April 25, 2016

Many journalism job listings read as if they were meant for superhuman uber-reporters. What do employers want? Not much, just someone who can send tweets, post to Facebook, shoot video, code interactive features, take photos and write stories.

And, by the way, hope you’ve got at least five years of experience.

So, what’s a prospective journalist to do with this laundry list of required skills? That’s what Mark Stencel and Kim Perry attempted to find out for a new report for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.

Stencel, the co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, and Perry, senior editor on the digital transition team at The New York Times, talked to leaders across the industry to figure out what skills journalists need to survive in the modern newsroom.

The takeaways from the report, which offer a look at the demands of the news industry, are available here. Poynter reached out to Stencel about his findings, and what they mean for early and mid-career journalists looking to make themselves marketable, for a question-and-answer session.

Could you describe the findings of the report, in brief? What are newsroom leaders looking for in prospective hires?

There’s been much debate — and some good research, including a broad Poynter survey two years ago — about how journalism needs to retool.

So, what’s actually happening? We contacted 39 leaders at 31 news companies. These were decision-makers with budget and hiring authority — people with different backgrounds and from companies with different markets and platforms.

We asked them to answer a detailed questionnaire and did follow-up interviews, by phone and email, with two dozen people. We asked about the kind of people they’d been hiring and the kind of roles they anticipated filling in the year ahead.

We also scooped up more than a hundred job postings over several months to see if the patterns we saw in those job descriptions and responsibilities reflected the patterns we heard in our interviews and questionnaire.

We found that there’s a big market for people with experience and expertise in code; audience development and metrics; visual storytelling (by which the folks we heard from mainly meant video). Product development was a big deal too, along with social, digital design…

But any of those particular skills are not enough. What news leaders really say they need are people who combine those kinds of talents and abilities with a strong editorial sensibility or a solid foundation in journalism fundamentals. That combination is what we meant by “superpowers.”

That’s uh, a lot. Is it really realistic for a single journalist to learn all of those skills?

No, it’s not realistic, nor is that what most news leaders actually seem to be looking for. It’s about building a team — more like the Avengers, a cohort with discrete, specialized abilities, than a Superman, an alien who leaps tall buildings, stops bullets and has X-ray vision.

News leaders are either looking for journalists who come armed with some particular specialized skill that their organization needs, or they are looking for specialists (in code, in metrics, etc.) who have a good sense of journalism, the media business and its values.

Having more than one specialized skill can make a potential recruit more marketable. But being excellent at a combination of two things, or even a few things that logically go together, seems more realistic than trying to be excellent at everything.

I certainly have worked with amazing, multi-talented people. But I think building strong, sustainable teams is more important than trying to find a hybrid mutant super staffer on whom you bank your newsroom’s future. Eventually your hybrid mutant super staffer gets stolen by a rival and you realize you need to hire three people to replace her.

The conventional wisdom goes that major media organizations are looking for specialists, while local news organizations are looking for a jack-of-all-trades reporter. Is that what your report found?

We certainly saw job postings that seemed to be looking for unrealistic combinations of experience — especially for lower-level gigs, funny enough, and often at local news organizations. Editors and producers with small teams inevitably hope they can find someone who can do the work of several people. These are the postings that say, “experience in covering a beat, motion graphics, video and defusing nuclear devices is a plus.”

In the end, those are really “Dear Santa” letters — and most editors and senior producers understand that. When I was hiring, I was often looking for three things, but I really hoped to find someone who was excellent at two and good or promising at the third.

But the big difference between local media and “major media” in our research was that certain emerging skills and roles that seem to matter a lot to the industry broadly just were not a priority at all for some locals. That was especially true in small- to medium-sized media markets.

Coding and audience development, for example, were priorities for a majority of the 31 news organizations where news leaders answered our questionnaire — by a lot, about 2 out of 3. But interest in those skills was far lower among the half dozen or so small- and medium-market locals we heard from. Only two of those seven said coding/development was among their top five to 10 priorities, and only three of the seven said audience development and metrics. We saw similar splits in other categories, like product development.

We’d need a broader, more scientific survey to really validate those differences (we only have one local TV outlet among our participants, for example). But I would love to study that more because those findings echo some of what we learned at the Duke Reporters’ Lab two years ago, when we did a report on why some small- and medium-market newsrooms were not making as much use of digital tools as others.

According to your findings, what should college journalists looking to break into the business be doing?

Be a solid journalist — and get great at something else that makes you stand out. Reporting, writing, storytelling — those kinds of foundational abilities still matter. But what will get you hired is the transformational skill you can add to those foundational abilities. Now that I’m teaching journalism, I care a lot about preparing students for the kind of jobs newsrooms are actually filling.

What if you’re a mid-career journalist who’s been doing your thing for years? What lessons are there to be learned from this report?

In some ways, that’s where we started. When the Tow-Knight Center asked Kim Perry and me to do this research, Jeff Jarvis and his colleagues there were setting out to create a program that would help busy news people develop the skills their newsrooms most need. As Jeff wrote over the weekend, that’s what their CUNY J+ program is all about — and they hope the work we’ve done with help others in the industry and in journalism education do the same.

The Knight-funded training programs that Kim Perry oversaw for NPR and the public radio system is another example of what the industry needs to be doing. And now Kim is engaged in similar work on Sam Dolnick’s team at The New York Times. Poynter’s News University is a great resource for newsrooms — and for ambitious individuals too.

