You don’t have to throw new journalists into the deep end – mentoring can benefit the industry in the longer term

One of the most popular career choices for young graduates these days is a career in the media, particularly journalism. The competition is so tough that Universities and Colleges can now afford to accept only the most academically gifted students. Throughout their courses these students will learn all the theoretical aspects of their craft, from newsgathering and factual verification to libel law and the workings of local government. Yet theoretical knowledge is one thing, a practical application of this knowledge is quite another. The world of journalism has always been competitive, but the industry is very different to what it was 20 years ago. New graduates were once shepherded through their initial training contracts and mentored by senior journalists in the art of news gathering. The situation now couldn’t be more of a contrast.

Competition in the industry is fierce: journalists stand or fall by the quality of the news stories they manage to gather, knowing that should they fail to meet expectations, then there are countless other qualified individuals waiting to take their place.  The pressure is such that there’s absolutely no room for passengers. New recruits are thrown in the deep end, and whether they sink or swim is largely down to individual ability and determination. However, editors and senior journalists are now increasingly waking up to the fact that they owe a duty of care to these new recruits. Talent, however polished it may appear, needs to be nurtured and mentored; consequently a number of publications have now put in place media mentoring systems to alleviate the problem. They understand that giving a helping hand to new starters is not only good for the individual concerned, but also the mentor, and is vital for the continued success of the media industry itself.

So how does media mentoring benefit mentors?

Mentors learn more about their craft

It’s easy for experienced journalists to take what they do for granted. They know how to gather a news story, and after a while they do this without thinking. When they are asked to explain how they go about their duties and determine what works and what doesn’t, the they are forced to break the job down into its constituent parts if they hope to be able to explain the process. The process often forces mentors to re-evaluate some of the practices that they’ve always taken for granted and to question whether the same sets of rules apply now time has moved on.  The flow of information isn’t a one way street either: mentors also find that they learn from the journalists they are coaching. Many of the new recruits can teach some of the older hacks the tricks and tools of the social media.

Mentors learn new things about themselves

Mentors will know what new recruits will need to do to be successful, having once been in a similar position themselves. They’ll know when to push a mentee, and when to hold back and offer a consoling shoulder. They’ll also know when to be patient and when to be forthright. However, years in the industry will have taught them that a measured approach is the mark of a good journalist, so they won’t necessarily still be assertive as they once were. Sometimes urgency is called for in the business, particularly when deadlines loom. Some mentors are necessarily as good as they once may have been at giving clear and concise instructions. Being part of the mentoring programme forces them to take stock and improve the way they communicate and become assertive once more.

Mentors can pass on knowledge and create a legacy

There’s no greater joy than watching someone you’ve mentored and coached going on to forge a successful career. It can prove to be a source of pride for mentors knowing that they’ve done a job well. However, as laudable as this altruistic motivation is, there is also a selfish side to mentoring too. Anyone who can help an individual to find his or her feet in industry will tend to feel that they’ve created a legacy; or a sense of permanence if you’d prefer, which will continue to thrive and prosper. News stories will come and go, but successful protégés live on.

What are the drawbacks of media mentoring?

Mentors quickly learn about their own flaws

Patience is the key to successful mentoring. It’s often tempting to jump in with both feet and criticise if a mentee doesn’t do what a mentor believes they should have done. However, an essential quality of a good mentor is patience and understanding. Part of the mentoring process is to let the student make their own mistakes, and then be there to guide and help the student identify where they may have gone wrong. A mentor cannot get frustrated or angry: this is wholly counter-productive and sends the wrong message to the mentee.

Mentors can never know everything

No one can be the font of all knowledge, no matter how experienced they may be. Life is a learning process. Mentors will be approached by students wanting answers to specific questions or needing advice about how to deal with a particular issue, but sometimes they won’t have the answer. There’s no sin in that. That’s why it’s important to have as wide a network of mentors as possible. If one doesn’t know the answer, another may, or collectively they’ll figure it out. Some experienced journalists are loath to be mentors because they feel they may prove to be inadequate and not have all the necessary knowledge. This should never put them off. None of us knows the answer to every problem: we’re all still learning.

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