Let’s train journalists for the future, not for the past

 by Martin Belam, 24 August 2011

I’ll be speaking tonight at the London Hacks/Hackers meeting, and one of the points I’ll be making is that the digital publishing revolution is a perpetual revolution, one that requires constant learning.

That section of my talk is partly fuelled by how angry I was made yesterday by a piece in the Press Gazette, which suggested that editors do not value digital media skills.

“The top four most important skills cited by editors were: writing, finding news stories, interviewing and legal knowledge - while at the bottom of the list came social media, web skills and interaction with readers”

When I read a sentence like that, I hear the sound of an industry committing suicide.

If you actually dig into the details of the survey, you’ll see it wasn’t that these skills aren’t valued at all, but that were valued less than “time management” amongst other things. Alison Gow blogged eloquently about the message that sends out to existing digital staff in the UK’s newsrooms.

NCE graph

What concerns me is that there are a whole generation of students who are being encouraged to pay for qualifications that will equip them to work in a 90s newsroom, because the people designing the courses and the industry input they receive are all from people who cut their teeth in a 90s newsroom.

Surely the aim of this type of qualification should be to address the skills gap in our industry?

If you get a job in a newsroom, you will be surrounded by years of experience in “traditional” journalism. What you won’t generally have is frequent access to people with the digital skillsets the industry is transitioning towards.

In the comments underneath the Press Gazette article, someone wrote:

“Now that you can get on the web without knowing HTML, new-media skills are just for techies”

Sure, you keep believing that we can all use Adobe Muse as an industrial-scale CMS in the future, and that “new media skills” for journalism start and end with code.

We are very lucky at the moment at the Guardian to have hired in a crop of bright young digital journalists who thankfully haven’t set their sights on just being general reporters who can write and conduct interviews, but who constantly push themselves to learn new digital skills and try out new technologies and services. I see similar examples at the Telegraph and the Times. These people make me optimistic about the ultimate future of our industry, despite, it sometimes feels, the best efforts of some people to try and turn back the clock to a pre-digital era.

But one last thing about that Press Gazette piece.

It doesn’t link to the source.

It baffles me that this is still considered acceptable by a digital publisher in 2011.

Press Gazzette article

And once you’ve been made to do your own research to get to the NTCJ page, it commits one of the most basic usability errors you can make. At the foot of the article it says “You can download the full report by clicking the link on the right.”.

Because, as a user, I really want to be directed to hunt around the screen to find the link, to save the content producer the bother of actually adding a hyperlink into their text.

Nctj Click Link

And they say better web skills aren’t a priority for our industry...


Some response already on Twitter:

@GingerElvis says: "The top 4 are right. Web skills should be higher and are valued, but if you can't find & write stories, you're not a journalist"

To which I would argue that it is not an either/or thing - and I don't believe there will be jobs for people without digital skills in five years time. It seems short-sighted, and to be honest, unfair, to be charging people to train them for careers they can never have.

Completely agree with you - as is often the case! I've been working for a training company, running courses for new journalists, and for the more experienced who are looking to understand the digital world, and although it's not an in-depth course, I've always made sure to go through basic HTML, such as how to manually put in a hyperlink, or a H tag, and get them to look at what they've written in HTNML mode before publishing.

It's still rather sad that knowing even that much makes them probably more qualified in HTML than 80% of journalists currently employed, but the good news is that more and more people are realising that you don't have to commit to learning how to build every page of a website from scratch, but a combination of basic knowledge, and knowing how and where to look for more detailed info can have a huge effect on what you're able to do, and what the end result becomes...

It's true that inverted-pyramid prose narrative should not be the sole thing on which journalism tuition rests. But neither should any other sole thing. I no more want newsrooms to staff rows of inverted-pyramid story-tellers than I want them to comprise solely of social media curators. "Journalism" has always been a broad church, home to many skillsets within a team.

"What concerns me is that there are a whole generation of students who are being encouraged to pay for qualifications that will equip them to work in a 90s newsroom." In fact, I think many journalism tutors are over-compensating for digital and social media, introducing too much experimentation without proper linkage to the core aims of the trade.

One bugbear I do have... for all the preaching about "data journalism", that is still mostly being practised by "data" professionals. I don't yet see even moderate ability in that skillset being instilled in those of us who were trained in writing. Which is to say, one often sees numerical information, which is often the best way of conveying a story, submitted to journalists turned in to 500 words of impenetrable prose. On the other side, one often sees fancy-schmancy datavizes produced by the "data" guys, as though numbers are for the "data" people. Surely the gap has to close?

