This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
One of the best parts of writing this newsletter is getting two journalists who don’t know each other together for a conversation. Sometimes they live in the same city but haven’t yet met. Sometimes they’re having very similar experiences in very different places. And often, they have surprising things to teach each other.
Coburn (the digital and multimedia director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism) and André (a digital media producer for Birmingham’s WBHM) talked about how to figure out what you need to learn next, how to build those skills and how to help them spread throughout your newsroom.
Now, it’s your turn. You can answer one or all of these questions, and I’ll include them in next week’s newsletter:
What skills do you need to learn to get ahead (or keep up) in journalism?
How do you find/make time for that learning?
How do you spread those skills in your newsroom?
Here’s what works for André and Coburn. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity. Picture nodding heads frequently for full effect.
Will you both start by introducing yourselves and tell us about the work you’re doing currently?
Coburn: I’m Coburn Dukehart, and I’m currently the digital and multimedia director for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. I’ve been here about a year-and-a-half, and I do most of their web maintenance and anything having to do with publishing our stories, a lot of organization, cultural organization. I also do all the photography for our stories and any multimedia element that needs to be made, so some simple data viz, audio, any video. Basically anything digital, from opening a file that nobody can open to creating a multimedia project.
André: I’m André Natta, I am currently the digital media producer for WBHM, I am a sometime-columnist for Poynter, and in the past, I was a publisher and managing editor of my old site, The Terminal, in Birmingham, Alabama. And I am, as of next month, a 2018 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. In my current job, I am pretty much everything she just said, but also more digital strategy. Our team’s pretty small, so it’s the idea of laying out strategies … Some photography, some basic web UI for our existing website. Some spot news writing and also trying to talk members of our news team through the process.
Coburn, will you tell us about where you came from? You started in photography, right?
Coburn: I have a master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri…I graduated in 2003, and then I started working at Washingtonpost.com for about a year doing some very simple photo editing. Most of my career has been as a digital photo editor. Then I worked at USA Today as an assistant photo editor for their website for three years, where I picked up some skills doing basic audio editing and interactive graphics. After three years there I moved to NPR, where I was their first picture/multimedia editor, and I really built the team there. I was there for about seven years and did absolutely everything from cropping photos to digital asset management to legal contracts to hiring freelancers to training the whole news team in photography and visual language. From there, I was at National Geographic for two years as a senior photo editor, mostly writing for a photo blog.
And André, tell us about where you’re headed.
André: My primary focus in the fellowship is going to be, basically, how do you do regional journalism in the 21st Century? How do you make it so that the region cares about what’s going on and where they are and how it actually relates to the national story, instead of the national story dictating what happens in local and regional…
How did you both go about figuring out the skills that you needed to build that you didn’t have?
Coburn: Mostly I just started my career by doing what I loved to do, so I put my mind to learning photojournalism… Ultimately just having an open mind and being willing to learn new skills is a skill itself…A lot of it is just being willing to roll with the times. I know this isn’t a specific skill, which is what you wanted to focus on, but I do think it’s just so important to emphasize that things are changing so often, you have to be willing to learn new stuff…Sometimes the industry pushes you in a certain direction.
My focus was photo editing. When I was at USA Today, I started learning a bit of video editing. Everybody was using Final Cut, that’s the program I learned on. Ten years later, nobody uses Final Cut anymore, everybody’s moved over to Premiere. I didn’t know how to use it, but I just started Googling and figured it out.
Also, I really enjoy working with people who are smarter than myself and know more than me. That can be somebody more senior than me and often that can be somebody a lot more junior. I think it’s so important to listen to everybody on your staff because everybody is tapped into something different.
How about for you, André?
André: For me, it’s pretty similar. I did not get a journalism degree. My degree is in architectural history with a minor in architecture. That still comes in handy. I live in bubble diagrams, it’s very much: I have to do this, how do I get there? Also things like #wjchat; I’m a longtime member of the organizing group, that has come in handy, finding communities and environments where you can learn from other people…It’s a lot of being willing to listen, a lot of being willing to go out and explore, and something that I’m learning more as I get ready for my fellowship is that failure’s OK.
I think that’s something that we don’t see a lot in the profession, learning that it’s OK to fail. Also, in failing, it’s not really failing because you’re learning what to do the next time. That’s been really helpful. That’s something that I don’t do enough.
Coburn, you were nodding when he talked about failure, is that something that works for you, too?
Coburn: Yeah. Experimenting and being willing to fail is so important. If you don’t, you’re never going to be good at anything. It’s like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument. You just have to practice and you have to start somewhere.
When I was at both NPR and National Geographic, we had an editor that was really encouraging of failure, and it might be something really small like writing a headline that didn’t work and being willing to change it. That’s one of the beautiful things about digital. If you publish something that’s not working, you can change it or adapt it the next time. The risk is low. And it’s fun. I think it can be really fun to just try new stuff, and I love working in an environment where people come up with ideas and they’re like, hey, I want to try this thing. Let’s just do it. I think it’s really important to work in a culture where that’s OK.
Once you both identified the things that you wanted to do learn, how did you actually do it? I heard Google, community and trial-and-error. Is that the basic formula?
André: That’s been the basic formula for me. A lot of it is that failure part, especially doing hyperlocal. You had to be willing to go throw stuff up at the wall, and that’s not something that, at least at that time, was encouraged in mainstream or traditional…And being open to criticism with the community.
