Journalism needs the right skills to survive
Despite the economic imperatives facing the media industry, professional journalists lag behind educators and others in rating the importance of multimedia and other digital storytelling skills.
That finding is the result of new research from The Poynter Institute, which shows a wide divergence between professionals and educators in their thinking on the importance of core journalism skills, especially those skills that are essential for mastering new methods of gathering and delivering news and information. It is unclear whether educators are putting too much emphasis on these skills or whether professionals have a different perspective given their day-to-day work.
The Core Skills for the Future of Journalism report, released today, raises the puzzling question as to why the professionals who responded to the survey don't rate the importance of multimedia skills in today’s visual, multiplatform media landscape as highly as educators, students and independent journalists.
Educators who responded also value knowledge about the business of media and the larger media landscape much higher than journalists working in media organizations. And, to a greater degree than professionals, educators appear to recognize the value of key newsgathering skills that have become more essential in the digital age, such as the ability to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data.
Poynter’s Future of Journalism Competencies survey identified 37 key skills or attributes and knowledge areas. The survey asked professionals, educators and students to rate the importance of those skills, attributes and knowledge areas for beginning journalists as they look toward careers in the digital and mobile age.
The report can be downloaded from here. On Thursday, April 10, co-authors Howard Finberg and Lauren Klinger discussed the findings in a webinar sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The replay is available free for viewing.
Professionals at media organizations rated the importance of all of the multimedia skills much lower than did educators, students and even independent or freelance journalists. The difference is striking.
For example, few would argue that video skills are set to decline in importance in the future.
- Less than half (46 percent) of the professionals who responded said that ability was important to very important
- Yet more than three-fourths (76 percent of educators) regarded this skill as important to very important
Photography, an essential skill since most reporters today are equipped with smartphones or cameras, is less important to professionals than to educators.
A slightly higher percentage of professionals (53 percent) thought it was important to very important that a journalist have the ability to shoot and edit photographs. However, more than 75 percent of educators in the survey thought photography skills were important to very important.
Given the evolving platforms for journalism — the Web, phones, tablets — these difference between professionals and educators (and the other groups surveyed) are noteworthy.
The gap may indicate that professionals in media organizations, both staff members and managers, have not fully embraced the importance of digital skills so essential to online and other new forms of journalism. While not all of the core skills surveyed should be emphasized equally when it comes to training today’s beginning journalists, all are important.
As more journalism is produced for the Web, for tablets and for other mobile devices — not just published on them — it is striking that professionals who responded placed relatively little importance upon the skills necessary to shoot video, record audio, take photographs and tell visual stories. There were also gaps in other categories that are important to understanding the global digital media environment, including understanding different cultures and the media landscape.
Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor of The Dallas Morning News, in an email about the survey's results, argued that perhaps professionals are weighing traditional skills and digital skills carefully:
So while I recognize the importance of digital skills, if I had to choose, I’d first choose journalists with “traditional” skills and then train them on digital skills, rather than the other way around. I think the point of the survey, though, is that we shouldn’t have to choose. New journalists should come equipped with a whole host of skills, both traditional and digital.
Perhaps, given the drumbeat about educators not “going digital” over the past three years from various individuals, including the report’s co-author Howard Finberg and the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, the finding that educators are becoming more digital-savvy should not be surprising.
Sue Burzynski Bullard, associate professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and former managing editor of The Detroit News, said she wasn’t surprised that educators rated digital skills highly in the survey.
“After the 2012 call for change in journalism education,” she wrote in an email, “the debate among educators about what journalism graduates need to know got louder. It became harder to ignore the need for change. Most educators would say it’s important that our students understand digital skills and multimedia storytelling if they’re going to find jobs in today's journalism world. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean every journalism professor is ready or willing to incorporate those skills into their classes yet. That’s still evolving. And in some cases, it’s still a battle.”
It is important to remember that saying a skill is important, which was our survey question, is not the same as using or teaching that skill. However, the first step in doing something new is to acknowledge its importance.
Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news at the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group [Rochester, N.Y.], expressed in an email that she is skeptical about whether these skills are being taught:
Educators may think all of those things are important but the results coming out of colleges are very mixed. My personal experience with journalism grads is that they fall into one of two categories: solid writers/reporters with limited digital skill sets or multimedia journalists who are great with video but don’t understand how to work a beat or dig much deeper than what’s given in a press release or press conference. Both types are problematic in today’s newsrooms. We need it all!
However, it appears that educators have listened to the debate about the need to change, at least enough to acknowledge the importance of new skills. But the question remains what professionals are hearing when it comes to the need to change what they do. And whether there is a disconnect between the staff members, as represented in the survey, and the senior management at various newspaper companies who are pushing their organizations to change.