@GingerElvis replied: “The problem with the list is it's divisive. Journalists are viewing each other as dinosaurs or dangerously abandoning core skills. But really you need a bit of both or you won't survive.”

I'll wade into this one on my own blog a bit later on, but I do think it's interesting that something which could have been portrayed in a sensible light - "we need to separate key journalism skills from those skills suited to a single mode of publication" - was pushed out in a way that lets all the anti-digital brigade out of their (flimsy, newsprint) box.

2006 called. It wants its attitudes back. ;-)

Brilliant article, Martin.

Ignoring the low priority given to Social Media etc, I actually have a problem with the way the questions ossified 4 of the top 5 priorities (I'll leave my pet issue of digital law at the door this time)

Most of the noise around the digital revolution to date has focussed on distribution (via the internet, rather than printing on paper and trucking). To that end, the "web skills" (how is that even a category in this poll? It's more akin to "literacy" or "being awake") have been entirely focussed on the journalistic midstream and downstream: content production and dissemination.

That was inevitable, but it creates the false impression that "old fashioned journalism" - the journalistic upstream of flak-jackets and shoe leather, pounding the streets, finding those eye-witnesses and interviewing them - is still the same, and still constitutes reporting.

Just as downstream means HTML as much as hot lead, so upstream means data harmonisation and filtering as much as the death knock. The process of "reporting" is still stuck in the 90s - whereas in the abstract, good reporting is just capturing, searching, filtering, and synthesising information. In the 20th century, that might have been talking to everyone in the village about the murder victim, borrowing family photos, and rooting through their bins. In the 21st century, that means capturing the data exhaust - Oyster card logins, CCTV footage, bank transactions, GPS location from smartphones (ie FourSquare). The process of reporting in a digital age becomes a process of capturing more information than you could ever review, finding ways of harmonising the formats, filtering it, searching it, writing queries that narrow angles of enquiry, finding ways to cross reference incommensurable sources of data.

I think there's still a belief in newsrooms that, for all this web nonsense, that "reporting and writing" remain the same. They don't. They are still critical, are still (I would suggest) much more difficult to master than distribution, and still require a natural talent AND training AND experience to be excellent. But the journalistic upstream is (or should be) transforming just as quickly (if not more so) than the downstream, and I think the relegation of "web skills" and "social media" belies an assumption that these are only about distributing the same content (or multi-media content relying on the same type of reporting) as we've done previously.

Social media and the web transformed the downstream. As described by Jeff Jarvis' writing on the "article as by-product", the growth of multi-media storytelling (especially the role of the interactive) have transformed the process of content production midstream. The transformation in digital reporting (DataBlog, Information is Beautiful, and Paul Lewis' Twitter reporting etc being notable and brilliant exceptions) has lagged - partly because it is so much harder, and partly because it really strikes to the heart of "what is a journalist?". If you think there's been resistance to the revolution in downstream, just wait until the ramifications of a digital revolution in upstream become apparent.

Again, brilliant article, but the problem is in the formulation of the answer options as much as it is in what people chose to elevate.

Andy Dickinson has written a good blog post on the topic: “NCE: training the lowest common denominator?

If you fumble your way through the NCTJ site a little further you'll find that the syllabus for the NCE includes lots of references to digital, considering interactivity and use of social media. It's been a while since I've been near any training so I can't say how that manifests itself, but it is there in principle.

The problem with the survey (or at least the presentation of the results) is that it is not comparing like with like. "Web skills" and "social media" are part of finding stories, not separate from it. If the list had included "checking public notices" or "maintaining contacts" they probably would have scored lower than the headline items too - and in fact those 'traditional' skills might now be done on a local council's website or Facebook.

Good post. I agree with for the most part, Martin. But I think there are a couple of points I would make:

1) As so often the case in these surveys, "journalist" is often confused with "reporter". Reporters *do* live and die by the quality of the stories they can find, investigate and tell. But there are many other journalistic roles which go beyond that; there are obvious public ones such as feature writers, interviewers, opinion writers and analysts; and there are not-so-public ones such as visual journalists, desk editors, sub-editors, designers, graphics and so on. Look at the makeup of any newsroom (new or old) and you'll realise that not only is training everyone to be an old-fashioned reporter a big mistake, but it's a mistake to train everyone to be a reporter full stop.