I think the industry as a whole would benefit from a greater focus on career development — especially when it comes to management training, as we found in our research. I know that’s hard to imagine in a time of buy-outs and cutbacks. But in every newsroom I’ve worked in, grizzled vets have helped lead the organization’s evolution.

Journalism is a notoriously arduous job, with long and unpredictable hours. How can journalists make time to learn this stuff while taking care of their required duties?

There are two answers: one for individual journalists and one for journalism organizations. For people whose organizations aren’t looking ahead, there is so much good online training material — some of it free, some of it very affordable.

I met a deputy desk editor from a small local newspaper in a leadership workshop a couple of years ago at Poynter who got tired of waiting for the company’s development staff to build a feature she and her boss had long wanted. So she taught herself how to do it, and the feature was a hit. Predictably, she was scooped up by another company shortly thereafter.

So what about the organizations that should be figuring out how to do that kind of training systematically — and perhaps even retain a talent like the person I was just talking about? On that, I have to refer back again to the earlier Reporters’ Lab study.

In that report, we found that most organizations had the same complaints when it came to trying something new: We don’t have the time, we don’t have the budget and we don’t have the know-how.

And yet some newsrooms with the exact same challenges did it anyway. In most of those cases, a newsroom leader or group of leaders decided that experimenting and innovating were a priority, and they made the time and found the budget and sought the know-how. Typically they succeeded at it because they were willing to stop doing something else — to stop feeding the metaphorical goat, as one news executive put it to us.

In many cases that meant sacrificing certain kind of coverage to do something potentially bigger and more important. For example: fewer traffic accident and crime-of-the-day stories in order to develop in-depth, data-driven reporting on traffic issues and crime patterns.

That feels like a dereliction of duty to some news leaders. But in a competitive local media market, where you may have two or three other news outlets (a local paper, a couple of TV affiliates) all competing to cover the same crime of the day, maybe that’s a risk worth taking.

Some of the skills detailed in your report (like coding, database management and video production) are in demand outside of journalism. How can newsroom leaders attract and retain digital gurus when companies in other industries can afford to pay them much more?

That’s our profession’s superpower. The very things that appealed to many of us in journalism — uncovering the truth, challenging authority, holding people and institutions accountable — can appeal to those who have the highly specialized skills our industry needs. At least for a time. But you still have to create an environment where those specialists feel welcomed as partners — not as hired help.

Newsrooms are often a weird combination of hierarchy and lone-wolf star systems. And high-end developers do not willingly give up loftier salaries to come to a job where they will be treated like IT support. They want a seat at the table. They want to be respected and treated as peers. They have ideas and different ways of looking at information. And we news people need to adopt and adapt the processes and workflows that all kind of other organizations use — in marketing companies, in government agencies — to make it easier for people with a wide range of professional backgrounds to collaborate on big, world-changing stuff.

People want to make a difference. Working in a journalism organization is an opportunity to do so — if you make sure that you share that opportunity.

Gawker recently published an ominous essay called “Welcome To the Post-Writing Web.” The thesis, underpinned by the industry-wide shift toward live video, is that people who make a living typing up stories for a living are an endangered species. Do you buy that? Did you hear writing and reporting de-emphasized in conversations with newsroom leaders?

The opposite. Basic writing (text or broadcast) and reporting still mattered. Our questionnaire actually included a skill we called “journalism essentials” — which we defined as “reporting, writing, editing.” It ranked highly in our list of hiring priorities — with just over half of the organizations including it in their list of top five to 10 hiring priorities. That means it did about as well as skills like social media distribution and product development.

It also was interesting that journalism essentials seemed to matter slightly more to organizations that started out as digital news outlets and broadcasters than it did for, say, newspapers.

You’ve been looking at the industry for a long time. What skills are in demand now that weren’t in demand 10 years ago? What skills have remained in demand? What skills have faded?

Watching a term like “product” catch on is fascinating. It grates on some news people, much like “content” did — or does still, truthfully. So it’s easy to dismiss “product” or “audience development” as business speak or a trendy buzzword.

But even where we did not see “product” as a job title, we saw a lot of product-specific responsibilities in the dozens of news job postings we analyzed.

It’s easy to forget that social media is — or should be — a well-established media outlet. Twitter is a decade old. Facebook, two years older. News organizations more or less get why social media matters for distribution. As platforms for engagement and reporting, some news outlets are still feeling their way around in the dark, looking for a light switch.

Blogging, with a capital “B,” was not a skill that did well on our list of hiring priorities — but I’m not sure that’s because that form matters any less. I think elements of blogging as a writing style — the use of voice or a topic as a point of focus, the conversational style, the speed and transparency of the writing and editing, the links and embeds as attribution and storytelling elements — are now well-understood and often just assumed. (Because of that, I though “copy/self editing” would rank better than they did.)

I also study political fact-checking, which is a growing movement in journalism globally, so I thought that and verification skills might rank better. But I think some folks may have thought we meant fact-checking as a proof-reading skill in the New Yorker sense versus the PolitiFact/Storyful sense. But I’m biased!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Two-thirds of the news leaders we talked to said the journalists they work with need to better understand the business side of their organization. Specifically they said they need to get the business side to “to work more directly with units focused on events, sponsorship/advertising, subscriptions or membership.” And even half of those who disagreed with that particular statement said their teams do need to understand aspects of the business — especially issues related to market, audience and product.

Those of us who care about the future of journalism have to pay attention to the business of the news business. As Scott Lewis of Voice of San Diego told us, news people “can’t think of self promotion as separate from their duties as journalists. It’s their product.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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