During the past 10 years, the media industry has seen the decline of the specialist and the corresponding rise of the generalist. It started in the broadcast industry with “one-man band” journalism, where the reporter is also the camera person and sound engineer, and it has spread to print publications. Print journalists are routinely expected to take pictures and record sound bites and even video to complement their text-based stories so that those stories make compelling content for digital platforms.
If professionals need another indicator that the workplace is changing, they only have to consider the disappearance of journalism jobs. Print media have lost 16,000 jobs in the past decade, a drop of almost 30 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors, reported in the Pew State of the News Media 2014 report. The survivors are expected to take on new digital-focused tasks. In the same time frame, Pew estimates that about 5,000 new journalism jobs have been created — in digital-only news outlets.
It seems obvious that digital skills are essential for any journalist who wants to succeed in the 21st century.
Thus a discussion about skills is part of the larger debate about the future of journalism education. During the past two years, academics, foundation leaders and professionals have expressed a wide range of opinions about whether journalism education can be saved — and even whether a journalism degree is valuable.
Two Poynter studies on the topic showed an enormous gulf between professionals and professors about the value of a journalism degree. The first survey was conducted in 2012 as research for a speech I gave at a 20th anniversary celebration for the European Journalism Centre. That survey had responses from more than 2,000 professionals and educators.
The second study, the State of Journalism Education 2013, showed:
- 96 percent of those who identified themselves as educators believed that a journalism degree was very important to extremely important when it came to understanding the value of journalism
- Editors and those who worked in journalism had a less favorable opinion, with only 57 percent of professionals saying that a degree was very important to extremely important
Future of Journalism Competencies survey results
Our new research report is based on the Future of Journalism Competencies survey, which was conducted in late 2013 and early 2014. The survey received more than 2,900 responses from media organization professionals, independent or freelance journalists, educators and students. The participation breakdown was:
- Professionals: 1,124, 39 percent; 425 participants identified themselves as managers or senior editors
- Educators: 996 participants, 34 percent
- Independent journalists: 356, 12 percent
- Students or recent grads: 426, 15 percent
Survey participants were asked to indicate the importance of 37 different skills and attributes for a “beginning journalist as he/she looks toward his/her career in the digital/mobile age.” The 37 skills were derived from two academic papers, one by Nico Drok and the other by Michael Opgenhaffen and his co-authors.
The survey used a five-point scale, with one labeled “not at all important” and five labeled “very important.” The skills were grouped into four different categories:
- Knowledge, attitudes and personal features or values had 19 skills
- Newsgathering had 7 skills
- Basic news production had 6 skills
- Technical or multimedia production had 5 skills
This example is representative of how we asked survey questions: At your organization, what newsgathering skills do you think beginning journalists need to have? Rate the following newsgathering skills from Not at All Important to Very Important. We used similar wording for the general attitudes, news production and multimedia topics.
Results from the Core Skills for the Future of Journalism show alignment between professionals and educators on the traditional and foundational attitudes and skills needed for beginning journalists — and divergence when it comes to those abilities essential for today’s journalism. Some of the report’s highlights are described in the next sections.
Knowledge, attitudes and personal features
Nearly all of the participants surveyed agreed on some essential skills and traits for today’s journalists. The number-one rated skill was “accuracy,” followed by “curiosity.”
- Professionals rated “accuracy” at 96 percent as important to very important; educators rated this skill at 99 percent
- Educators rated “curiosity” at 98 percent as important to very important; professionals rated this attribute at 93 percent
The top-10 skills lists of both professional and educator survey participants included most of the same skills, although the order varied. Of the skills that didn’t make both top-10 lists, only two (“storytelling” and “master interview techniques”) diverged by more than a few percentage points.
However, significant differences were found between professionals and educators when it came to rating other knowledge, attitudes and personal features. For example:
- Three-quarters (76 percent) of educators said that “knowledge of other cultures” is important to very important; only half (52 percent) of professionals agreed
- The gap was a little narrower when it came to “knowledge of government,” with almost 70 percent of professionals rating this as important to very important versus 83 percent of educators
Both of these knowledge questions raise essential issues around effective coverage of institutions and communities. With the increasing diversity of the United States population, having some understanding of other cultures would make for more effective journalism — journalism where more individuals would see themselves within the stories being covered.
Aly Colón, former director of standards and practices at NBC News and now the Knight Chair for Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, believes that the issue might be one of focus rather than importance. Colón wrote in an email that:
“In general, professionals focus on what they do daily, and educators focus on what they see emerging: the practical versus the prescient.
“In newsrooms dominated by white males and fighting to survive, craft skills may trump cultural knowledge. And the decline of minority journalists, who lost jobs or sought employment elsewhere, leaves today’s shrinking newsrooms without advocates for expanding cultural knowledge. Educators, however, may see increasing cultural diversification in their classrooms and in their research. They recognize their students will enter a more multicultural world and need to learn about other cultures if they hope to provide more complete coverage of their communities.”
