism academics back into the industry. The production-based secondment with Radio National is an innovative model. There are obvious benefits for both workplaces. I have been able to maintain and upgrade my radio production skills while developing strong relationships and networks at the national public broadcaster that will also be useful for my students. The industry has been able to tap into expertise developed over years of teaching and researching in the specialist field of documentary making. During this period I was on leave without pay from my lecturing job at Monash University. My university was very supportive of the secondment, understanding the importance of industry engagement.
The secondment was conceived by Michelle Rayner, branch editor of Radio National in Victoria, and executive producer of Hindsight. “The opportunity arose when a senior producer at RN Features took leave to undertake another project. With a hungry program schedule, the unit required a broadcaster to fill this vacancy, who could hit the ground running, both in terms of story ideas and production skills,” she says.
“I knew of Dr Lindgren’s background in broadcast journalism and radio feature producer, so we saw the secondment as double-pronged: a chance to offer journalists in academe time back in industry, and a mechanism which could foster stronger relationships with the journalism faculties in universities such as Monash. Dr Lindgren is the first academic we have had undertaking hands-on program production for a sustained period – instead of as a one-off project – we’d love to be able to find a way to offer this a production-based secondment in the future.
“We need to develop more outcome-based collaborations with people currently in the university sector with the craft skills for documentary making. If we don’t find ways to engage with journalism and other humanities-based academics, then a specialist area in the industry, such as audio feature production, is in danger of a drainage of skills – skills and an understanding of a language, telling stories in sound, which has developed over decades of practice.”
Expanding this type of secondment to other media companies, beyond ABC’s Radio National, could be a new way of strengthening the ties between the industry and academe. It would open up travel routes for journalism academic migrants wanting to return home (for extended visits).
Dr Mia Lindgren is a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Australian and Indigenous Studies at Monash University, Melbourne. She has been a journalism academic for 14 years, and has also produced radio stories for Australian and Swedish radio as a freelancer on top of her academic job. Before migrating to Australia she worked with the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation