Monday, April 20, 2009

New media reality check: The skills you really need in the real world

I've had several people e-mail me with the following question:

"I'm a print/magazine/broadcast student, but I want to get into new media. What courses should I take/which j-school should I go to/how should I prepare so that I can get a job when I graduate? You were a new media student, Ed. Tell me -- how can I get hired?"

If you were wondering the same thing, you're not alone. As the economy tanks and media outlets of all persuasions cut back, lay off or refuse to hire, I'd be nervous, too. (And I was.) Everyone and their mother is telling you that you need new media skills to compete.

You must be a one-man-band of multimedia glory, they say. You simply aren't a journalist unless you're carrying a laptop, camera, camcorder, pen and pad all at once!

Shaking in your boots yet? You ought to be. Because there are very few people that can do that job.

The good news is that it probably won't be you. As new media has increased in popularity and usage, this myth has populated of the multi-talented reporter -- you know, the one carrying all the gear a few paragraphs back. And while it's certainly an ideal, it's not a necessity. In fact, it's barely a reality.

Thus brings my first point of this New Media Reality Check: most news organizations simply don't operate that way.

Do you remember how Henry Ford became famous? He did it with the Model-T, which was innovative because it was built on an assembly line. So instead of one worker needing to know how to put together an automobile from start to finish, workers were trained to be very good at one specific thing -- putting on a wheel, or attaching a transmission to an engine, or checking for defects. It made the process more efficient in both cost and speed.

The same thing applies to publications, moreso as it gets bigger. Whether the publication in question is a newspaper or a magazine or a radio/TV station or a website, the assembly line theory of the Industrial Age still holds true: a writer reports and creates the story, an editor edits it, a photographer shoots art for it, a production editor lays out a template for the story to appear and another editor (or two) looks at the entire package, all while being fact-checked and copy-edited by another person dedicated to that task.

As you can see, no one person does it all -- the photographer sticks to his or her camera, the reporter sticks to his or her story and the production editor doesn't typically interject his or her opinion about the reportage. Each person is a cog in the machine -- the bigger the machine, the more cogs, and vice-versa.

So how did we come to expect a journalist to do the same thing?

The reality is that, in most newsgathering organizations, you will have a specialized task. Maybe you'll be an interactive producer, spending your days working with Adobe Flash (in which case, you probably have a computer science degree.) Maybe you'll spend your days producing slideshows and simple infographics. Maybe you'll blog. But you'll rarely do them all.

So here is my second point of the New Media Reality Check -- my advice to journalists looking to get in on the new media game:

If you're just starting out j-school or a similar educational program, think about what you'd like to do when you graduate. Do you want to work in broadcast television? Do you want to work online? Do you want to work in print? Radio? Whatever it is you think you want to do, pursue the skills needed for that field within your studies. It's that simple. If you want to dabble in other skills, that's fine. But you don't have to as an online journalism prerequisite.

If you're already a journalist, or you're in a print-specific educational track (newspaper, magazine, etc.), consider where you want to end up, job-wise. Do you want to be a photo/video journalist or interactive producer? Then you'll have to attain specific skills, via a proper class or a dedicated friend (or yourself, if you have time). Do you want to simply be able to write online and be comfortable with the Web? Good news -- my advice to you is the following: Don't return to j-school, and don't take a course.

That's right. Instead, start a blog. (You can do so here or here, among other places.)

A blog isn't a diary anymore. It's parlance for a type of publishing platform -- you now have the very machinations of a publication at your fingertips, for free. Once you start one, start playing around in the HTML editor of each post. Start reading about CSS once you've got a handle on HTML and its code snippets called "tags." And post about something on your beat. Or journalism. It doesn't matter.

That's it! You now know everything needed to work online. Seriously.

For most online journalism, all you need to know is how to blog and how to use a CMS, or content management system. That's it. What does that entail, exactly? Allow me to lay it out for you:

How to blog
Know how to write a story in Microsoft Word or on paper? Great! That's 90 percent of what you need to know to blog. Seriously. If you can write with clarity and an engaging demeanor on first draft -- which I believe is the skill to have in 21st century journalism -- you're already ahead of most people.

What about the last 10 percent? Well, the first 5 percent is learning basic HTML. For example, the little pieces of code, or tags, that allow you to bold and italicize and insert an image (which you may have to size appropriately). You may be able to do this using a "visual editor," which doesn't show tags, but you should learn how they work. That five-minute lesson will save you when something goes awry as you write.

The last 5 percent? Getting over the mental hurdle of hitting the "publish" button. Some publications have bloggers who are edited; others don't. And it has nothing to do with how big or prominent the publication is, either. So whether you're writing a column or a piece of investigative reporting, there's a good chance you'll have to publish it yourself, live to the website. All it takes is pressing "publish," but you'd be surprised how many journalists don't realize that they have that power at their fingertips -- and even more surprised at how many refuse to use it.

How to use a CMS (content management system)
This is actually a trick question. The thing is, CMSes are proprietary -- meaning they vary from publication to publication. Many larger publications have their own customized CMS. Some combine a CMS with a blog publishing platform! (You'd be surprised at how many sites/outlets are in this group.)

In other words, there's no way you can learn something that only applies to a single publication. And neither can online journalists who work elsewhere! If you, esteemed print journalist, and I, online journalism fan, both apply for the same job, we're pretty much in the same boat when it comes to that publication's CMS.

So what should you do? You started that blog I told you to sign up for above, right? Good -- a blog is a kind of CMS, so by filling out the "headline" and the "tags" and other fields, you were doing the exact same thing you would do in a CMS. Really!

Congratulations. You're an online journalist!

Pretty easy, huh? Notice I didn't mention anything about splicing video in Final Cut Pro or Avid, or mixing audio in Pro Tools or Audacity, or using Adobe Flash. Perhaps you'll use Photoshop, but likely only to resize images.

That. Is. It.

Allow me to repeat: you will not use any of these expensive, complex tools for the majority of online journalism jobs. You may down the line, but it's exceedingly rare that anyone will expect you to have prior knowledge of any of those skills.

I spent much of my "new media" journalism time playing with Adobe Flash and Final Cut Pro. The thing is, I didn't take a job doing interactive or video production -- so believe it or not, I haven't cracked either program since I finished my formal education. None of it truly had any bearing on my job prospects, and by the time I'm shopping around for my next job, I'll be so many years out of the loop that I won't be able to rely on those skills if I decide to switch.

I'll be honest, I did enjoy playing with those programs late into the night, because I learned a lot about myself and how I learn things. But I didn't need them to work online, which I currently do full-time (as in, when the Internet is out, I cannot work).

What I do wish is that I had spent more time learning lower-hanging skill fruit -- CSS, which is a coding language similar to HTML, and formal design and layout classes, because I'd like to produce my own online publication beyond The Ed. CSS and design skills are far less specific, and much more widespread in their use (and helpful in their implementation), than Adobe Flash or Final Cut Pro (for the typical online journalist). Period.

So: you wanna be an online journalist? If you haven't started yet, plan accordingly. If you have, skip the formal classes and start a blog. Then stop calling yourself a print journalist -- because we're all online journalists now.


Alex Silverman said...

Very good read. I am a high school senior and will be attending J-School next year at either Mizzou or Newhouse and I can totally relate to this concern about being a "jack of all trades". If I do go to Missouri, I will have to make the choice of whether to study "Print and Digital News" or "Convergence Journalism". My interest lies more in print, but convergence will supposedly expose me to all of the different mediums. This is a tough choice for me and one that I guess epitomizes the different schools of thought about the need to be a "jack of all trades".

isi said...

