February 18, 2008

If you want a job in online news, there is no better asset than to be a smart, critically thinking journalist.

But in this time of multimedia storytelling, software skills matter, too.

To get a sense of the skills in demand, I asked top online editors and Al Tompkins, Poynter’s broadcast/online group leader, what skills they would like these critical thinkers to have.

“If I had to pick three,” said Chris Snider from DesMoinesRegister.com, “I would go with Flash, the ability to shoot and edit video and some proficiency in HTML.”

 The three skills he lists were the most common responses. Others included:

  • how to collect and edit audio

  • how to work with databases
  • interface design skills
  • enterprise

Media Editing Skills: Audio and Video

Most people I spoke with put these abilities in the top three. However, no particular editing software was cited.

“Right now there isn’t a ‘Photoshop equivalent’ for sound editing,” said Andrew DeVigal, multimedia editor at NYTimes.com. “It can be as simple as Audacity or more advanced work with ProTools or Soundtrack Pro.”

Beyond understanding the technical aspects of audio or video editing software, DeVigal said, it is crucial that potential employees know how to use the programs for effective storytelling.

“The person should know the process of layering of sound to put a narrative together,” he said. “Obviously, writing a script for the ear and constructing a narrative for impact — all sound judgment to putting together an audio story. Obviously, video would be the same equivalent.”

Jamie Hutt, design editor at StarTribune.com, agreed that there is no ultimate software in this area. It is important that potential hires be familiar with something, though.

I don’t care if someone used Final Cut Pro or some bit of free video editing junk that came with their PC,” he said. “I would expect the smart, critically thinking journalist to have been curious enough to have found, tried and be able to claim some level of comfort with editing different forms of media.”

Tompkins added that online journalists should know how to post video online, too.

Interactive packaging skills: Flash

Flash is the hot program to know because — among other things — it allows for the creation of storytelling packages in which different types of media flow smoothly from one to the next. Flash is an essential skill for content editors, producers and creators. It is not as necessary for those seeking to be collectors of information.

“Flash is used primarily when creating interactive multimedia packages that combine video, photography, audio and text, as well as for interactive informational graphics,” said Nelson Hsu, designer for washingtonpost.com “Potential employees do not have to be Flash experts, but should be very comfortable working in the program and especially with ActionScript.”

Said DeVigal: “In most Web newsrooms, this will get you in the door.” 

Web site development skills: HTML, CSS

Understanding basic HTML is an online journalism lifeline — especially in the day-to-day production of Web presentations.

“They need the markup basics,” Hutt said. “Nothing too fancy, but they do need to know how to format text, define a headline and apply some color or size characteristics to a page element. They need to know how to construct an image tag and embed a video.”

These skills make a potential employee useful in a wide range of online newsrooms. It is important to note that there is not an industry standard system for posting online content. All news organizations do not operate the same way.

“Some operations are completely handmade,” he said. “Others, while more sophisticated, can still require a junior producer or copy editor to write a little markup.”

Even now, DeVigal said, “There are a surprising number of folks in this Web-biz who don’t know the basic code on a Web page.

“I’m not asking for mastery of CSS or AJAX, but putting together a simple table or styling of type is often necessary,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re confined to what the CMS can do, and that never gives you enough of the flexibility you want and need to tell your story.”

More advanced knowledge will also help one’s prospects. DeVigal said he likes to see candidates who can work with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), especially if they can use these skills at the JavaScript and XHTML level.

Interface design skills: Photoshop, Illustrator, creating user-oriented designs

For those targeting jobs in multimedia design and production, being proficient with design software is essential.

“We rely heavily on Illustrator and Photoshop to create everything from wireframes to final comprehensive layouts,” Hsu said.

It’s also important for employees to understand how users access information online and how to make clear, straightforward interfaces, he said.

Data skills: Excel, Access, PHP

The ability to organize information and look at relationships between data elements is another crucial part of online team work. Hutt recommended that a potential employee have some experience with Excel, a stepping stone to complex database programs.

He said Excel serves two basic purposes:

  • Exploration of relationships within data: Excel allows journalists to experiment with data structure and ultimately tailor the structure of data to best suit the narrative or application.

  • Project management: Hutt said that Excel is a great tool for creating specifications, time lines, and charts that help members of a project team understand how a story or application works.

“Excel is an excellent project management tool. We don’t simply write stories. We build them and often build them in teams,” he said. “The smart, critically thinking journalist I hire will ultimately play a big role in the production of a story or application. Knowledge of a tool like Excel will be very helpful. ‘Excel chops’ also imply a comfort with data and databases.”

Enterprise and curiosity

Employers value enterprise: the ability to find good, solid stories and discover new, innovative ways to present them.

“What’s really important here isn’t that the candidate is fluent in one application or another,” Hutt said, “but has demonstrated the curiosity and fearlessness needed to eventually master complicated editing tools.”

Tompkins also addressed the need for a new hire to have a curious nature.

“You should have a basic knowledge of how to find stories, understand civics, research government records, interview, verify, write and report,” Tompkins said. “All journalism values enterprise.” 

Josh Hatch, a producer at USAToday.com, agreed.

“I’m less concerned about someone already knowing a given piece of software — although it is important and definitely does help,” he said, “than I am about someone who is naturally curious and not intimidated by technology. I want someone who wants to play with technology.”

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Laura Ruel teaches multimedia journalism in the visual communication sequence at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before coming to UNC in July…
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