What “new-media journalism” skills do you need, anyway?

Combing through my RSS feeds earlier this week, I came across a post from Rob Curley looking for interns. I posted a link on Twitter, which then goes to FriendFeed and Facebook (which, sadly, still makes it impossible to find permalinks), since the Las Vegas Sun is doing really cool things and thought my students would do well to apply.

One of my current multimedia students shot me a message:

Read the description of his internship openings in his blog and I definitely feel like the student he’s talking about, that can write but has no other “new-media journalism” skills. In your opinion, aside from what we’re doing in your class, what more can I do to get up to speed with what’s going on in the profession currently and make myself more marketable after graduating? Any pointers would be appreciated!

It’s a good question, and one that a few years ago wouldn’t have been asked. (I think there are fewer students who go into journalism because they want to be “a writer” these days, but I have no hard evidence to back that up.) I though it would be worth posting my answer here.

This is a tricky question. A few years ago, knowing how to do a little bit of everything — writing, video, audio, photography, coding — could land you a job at a pretty plum news organization (I remember seeing a multimedia job at The Baltimore Sun a few years ago that was an entry-level position, for example), even if you weren’t great at any one thing. But multimedia production has become more specialized. Photographers tend to be the videographers and audio gatherers and SoundSlide producers. Lots of organizations have specialized data teams that include some heavyduty coders (and talented journalists in their own right). But there is no such thing as “just a writer” anymore, for better or for worse, except for people such as The New York Times‘s re-write man Robert D. McFadden.

I think you’ll want to practice, hone and refine the skills we’re teaching in multimedia introduction (a five-week, 1 credit-hour course required of all majors that touches on HTML, video and audio collection and editing, blogging, social media, writing for the Web and multimedia packaging). You’ll want to understand cross-platform news production, how to package and re-package news for different platforms and products. Knowing how to code HTML/CSS/JavaScript would be helpful, too, as would learning how to put together an audio slide show. Understanding social media and how to use tools like Twitter and Facebook to find sources and stories — as well as promote your own work  —  is important.

J-schools don’t have the resources to teach all the new media skills you’ll need, so willingness to learn on your own will be key. But much of what you learn in school will be obsolete in a few years, anyway. Things will continue to change as technology changes. The move to mobile phones as the main news delivery device is getting closer and with that will come more stuff to learn.

So keep learning. Read industry blogs and follow interesting journalists and professors and college students on Twitter (and maybe even the crazy ones). Read, watch and listen critically. Be hungry. If you want it, you’ll find a place in this new media landscape.

Of course, a lot of it depends on what, exactly, you want to do. Photographers don’t need to know how to code in ActionScript, but some do. And the more you know, the easier it will be to get a job that you actually want when you’re finished school. But don’t forget the basics, the foundations. You’ll still have to know how to report, how to interview and how write. That’s not going to change.

10 reasons why newspapers might reinvent news

On Xark, Dan Conover lists 10 reasons why he no longer believes newspapers will be significant players in the reinvention of news. It’s a pessimistic piece and I can’t say that I fully disagree with him. I think I’m just more hopeful (some might say naive). First are his reasons; my responses follow.

1. Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants.
We’ve already seen the truth to that. In The Tampa Tribune‘s case, which Mr. Conover cites, it was a dramatic change the readers rejected: a reduction by three sections and dozens of pages. But if newspapers can keep their loyal print readers buying papers, papers can subsidize their experiments in new media to attract younger readers.

2. The culture of newspaper management is a dysfunctional relic of a low-bandwidth, monopoly era.
It is true that many papers are owned by large, publicly traded companies. But there still papers that are independently owned, either in whole or in part. The problem is that the old guy-in-his-bathrobe-sitting-at-a-computer can compete and actually use a paper’s own resources to compete with the paper; it’s called a hyperlink. The sooner papers realize that linking is vital to Web success, the better. Also, innovation needs to be able to able to worry about long-term success over short-term profits.

3. The culture of newsroom leadership contains a fatal 20th century flaw: A fundamental belief that equates all new trends with dangerous “fads.”
It’s disturbing that newspapers see their use of Twitter as putting them on the cutting-edge of social media. It’s a start but it isn’t the end-all-be-all. Still, there has been a greater willingness to put resources into trends. While it may be too little, too late, it’s encouraging.

4. No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway.
This is about time. The newsrooms I’ve been in are amazing inefficient places where reporters and editors spend lots of time doing things that don’t end up directly in the paper. Encouraging reporters and editors to spend some of that time experimenting and figuring it out on their own is doable. Reporters should be an inquisitive bunch by nature and should work to learn some of this stuff on their own.

5. Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise to constitute a viable tech infrastructure.
J-schools aren’t exactly producing these people, either. Medill is just now getting ready to graduate its first two programmers-turned-journalists. People like Rob Curley, Adrian Holovaty and Matt Waite are rare and expensive. But the hurtin’ that has been put on newspapers means that papers are willing to open themselves up to crazy experimentation (hell, Gazette Communications is letting those Medill students play with its paper, Web sites and television station). That might be enough to attract more of the right kind of people to newspapers.

6. Inertia, uncertainty and toxic paralysis rule most newspaper companies.
Those rule most companies, but it is particularly understandable in an industry that seems to be quickly crumbling. Still, the people coming to newspapers right now are, typically, more passionate. They’ve have to be because they’ve fought though the doom-and-gloom to choose their new career. They sure as hell aren’t doing it for money or job stability.

7. Individual ad-reps still make more money selling print ads than Web ads.
This is a valid complaint; papers have been very slow to switch to a real online ad rate model. (I was shocked — SHOCKED — to hear at a job interview a year ago that the Gannet paper was just switching its online ad rates from a per-month model to a CPM model.) The excuse I’ve heard is it is harder for the ad department to make the switch to online first than it is for the newsroom. Bullshit. Online ads can be sold as reaching the niche audiences that advertisers love. And the ad people need to think hard about what they can slap advertising on (how may newspapers are producing podcasts that aren’t sponsored?).

8. Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency.
While this is mostly true, papers still do have it. How often do you see links to newspaper stories on blogs, Twitter, Digg and the like? All the time. Papers can regain some of their influence when they show a willingness to curate the world for their readers, including linking to the competition.

9. The connection between quality and profitability has been broken irreparably.
Papers have lost sight of quality, but the slashed newsroom sizes actually enhance the chances that newspapers will innovate. They have to reorganize and redefine roles when thousands of jobs are eliminated (at least 11,777 so far this year, Erica Smith figures). Smart reporters and newsrooms are going to be looking for new ways to report and deliver news.

10. Finally: Newspaper companies hate modern journalism.
I’m not sure hate is the right word, but they certainly don’t get the New Media World Order. If I hear “use Facebook” offered as a real solution one more time, I’m going to flip. But while management is generally clueless, there are a lot of sharp people who work at newspapers who will get a chance when everyone else jumps ship because there just ain’t money in news any more.