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.