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.

How to spot a web hoax

Every journalist learns (or should learn) how to evaluate sources and, as the web increasingly becomes a source for stories, we need to know whether the things that we stumble across there would make a good source. The internet has been an important part of my job as a journalist almost since I took my first full-time journalism job in 1994. Internet journalists have their own investigative skills, skills that will have to become more widespread as the internet becomes part of every journalist’s job.

I mention this in the wake of a hoax last week by Alex Hilton, aka the British political blogger Recess Monkey. For background, I’ll refer to the Guardian, my day job:

Been following the ding-dong over Tory MP Chris Grayling comparing parts of “Broken Britain” to Baltimore, the crime-ridden city shown in The Wire? What about the riposte from Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon, who has hit back stating that comparing The Wire to the real Baltimore was “as pointless as boasting that Baltimore has a per capita homicide rate a fraction of that in the popular UK television show Midsomer Murders.” If only.

The British press, and to be fair the hometown Baltimore Sun, reported that the mayor of Baltimore rose to the defence of her fair city. The only problem is that she didn’t. The Guardian was one of the British newspapers that fell for the hoax.

I have to take my hat off to Alex. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but the hoax was very well executed. Alex created a Twitter account to promote the site. He created a YouTube channel and a video.

To create the site, he simply copied the underlying code from a web page from the official Mayor of Baltimore’s site and changed some of the content. This retained all of the links to the official site and the images were simply pulled from the official server. It’s an immaculate hack. He didn’t have to break into anyone’s server, just copy a web page and add his own content.

It’s a similar trick to phishing scams. It looks like or your bank, but you’ve actually just been sent to some mobsters’ site in Russia or a naked IP address. (I don’t mean to disparage the good people of Russia, but a helluva lot of phishing scams are .ru.) You have to be pay attention to the web address to notice that you’ve suddenly been teleported somewhere else on the web.

Alex explains his motivations and the clues that he left to tip anyone off that it was a joke:

So what else did I do to make sure this wasn’t seen as the true views of the Mayor of Baltimore or an attempt to deceive anyone or to smear Chris Grayling? I registered the domain in my own name. I squirrelled in the English spelling of “dishonoured” as a clue. I put at the bottom of the page, “Copyright R Monkee Esq” and linked it to my currently decrepit Recess Monkey website. I put the following message on Recess Monkey for anyone who cared to follow the link:

Sorry, RecessMonkey is on holiday in Maryland. Right mouse button click view source (but not on this website) R Monkee Esq.

If you had looked at the source on the site, you would have found this:

OK, so I’m just having a bit of fun at Chris Grayling’s expense. Sitting in the office on a hot August afternoon, I was fantasising that I was Mayor of Baltimore and how annoyed I would be. I hope you very quickly picked up that this was a spoof. Didn’t mean to break any laws or ethical mores – please don’t extradite me if I have unwittingly done so. Hope you appreciate the humour, Alex Hilton, – 07985 384 859

Alex expected journalists to spot the humour and the hoax, but it was reported as fact. He rang the Guardian switchboard and was put through to me. He was trying to ratchet down the media furore. The Guardian media desk wrote a brief story about the hoax, and I alerted the news desk so the correction process could begin.

So, what gives a hoax like this away? Here’s your three point guide to spotting when someone’s pulling your leg.

  1. Pay attention to the URL
    When a colleague sent me the website address, I spotted the hoax immediately. I didn’t even need to see the site to know it was a fake. How? The URL was, not .gov or In a UK context, that’s similar to a fake Downing Street site with the address instead of Org addresses are for non-profits not for governmental websites.
  2. Who owns the site?
    Finding out who owns a site is easy. Do a WHOIS lookup, and you’ll find out not only who owns the site, but sometimes even their contact details. Most of the time this is corporate information that won’t give you a person to ring, but as Alex says, he registered the site in his own name.
  3. Hover over the links
    Why? If you hover over the links, you would have seen they went to a different address, not It could save you from a phishing scam and it could have prevented journalists from falling for this hoax.
  4. Be wary of a Twitter account with only one update
    Alex created a fake Twitter account, and the only update linked to his fake press release. That’s a big warning sign to me.

Alex also hid a huge clue in the source code, including his mobile phone number and his e-mail address. To see the underlying code of a web page in Firefox, go to the View menu and scroll down to Source. For Internet Explorer, go to Page on the menu bar and scroll down to Page Source. UPDATE: A commenter on Twitter admitted she probably wouldn’t have thought to look at the source code of the page. I looked at the code because I wanted to see how Alex had cloned the page. When things look fishy, the code can reveal a lot. Alex also made it clear on Recess Monkey that there was an Easter Egg hidden there as well.

Much of what I have described were once specialist skills that only web geeks needed to know, but as the web becomes more of every journalists’ job, having these relatively simple skills might be the thing that prevents you from falling for the next hoax. These are not technical skills anymore. They are skills you need to evaluate a source on the web, conduct an investigation and protect your credibility as a journalist.

NUJ and Adam Tinworth’s ‘effing’ blog

This one is just too good to pass into my daily Delicious links. I think Adam Tinworth not only calls out someone at the National Union of Journalists for a passing reference to his ‘effing blog’, but he shows the power of a digital journalist. He quickly looked through his referrals, a log of links to his blog, but he also quickly did a reverse DNS lookup to find out where the referral was from. As Adam says:

Ah, yes. The NUJ’s e-mail system. Well, thanks folks. Nice to know that my union, which I have been a member of for the last 15 years thinks that the journalistic field in which I work – blogging – is “effing blogs”.
I wonder who LindaK is, and if she enjoyed the post?

Way to go Adam for showing them what digital journalism looks like.

UPDATE: Apologies for not linking to Adam’s blog when I first posted this. Thanks Adam for calling me out.