Local edition: What skills do journalists need? Thick skin, vision, patience, all the basics
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A few months ago, my son, Max, got me thinking about adaptation.
"Everything is different!” the 9-year-old blustered from the back seat after his Kindle finished updating. “I can’t find anything now!”
"That stinks,” I told him.
But it’s also good practice, I said, for a skill that younger people figure out naturally and older people figure out because they have to. The news industry is in constant flux: new tools, new platforms, new models, shifts in audience and shifts in priorities. Anything that can move will.
And that means we can’t stand still.
Adaptability is not a skill I learned in journalism school. It’s also not something I learned during my first newsroom job. But at some point between job No. 2 and job No. 3, I’ve come to think of adaptability as the skill I owe my survival to in this business.
I'm not discounting reporting and writing. For me, those are essential. They weren’t enough, though. I had to learn how to use social media for reporting. I had to learn to take my own photos. I had to learn how to shoot and edit video and audio. I had to learn how to write breaking news as it happened. I had to learn how to make GIFs.
And more than all those things, I had to learn to say: What’s next? What’s this? Let’s try it. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.
For me, adaptability is an important skill because it means I’m willing to try things even if they don’t last.
I often remind myself of what I told my frustrated child. Things will move around. You can waste your time yelling about it or spend your time figuring it out again.
Last week, I asked you to share what skills you have to learn to stay in journalism. I figured it would be a lot of digital skills, things like coding, video and verification. There were specifics like that, but you also suggested skills that have more to do with how we think about journalism than how we create it.
Thanks for being part of the conversation. Hang around until the end to find out what's coming up next week.
Survival skills, both spiritual and physical (and, in some cases, monetary)
Several of you cited austerity, independent wealth, trust funds and a gainfully employed spouse as necessary skills for staying in journalism. But as one person tweeted, those are “more like luck than skill, amirite?"
Jesse Horne with WEAU 13 NEWS in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, said he needs “patience and perseverance.”
Scott Holleran, a California-based writer, said “for the journalist in any free society that's under siege, self-confidence, curiosity, courage and, above all, rationality.”
But the basics do still matter.
"Journalists need tech skills and platform fluency, but the ability to put together a well-told story still comes first,” said Helen Mosher, a Virginia-based writer.
John Infanti, a former journalist based in New Jersey, agreed.
"Writing. Seems obvious, but there's so much bad writing out there. Good writing sets you apart more than you think.”
Joe Marren teaches journalism at Buffalo State University. In a chat on Facebook, he mentioned some skills that have always been basic and some that are now basic for journalists.
"– How to interview (by that I mean listening to responses and then asking follow-up questions from that)
– Learning not to back into ledes
– How to edit a video or news clip to download
– Higher-order critical thinking skills
– How to think about writing scannable and splittable copy (using deep links and bullet points)
– Take pix with people in them (or, if just a building or inanimate object, clearly label it as representative pix)
– Deeper knowledge about ethics and legal issues”
And John Harvey wrote from the Cape Community Newspapers in Cape Town, South Africa. Social and design are important, John said, “but especially with very green digital native journalists, there needs to be an emphatic return to the basics. In my local newsroom in South Africa, I've seen newcomers to the newsroom balk at even speaking on the phone.”
Mark Stencel shared a report he co-wrote last year looking into skills.
“Some of the skills from our respondents' hiring lists: coding/development; audience development/user data and metrics; visual storytelling/editing (photo/video production); digital design (for web, mobile, applications); and social media distribution. BUT, ‘journalism essentials’ (which we defined as ‘reporting, writing, editing’) was also high up on the help wanted list for half of the organizations we talked to."
Charmaine Ortega Getz is a freelance journalist and author based in Colorado. Charmaine brought up something that many of us didn’t learn but now have to use.
“Basic photography, for one – most employers now are too cheap or understaffed to send along a dedicated photog when I'm on a writing assignment. I may have flunked Photojournalism 101 back when students were issued twin-lens reflex cameras and expected to develop our own film – but now we have easy-peasy digital everything, not to mention our cellphones.”
Do they teach these two in J-school yet?
Chris Babcock, editor in chief of the El Paso (Texas) Herald-Post, offered one skill a lot of us have developed and another a lot of us have to work on.
"#1: Grow a very nice, thick skin. You'll get the continuum of critique thrown at you often; from grammar to subject matter, to 'bias' and your look, it's all in play and just when you think you've heard it all, you'll get one call or email that will hit you hard."
“I look at it like this, thanks to one of my personal heroes, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who was asked if it bothered him when the crowd booed him. ‘It doesn't matter if fans boo or cheer, as long as they're making noise.’ Same thing applies, at least they're reading/viewing your material."
“#2 Make sure that thick skin DOESN'T make you HARD. With all the criticism -– on top of the other stresses of being a journalist – there's always a chance you'll get bitter or disillusioned in the job or worse: you'll tune out."
"Don't let it happen, or you'll miss the intimate story, or the whispered tip that ignites the huge story. Know that you are telling stories that matter, and that's the reason you started on this path.”
Knowing your audience is a skill we all need.
Debbie Batteiger, a freelance contributor at the Murray (Kentucky) Ledger & Times, listed several tools that are all about audience.
"As an older journo, to stay in journalism we need to embrace multimedia, including FBLive, tweeting, citizen journalism”
Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote that “more than ever, journalists must have laser-sharp focus. With so many tools, methods and platforms for telling stories, and with a constant news cycle, it is easy to get swept away from your mission. What story are we trying to tell? Who is the audience? What need are we trying to serve? Without that clarity of vision, you and your readers will get lost in your story, whether it’s a string of tweets, a graphic or a 10,000-word narrative.”
Ken Herts, director of operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, wrote about how to choose the skills you’re going to go after.
“My advice to reporters and editors would be as follows: Understand what your publications are trying to accomplish, what they need to accomplish to survive, and gather the skills needed to help them do that. For many newspapers, survival will depend on converting print subscribers over time to digital subscribers, as consumers shift their reading habits, and that requires attracting a large, local, loyal, engaged digital audience. That still starts with great reporting and storytelling, but to have maximum impact, the skills needed now go far beyond that.”
And Jessica Huff, McClatchy's Texas-based social media director, spoke about knowing audience, too.
"Journalists need an understanding of how content interacts with readership and how to maximize that relationship. We need journalists who have a working understanding of analytics and reader behavior to help determine whether there is an audience for a story they want to write; whether it is possible to broaden that audience and how; what form that story should take in order to increase its likelihood of reaching the target audience; how the piece itself should be shaped to successfully speak to that audience; what distribution platforms to use; whether and how to tweak posted content to maximize readership; and whether and how to 'move the story forward' after that. Understanding who our readers are, what they care about, and how they consume media is crucial to our survival in the industry."
Thanks again to everyone for sharing the skills you're working on (or need to be working on.) Next week, we'll talk about all this with an editor who helped me realize that adaptability is essential. Mike Wilson went from The Tampa Bay Times to FiveThirtyEight to The Dallas Morning News in less than two years.
When I visited Dallas last year, I asked what the finish line looked like for their transformation.
“In a way," he said, "the goal is to always be ready to start."
Speaking of skills, my colleague Ren LaForme and I have a weekly tools column where he tells us about things he's testing. Check it out. The Guardian is looking for writers around the country. And speaking of skills (and essentials), there's still time to apply for Poynter's Summit on Reporting and Editing.