Coburn: And I think sharing drafts of your work along the way is important with people who are unfamiliar with the story…I was nodding because you said “be open to criticism,” from the community as well as your peers. I always show everything to my husband, he gives me really great advice. I show stuff to my editor. Again, part of being willing to fail is being willing to change something and being willing to listen to criticism and saying, OK, you know what, that didn’t work the way I thought it would, so let’s change it.
You both are making me wonder, is there something about traditional journalism that maybe has stamped out that willingness to try and fail? Is there something about that culture that still says there’s a right way to do things, this is how we do things?
André: …I do think that tradition has made it tougher to be willing to fail. So much of what we do is predicated on getting it right the first time, as far as what we’re delivering. So as a result, it makes it very scary. If we get this wrong, then we can’t get the trust of the community that we’re serving…I think, yeah, I do think there is something where we’ve been convinced that we can’t get it wrong. We have to get it right.
Coburn: I want to clarify, I’m not talking about being sloppy or lazy with your journalism. I think if anything, we bend over backward to be accurate. We have a really extensive fact-checking system…Being willing to fail isn’t being willing to be incorrect…I’m talking about things more from a multimedia/presentation perspective. Is this the best way to tell the story? What new tools can we use? It’s being willing to experiment with how we’re putting information out there, although that information itself still has to be journalistically accurate. Now more than ever, that’s important.
I think what I am correlating this to is that we are, in some ways, risk averse because we don’t want to get it wrong, we don’t want to lose that trust. Does that instinct push into “I’m just going to use words because I know how to use words.” Does that tendency to be risk averse push people away from trying new things?
André: I think it does…There’s a fear that because it’s not something they normally use, again, they’re going to get it wrong. It’s not getting it wrong. Everybody’s trying to learn how to use these tools and best practices. It’s more being willing to experiment.
By the way, none of the questions I prepared were about failure, but it’s something I was thinking of devoting a whole conversation to. But we’re here, so let’s do it. Is there a safe way to fail?
André: I think it depends on the individual. Something that always frustrates me is when people say they’re too old to use something when they may be the best person to use it, or they may use it in a way no one else has thought of…There has to be a way to get out and try something out on a small scale. And maybe you don’t do it for a news story, maybe you do it for yourself.
You both work with your newsrooms to help people understand some of these things and try them out. What works in helping your colleagues, regardless of their age, regardless of their skill level, be willing to learn something new?
Coburn: Positive encouragement goes so far…I feel like there’s such a tendency to critique and tell people what they did wrong instead of telling people what they did right. Everybody likes to be told that they did something well. It inspires you to try again the next time. I really appreciate that culture of team work and encouragement and positivity, and I think it can get lost in the daily grind.
André: We just started doing lunch-and-learns on specific topics, and then encouraging the folks in the newsroom to go out and do it. Play with it…Slack has come in very handy, but it’s answering questions, being willing to say why something doesn’t work and saying it in a way that encourages them to try again. It’s very easy for someone to say, ‘well, what’d I do wrong?’ I’ve had to learn, they want to know what they did wrong. I don’t want them to think that it’s wrong, I want them to try it again and take the lessons they’ve learned this time to try the next time and incrementally they’ll get better…Using the word play has been big.
That’s great. I haven’t heard anybody talking about it in terms of play. What do you both want to learn next?
Coburn: I’m still struggling with data viz, that’s something I keep having to push myself to do. I’ve been to three or four Tableau workshops at IRE and every time I launch the program, I have no idea what to do and I stumble around through it and I’m like, ‘OK, that’s good enough.’ I am battling the Tableau battle.
I’m also trying to learn some reporting and interviewing techniques. There are four people that work for my organization, and just as I’ve expected our managing editor to learn photography, she expects me to learn some interviewing and writing skills. It’s in my comfort zone, but barely.
André: Data viz is big on mine because it’s just scary and daunting. Along with that, though – mapping…And I would like to get better at audio.
Do you have any advice on finding ways to build time to learn new skills and experiment?
Coburn: Usually when I’m learning something new, it’s because we’re doing a project, so I’m learning it with a purpose. I’m really bad at just being like, I’m just gonna sit down and watch this tutorial for fun… Very often, I say, ‘I don’t know how to do that, but I’ll figure it out’…For me it has to be in context or, honestly, I’m not going to spend the time to do it because I don’t have the time.
André: Definitely when there’s a deadline…Weirdly enough, when I’m on trips I find myself doing this…I might sit on a plane and watch a video or if I know it’s going to be one of those long commutes, I might go ahead because at that point nobody can bug me and ruin the focus. That’s how I’ve tried to fit it in.
What am I forgetting to ask?
Coburn: I guess the thing I was thinking about, which is probably not on the topic at all but it is where my brain went so I’ll just share: My passion is photojournalism, that’s why I got into this field, and while it has been super fun to learn all these other new skills, I do like to remember what I still feel most passionate about…I think it is important to remember to still do the things that you love to do and that you’re good at, and be willing to train younger people and older people that skill. That’s what brings me joy…
André:…Sometimes it helps to put down the laptop, put down the phone, walk around, enjoy life. Sometimes, living life without being connected will help you figure out what you have to learn next.
Thank you, André and Coburn! Now it’s your turn. Let me know how you figure out what to work on next, how you make time for it, and how you share that with your newsroom, and I’ll share your thoughts next week.
In the meantime, you should subscribe to The Membership Puzzle’s newsletter, it’s a great read. Sign your newsroom up to be part of the Trusting News project. And check out this Poynter/ACES certificate in audience-focused editing.
See you next week!