However, that doesn’t explain the fact that the gap between professionals and educators cut across a range of skills, including essential digital skills.
Skills for innovation
Today’s media landscape is littered with failed attempts at innovation. Traditional publications and broadcast stations struggle to find new audiences, as well as new approaches, for journalism that is increasingly affected by technology. In addition, many staff members are asked to think about ways to create new products that have both journalistic merit and revenue potential. Yet, professionals in our survey did not see knowledge about the business of media as important.
- More than a third of professionals in the survey (38 percent) said “having knowledge of the business of media” was important to very important
- But far more — 61 percent — educators said business knowledge was important to very important
- Students, at 71 percent, and independent journalists at 64 percent, agreed with educators, saying that business understanding was important to very important
Related to understanding the business is “understanding the media landscape.” This ability helps media professionals recognize the importance of emerging media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook — and anticipate the next Twitter and Facebook.
Again, the professionals found this skill to be less important than did educators.
- 78 percent of educators responded that understanding the media landscape is an important to very important skill
- 57 percent of professionals responded that understanding the media landscape is an important to very important skill
- Independent journalists, at 75 percent, and students, at 78 percent, were closely aligned with the educators
Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY and a frequent critic of the lack of innovation in both the industry and education, proposed a possible explanation for the findings in an email requesting his opinion:
“Educators are closer to the future because they are closer to the students, who are worried about supporting themselves and thus about the sustainability of the field and who chose to come to journalism school now because they want to be part of the disruption. Thus it’s good to see the educators and the students and independent journalists in sync.”
One who does worry about the future of the business is Mizell Stewart, vice president/content, newspaper division, The E.W. Scripps Co., who sees organizations making this digital transformation. Stewart wrote in an email:
“The range of skills necessary to navigate this transition goes far, far beyond bread-and-butter competencies such as writing, editing and practicing the discipline of verification. Teamwork and collaboration, audience engagement, marketing, project management, data journalism, video editing … the list goes on and on. Along the way, we also have to understand what it takes to build successful digital news and information businesses with revenue models that may be very, very different than the ones we know today."
The ability to find and make sense of information is almost the definition of newsgathering, so it seems safe to call this an essential skill for the beginning journalist. We asked professionals and educators to rate the importance of two key aspects of newsgathering that require this ability. Both the ability to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data and the ability to interpret statistical data were rated as more important by educators than by professionals.
When it comes to the ability to “analyze and synthesize large amounts of data,” a little more than half (55 percent) of the professionals responded that this was important to very important. Almost three-fourths (73 percent) of the educators rated this skill as important to very important.
The response to the question about the ability to “interpret statistical data and graphics” was similar:
- 59 percent of professionals and
- 80 percent of educators called this skill important to very important
Given the large amounts of data available on the Internet and the growing importance of presenting information in a pleasing and informative visual manner, the gap between educators and professionals is disturbing. The ability to make sense of our complex world by distilling meaningful information from the vast river of data is one of the great values professional journalists can offer their audience.
Related to those newsgathering skills is the ability to “search for news and check sources without the use of the Internet.” Today’s journalism students have grown up with Google. It is an instinctive response: Have a question? Look it up online. But not everything is online, and not everything online is accurate or complete. Yet having the ability to find and verify information “offline” is seen as a much more important skill by educators than by professionals.
News production skills
The good news with this area of abilities is the alignment between educators and professionals on the importance of skills needed to turn newsgathering into news production. Respondents in both groups attached similar levels of importance to such skills as storytelling, writing in a fluent style, using correct grammar and understanding audience expectations and needs.
A gap appeared in only one skill area: the ability to “master various forms of journalistic writing.” Again, professionals rated this skill as less important than did educators:
- More than two-thirds (68 percent) of professionals rated this skill as important to very important; managers were slightly higher at 70 percent
- But 84 percent of educators in the survey said the ability to “master various forms of journalistic writing” was important to very important
In the multiplatform media environment, the skill to write different types of stories would seem to be essential. Today, print journalists write for the Web and often prepare video segments; broadcast journalists need to write for the Web and provide additional material to support their video and/or audio stories. Few journalists work exclusively on one platform.
The failure to recognize the importance of mastering a variety of forms might explain the results found in another skill area, though — technical skills. If professionals have not completely accepted the need for proficiency on multiple platforms, they are unlikely to appreciate the need for technical proficiency.