Thanks that was really useful. But how much value is there now, really, in blogging when everybody is doing/has done it at some point? At one point if you said you kept a blog you sounded like you were diligent and serious about writing/journalism. Now I think it's hard to judge whether they are just jumping on a bandwagon. Of course the quality of the blog should speak for itself - on the other hand, as an aspiring freelance writer, I want, as far as possible, for my writing to be paid (unless it's a personal blog). Is that asking for a lot these days?

The Editorialiste said...


I think you're confusing the use of a blog as a means to an end with it being an end unto itself.

The reason I advise starting a blog is to practice those skills. You need not tell anyone -- it's for your own education.

You may end up blogging as a job -- freelance or paid -- and you may not. But if you're working online, even for a big news organization, you're dealing with similar technology. So I advise starting your own blog to get a sense of how the online publishing mechanism works...for your own good.

Does that make sense?

All the best and thanks for reading,
The Ed.

Rosenblum said...

Boy, this is really off the mark, at least when it comes to video. The whole 'assembly line' method of making video (ie, one person is the reporter, another shoots it, another edits it) is totally out the window. If you want to be in the video business, whether online or onair,I strongly (let me say that again STRONGLY) suggest you know how to shoot, cut, write, track and edit.

You may have needed a cameraman when the camera weighed 40 lbs. Today, it's in the palm of your hand. And as for announcing that you are waiting for your cameraman or your editor in an online gig... that's a quick road to unemployment.

No. I think the whole premise of this is totally off base....and extremely archaic.

The Editorialiste said...


You clearly did not understand my post. The assembly line is for an entire publication -- not video. Most video producers I know shoot and edit their own material.

I agree wholeheartedly with your statement as follows:

"If you want to be in the video business, whether online or onair, I strongly suggest you know how to shoot, cut, write, track and edit."

I alluded to that very sentiment in my post with the following:

"Do you want to be a photo/video journalist or interactive producer? Then you'll have to attain specific skills, via a proper class or a dedicated friend (or yourself, if you have time)."

But for everyone need to front the money or time, I wrote.

I also made the reference when mentioning my own job search. I was looking to work online, but not necessarily as a video producer. Those online jobs that aren't video producer (or interactive producer, etc.) don't need serious Final Cut knowledge.

Still, thanks for reading and commenting,
The Ed.

Rosenblum said...

so sorry
my mistake.

Doug Mitchell said...

Nice article. I'm sure you've read that many TV news operations have gone to the "multimedia reporter" model...but actually I don't see anyone around here editing in their car or even back at the studio at this stage. Our people are still lugging around what I'd call "TV sized cams" and the requisite gear. We have a lot of media events at our co-working studio and ALL of the reporters are lugging massive poundage.

Isn't it interesting too that even with all of the "noise" from a gazillion blogs, that the good ones STILL stand out and get read. Good writing and topics always make sense only now the entire world is the audience 24 hours a day.

Nice work. Hope we connect someday. From Doug Mitchell (not the NPR Doug Mitchell...but the one who interviewed him recently.

Anonymous said...

Very good read, and one of a number of things I've read this week which seems to indicate the tide is turning. The trade needs to get its thinking straight on the whole general/specialist debate, especially when we are teaching a new generation of journalists - as I do in the UK as part of my freelance work.

The trade's initial reaction has been to see "new technology" as a way to cut labour costs and turn journalists into the one-man bands you describe. This has led to a lot of poor material going up on supposedly professional sites.

We don't need the same demarcation lines as here have been traditionally, and I believe it's useful for all journalists to have an understanding of how media works on different platforms - multiplatform literacy, to coin a horrible piece of jargon.

But to get the best from the technology now available and the new skill sets developing, we need to retain the option to specialise and recognise that the sum of journalism is comprised of many parts. That also requires a greater focus on what is being delivered, rather than the way it is delivered.

love and hate los angeles said...

right on the ball great piece. Very logical and rational. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good job:)

Jaclyn Trop said...

I really like the assembly line analogy! Well done, Ed.