Skills for journalists: Learning the art of the possible

I’m often asked at conferences and by journalism educators what skills journalists need to work effectively in a digital environment. Journalism educator Mindy McAdams has started a nice list of some of these skills in a recent blog post. A lot of journalists (and journalism educators) scratch their heads over what seem an ever-expanding list of skills they need to do digital. It feels like inexorable mission creep.

I can empathise. One of the most difficult parts of my digital journalism career, which began in 1996, has been deciding what to learn and, also, what not learn but delegate to a skilled colleague. I’m always up for learning new things, but there is a limit. Bottom line: It’s not easy. In the mid-90s, I had to know how to build websites by hand, but then automation and content management systems made most of those skills redundant. It was more important to know the possibilities, and limits, of HTML. When I worked for the BBC, I picked up a lot of multimedia skills including audio recording and editing, video recording and basic video editing, and even on-air skills. I also was able to experiment with multimedia digital story-telling. However, with the rise of blogs and social media, suddenly the focus was less on multimedia and more on interaction. All those skills come in handy, but the main lesson in digital media is that it’s a constant journey of education and re-invention.

What do I mean about choosing what not to learn? In the mid-90s, I was faced with a choice. I could have learned programming and become more technical, or I could focus on editorial and work with a coder. I did learn a bit of PERL to run basic scripts for a very early MySociety-esque project about legislators in the state where we worked, but after that, I handed most of the work off to a crack PERL developer on staff. I knew what I wanted to do, and he could do it in a quarter of the time.

I knew that my passion was telling stories in new ways online and, whilst I didn’t learn to programme, I did pick up some basic understanding of what was possible: Computers can filter text and data very effectively. They can automate repetitive tasks, and even back in the late 1990s, the web could present information, often complex sets of data, in exciting ways. I realised that it was more important for me to know the art of the possible rather than learn precisely how to do it. My mindset is open to learning and my skillset is constantly expanding, but to be effective, I have to make choices.

One thing that we’re sorely lacking as an industry are digitally-minded editors who understand how to fully exploit the possibilities created by the internet, mobile and new digital platforms. Print journalists know exactly what they want within the constraints of the printed page, which often in presentation terms is much more flexible than a web page. However, they bring that focus on presentation to digital projects. They think of presentation over functionality, largely because they don’t know what’s possible in digital terms. As more print editors move into integrated roles, they will have to learn these skills. They will eventually but, by and large, they’re not there yet. Note to newly minted Integrated editors: There are folks who have been doing digital for a long time now. The internet was created long before integration. We love to collaborate, but we do appreciate a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

In terms of learning the art of the possible, my former colleague at The Guardian, Simon Willison, has summed this up really well during a recent panel discussion:

I kind of think it’s the difference between geeks and the general population. It’s understanding when a problem is solvable. And it’s like the most important thing about computer literacy they should be teaching in schools isn’t how to use Microsoft Word and Excel. It is how to spot a problem that could be solved by a computer and then find someone who can solve it for you.

To translate that into journalism terms, it’s about knowing how to tell stories in audio, text, video and interactive visualisations. It’s about knowing when interactivity will add or distract from a story. It’s an understanding that not every story need to be told the same way. It’s about understanding that you have many more tools in your kit, but that’s it’s foolish to try to hammer a nail with a wrench. It’s not about building a team where everyone is a jack of all trades, but building a team that gives you the flexibility to exploit the full power of digital storytelling.

Raising journalists’ expectations only to crush them

My colleague and compadre Jemima Kiss flagged up story making the rounds on journalism blogs that the University of Missouri School of Journalism is requiring new students to have an iPhone or an iPod touch.

Like Jemima, I speak to quite a few journalism classes as well. While everyone assumes that young people almost without exception embrace technology, it couldn’t be further from the truth. As Jemima writes:

Chatting to journalism students is always an eye-opener, because, despite the enthusiasm and the clear commitment to their career, there’s very often a rather romantic view of an industry that doesn’t really exist any more. It’s a world of smokey bars and clattering Fleet Street typewriters battling against a daily deadline, or, very often, a rather glamorous late night gig review by a wannabe music journo.

Sadly journalism students’ romantic notion of journalism is often 30 years out of step, and they are often even more resistant of new technology and new methods than those working in the industry.

I stopped off at the University of Missouri to visit my friend Clyde Bentley when I was traveling across the US last year for the elections, and it was great to see them thinking not just about the internet but also actively exploring mobile technology. The University of Missouri is a great institution, and it’s great to see them keeping ahead of the times. But the move to require an iPod Touch or an iPhone has not been welcomed by all.

Levi Sumagaysay at the San Jose Mercury News asked if the requirement was a conflict of interest. He questioned “what appears to be the school’s bias or endorsement of the aforementioned Apple products”.

However, I noticed something else that Levi wrote about, building up journalism students expectations. He writes:

An ironic side note: In most newsrooms I’ve worked, we’ve had to claw our way to “preferred equipment,” and we considered ourselves lucky if, in 1999, our work computers got upgraded to, say, Windows 95. If newspapers survive, future journalists being trained to work on the latest and greatest equipment are in for a huge letdown when they realize that that stuff is largely non-existent in the newsroom — we just write about them.

It’s actually more than moving journalism students from a world of shiny Apple engineering to a world of outdated, coffee-encrusted computers. It’s moving them from a world where they can install and run what they want to a world of locked-down, corporate machines.

I was talking to a friend this week who told me that she had to get a permission slip signed to get a piece of software installed on her work computer and another permission slip signed to actually use the piece of software. You would think she was a seven-year-old going on a field trip to an active volcano. When I was with the BBC, I traveled with two computers. My work computer, which I had to have to access certain work systems, and the computer that I actually got work done on.

I know that there are security issues. I know that IT administrators can tell stories of the senior manager’s kid downloading a virus via some Flash game and taking down the network. But a one-size fits all corporate IT policy is not only a soul-destroying experience for a technically proficient journalist, it’s also a productivity killer. There has to be a better way than this. Train staff in the basics of computer security. Allow them to try new things on a virtual machine that can be wiped if it gets infected with a virus. But we can’t expect journalists to explore and learn about digital tools if we lock all the doors ahead of them.

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