Technical or multimedia production skills
This category showed the greatest gap between professionals and educators, especially around multimedia skills. The key skills and the differences were:
- Shoot and edit video: 46 percent of professionals (50 percent of managers) versus 76 percent of educators
- Ability to tell stories with design and visuals: 52 percent for professionals versus 80 percent for educators
- Shoot and edit photographs: 53 percent of professionals versus 79 percent of educators; media managers, at 61 percent, said this skill was important to very important
- Record and edit audio: 38 percent of professionals versus 72 percent of educators said this skill was important to very important; managers at media organizations responded at 42 percent
These results seem to indicate that, even after more than 15 years of discussions about how the media industry is going digital or the need for journalists to become “digital first,” professional respondents report a lesser sense of importance for digital and multimedia skills than educators, students and independent journalists.
Of all the survey results, this area points most clearly to the lack of urgency among veteran professionals in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape. Despite all of the layoffs, and in the face of growing focus on publishing on multiple platforms, this gap is difficult to explain.
Mindy McAdams, a journalism professor and Knight Chair at the University of Florida, says:
“Educators are responding based on what they know about current job openings, and they learn about these from recent graduates and also from the hiring managers who come to campus job fairs and serve on advisory boards.”
However, there’s a different perspective from various editors. Jeffry Couch, executive editor and vice president, Belleville News-Democrat and www.bnd.com, responded in an email this way:
“I disagree with some of your interpretations about the possible meaning of the survey results, especially that professionals may not grasp the importance of multimedia skills or that veteran professionals might have a lack of urgency to become “digital first.”
“Those conclusions are contrary to what’s happening in newsrooms that I am familiar with, including my own. Our publishing priorities in our newsroom and in newsrooms elsewhere start with digital first. Print is at the end of the line.”
The fifth skill in this category, the “ability to work with HTML or other computer language,” was rated low by all groups except students. However, there was still a gap: Only 28 percent of professionals and 28 percent of managers said this skill was important to very important, while 41 percent of educators rated this skill as important to very important.
These low numbers are probably temporary, argues Robert Hernandez, a USC Annenberg professor and a Poynter adjunct faculty member. “The concept of coding and programming means different things to different people,” he said in a phone interview. “So HTML is one level, but Python and Ruby is another level, and to create an app is yet another level.”
“My goal is for them not to put their foot in their mouth and say, ‘Hey, I don’t do this Web stuff. Someone else do it for me.’ They’re going to know the basics. Are they going to be the coders? No, but they know enough of how the Web works, if something breaks on their CMS during breaking news, they know how to handle it. Social media for journalists; they know that stuff. Regardless of your specialty, you know how to do modern journalism, which has digital baked in all the way around.”
Identifying a gap is one thing. That’s something that we did in 2012 and 2013 as we looked at the future of journalism education and the value of a journalism degree. Finding ways to close that gap, to provide guidance for the future of journalism education, is a different challenge and the goal of the Core Skills for the Future of Journalism study.
This time, the disconnect between professors and professionals is more puzzling and disturbing because professionals seem to place a lower value on skills that are essential to multiplatform journalism and storytelling in the digital age. This is not what we expected to find.
While the authors understand that the challenges of a shrinking newsroom might mean that professionals and managers are refocusing on essential coverage areas, it is concerning that the professional respondents did not place a higher value on the skills that are so important to the future of journalism and multiple approaches to storytelling.
Even as educators recognize the importance of digital skills, the teaching of those skills runs into the inevitable challenges journalism schools confront when defining their curricula. Recent changes by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication to increase the number of hours students might spend in journalism classes is an attempt to give more freedom to accredited schools to teach new digital skills. That’s a welcome step toward equipping those students with more skills as they enter the workplace.
But what happens when those students graduate? If newsrooms and the journalists within continue to undervalue digital skills, the future of those organizations is dim. The challenge rests with management and senior leadership to realign their newsrooms with the strategic goals of providing news and information across multiple platforms. It means not just asking journalists to do something new but also explaining the importance of the changes and providing the training to enable journalists to do the job. That may be the biggest challenge for leadership: raising the understanding of why all of the new digital skills are important to journalism.
Multimedia and digital skills aren’t the only new skills essential to the future of journalism. The gap between professionals and professions is evident in other areas:
- Understanding the media landscape and having knowledge of the media business
- Importance of knowledge of other cultures
- The low rating of teamwork and team leadership skills
- The ability to master various forms of journalistic writing
It is time to raise the level of importance of all of these skills because it is time for newsrooms, regardless of platform, to value journalists who have a depth of proficiencies and a broader vision of the media world they work in. These skills are not just for the future; these skills are needed today to create dynamic, engaged and audience-driven publications and broadcasts.
While there can be debate as to the merit and weight of various skills, attitudes and knowledge a beginning journalist needs, the gaps among legacy media professionals, educators, students and independent journalists regarding the 37 competencies surveyed in the Core Skills for the Future of Journalism report, are concerning when we think about the future of journalism.
Journalists need skills that are essential for the jobs of today and the future, not jobs of the past. The jobs of the past aren’t coming back. We need to focus on the future.