August 15, 2017

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Amy Kovac-Ashley’s job is a kind of mix between a therapist and a personal trainer. As senior newsroom learning program manager at the American Press Institute, she works with newsrooms around the country to figure out what journalists want to learn, what the newsrooms need them to learn and how to make those things work together.

Amy worked as a reporter in local newsrooms for a dozen years before switching to academia, where she spent another five years. She’s been with API for the past year, and she’s focused on skills that persist through an often turbulent business.

“There’s also a broader look at knowledge and also the appropriate mindset to have in what is an evolving, ever-changing, sometimes maddening industry,” she said. “I do a lot of listening in my job.”

Amy and I talked about getting journalists excited about learning, why culture matters and how to make the case for time and money for building new skills. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.


Is there a special trick for getting journalists excited about learning new things? So much of what we do is about being a quick study and knowing where to find things. It seems like this should be easier than it appears.

I don’t just like to ask people where their baseline skills are. That is something that a lot of newsrooms need to know – where are we on these things? But I also like to ask people what they want to learn. I do a lot of listening in my job. I don’t know that a lot of newsroom leaders today have the time or think they have the time to really list to their internal audiences.

I don’t think they have the time to really listen, even though they really need to take the time to listen to what the room is saying to them. …There’s strife in many different areas, and you have to hear what people are really saying and understand that what they might be worried about is not the thing that they might be sticking their guns on. It might actually be an underlying thing.

I actually ask people: What do they want to learn? What we try to do is help the newsrooms find the places that people really want to learn and then try to match that up, at least when you’re starting in the beginning, with what their strategic goals are. …So they start with things that people actually are really hungry for, and then it doesn’t seem punitive. It has less of a chance of seeming like it’s just another thing I have to do when I’m already overwhelmed.

Is there an attitude or a mindset that you’ve seen makes it easier for people to be successful in learning new skills? Is it teachable?

To an extent, anything is teachable if you’re open to it. I think newsrooms need to think about the environment that people are in. I think in [some] newsrooms … it’s still really hard to make a mistake. And if it’s hard to make a mistake or mess up here and there, then I think some people are going to be less willing to try something new because they aren’t confident, they don’t feel competent at it. you have to give people the space to feel like they can play around with something and that everything isn’t on the line with every single thing they do.

It’s hard in newsrooms. When we make mistakes … a lot of those mistakes are public. That has effects on trust and all of those things that are very important. But it’s made it so that it’s hard for people to try new things.

I like the terminology that some people use about doing tiny experiments and looking for small wins, so, again, it’s not like everything is on the line every time you’re trying to do something. It’s just little things you can do to build up those skills and to try to break it down for people.

There’s obviously also a lot of people who need to learn the new CMS or fill-in-the-blank system. And, understandably, there’s a lot of eye-rolling. It’s like, “ugh, here’s another new system we have to learn. We keep having to learn these new systems.”

That’s fine. I think that’s gonna happen no matter what. But then after that basic level training, I don’t know that people really think about the next level of how they can take advantage of what that thing does well to do their jobs better. It’s more about the system. It’s not about the “why are we doing this?” or “how can we do this better?” or actually about the work that people care about.

Some of it is just how it’s framed, but also it’s the thought process behind how you do training. It seems like it’s a one-off, I have to go to this one-hour training and then it’s over. I still have to learn how to use it but it’s just another annoying thing I have to do…

I also think in general because things are moving so quickly and because there’s not a lot of time, leaders kind of skip over the “why we’re doing this” to “just do it.” I understand in the moment that gets them where they need to be. But in the long term, if you forget about telling people why and getting their buy-in, you’re not going to get what you want in the long run.

It sounds like a lot of this has to do with culture.

Oh yes. Yes, indeed.

I got a great email from an editor in Iowa last week, and his problem wasn’t what skill to pursue, but how to find both the time and the money. Do you have any suggestions for him?

There are a couple things I would suggest:

– Try to ferret out who in the room may have some of those skills already or someone who’s super-motivated to learn those skills and empowering them in someway, whether it’s sending them to a training or linking them up with someone else who might know more about it.

– There are a lot of free things that happen if people are members of a journalism organization: SPJ, ONA, NABJ, NAHJ, all of those organizations are wonderful because they offer a lot of opportunities for either no- or low-cost training. Some of those places will give scholarships to people if they’re coming from a place that doesn’t have a budget to send them.

– Once the person does that, make sure that that person has the time to put that skill to work and also to help their colleagues get up to speed with whatever baseline skills you want people to have. It’s really important for people to actually put the skill to work.

It sounds like one way to make the case for your newsroom to pay for training and give you time to get it is to offer to be the person to help it spread.

If you want to learn something and that thing happens to be part of a strategic goal or will help you reach that strategic goal, that’s a great opportunity to pitch someone to get additional skills. The savvier the person, the more they’re going to look at the goals.

You’ve got to be able to make the case that it’s a benefit for them just as much as it is for you. That’s where that peer learning piece can come in.

I want to end with something I’ve heard a lot of veteran journalists say, and that’s “how do you know if something is worth learning? What if it looks huge and fades really fast?” Why should people keep trying?

I get that a lot, too. People are frustrated. I’ll ask people, “what are the obstacles to you doing your best work?” and I’ll also ask, “what do you need to do your best work?” and they’ll sometimes say training is an obstacle, and then they’ll also say they need more training. I’m always like, “wait a minute.”

Not every bet you make on learning something is going to pay off. That’s just the way it goes. If we all knew what the answer was to making everything happy rainbows and unicorns in the journalism industry, we’d be doing it by now.

Everyone is still figuring things out, which in some ways is hopefully a little heartening. We’re all trying to figure this out together.

Sometimes just the act of learning something new is actually what you’ve gained, it’s not necessarily the skill itself. And, if you’re doing it right, whatever skill you’re learning can be applied to other things.

Some of it’s just being a little more open-minded. I do think it’s hard, though, because people don’t want to waste their times. But when they are learning something new, it’s important not just to learn the technical aspect, but also the why and how, so when the next thing comes along in that same category, they can still apply higher level thinking about it even if I’m touching a different button to do it in that program versus this one.

Thank you, Amy! Next week is our “not-a-journalist” week, and we’re going to be talking with Taylor Moxey, who has done more in 11 years than I have in 39.

In the meantime, here are some good tips from Tribune Broadcasting on getting the most out of Instant Articles. Check out The Coral Project’s “Community Guides for Journalism.” And here’s a great guide to getting the most out of training, from SRCCON.

See you next week!

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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