2) However, even when you *are* talking about reporters alone, the line is much blurrier than this simplistic study suggests. It draws a map in which "social media" and "finding news stories" are somehow entirely separate skills - yet as any modern reporter knows, social media and audience interaction is not something you do separately... it is a part of the same toolkit: it helps you build and use their networks of information and contacts. Social media helps you find new stories. It helps you write *better* stories. It's additive.

3) The framing is problematic, but I think the larger problem is the reliance on a belief that professional training gives you the skills required to survive as a journalist. I tend to think of all this through my own experience, as somebody who never did any formal professional journalistic training. I have never really believed that there is a great benefit to NCTJ - or at least benefit that is not better gathered through actually working. This does very little to alter that perception.

Yeah, I'd agree with what Greg just said. Anybody who thinks, just because "Finding news stories" has always been a key skill of journalism, that it's the same skill now as it was fifteen years ago... well, they're probably not finding as many news stories as they could be. In fact, all four of those "traditional" skills - writing stories, sourcing stories, interviewing and legal knowledge - can be very different in a digital publishing environment, all of them with new skillsets, opportunities and pitfalls you need to be aware of. Of course, there's a huge amount of traditional knowledge and techniques that are as valuable and important as ever - but to try and pretend that they're still exactly the same old skills as they always were seems to be wilfully blinkered.

I wonder what would have happened if the survey had listed "print skills" in the same way that it does "web skills". The underlying assumptions are fascinating - skills common to journalism across all media are listed without markers, and digital skills are set up in their own boxes, split out from (and in implied opposition with) universal skills that then take on the unspoken definition of "traditional". Incredibly poor survey design.

Nicely put Martin.

I know there has to be a benchmark of skills, but is the NCE in current form really the most fit for purpose test we can come up with?

When I was a trainee reporter (oh so many years ago) it fitted the bill; now trainees have, as a matter of course, skills and access to resources that didn't exist then (Google! email!), and yet the exam doesn't reflect that.

In the report, the logbook scores as less important than the other aspects of the training. It used to be one of the best indicator of how someone performed in the real world (and how their news editor trusted them to handle stories). I also noted that some editors said their trainees struggled to complete all aspects of the log book because, essentially, they didn't do that sort of bread-and-butter coverage any more. Which would say to me that the logbook needs to maybe include more modern aspects of reporting...

Also, face-to-face interview testing is a constant of the NCE, yet phone interview skills are the reality for most journos.

For me, the big red flag raised by this report is that it shows many execs in the newspaper industry are out of step with one another; common ground needs to be established somehow.

At the Society of Editors conference last year an out-going editor was applauded for saying training should lie with the industry, not with universities. Yet the university people I've been lucky enough to learn from in recent years have a truly rounded view of how skills - whatever the platform - can compliment each other.

I think that maybe before we start deciding what we want from young journalists in the future we ensure we are responding to the right questions. This survey is built around the NCE, so the responses inevitably fall around what works and what doesn't about that exam.

Hope the Hacks&Hackers evening goes well.

The most frustrating thing I ever encounter is when I'm reading a news article (often with a reptuable publication) and they mention a youtube video, an eBay auction, and they don't provide a link. Completely ridiculous. Sometimes the _entire_ article is primarily about a source they don't link to or reference other than saying "this happened, and this is everything we think you need to know". It's frustrating.

Has really nobody considered the possibility that editors value reporting skills above intertubes stuff because

a) Everyone who walks in the door learned some hopelessly-90s 'web skill' like Dreamweaver at college, but

b) Most of them can't do a decent interview, or find a story that someone else didn't write today already, to save their lives?

Frankly, if most local rags are anything to go by these days, a bit more emphasis on actually doing the job would be welcome.

There's very little value to anybody in having a top-ho web operation if the actual words on it are rubbish (to take my and Martin's go-to example, the Walthamstow Guardian could use the same web prowess as Guardian.co.uk, but I still wouldn't read it because it contains almost nothing of value from the area and misses everything that's important).

I've been a keen advocate for journalists to learn some html, css, etc. They don't have to be super skilled at it but they should know how a page is published. And there's a need for "media engineers" part journalist part software engineer.

But journalists hate learning new skills. if you are a software engineer you are learning new skills all the time. Journalists can't type well, they can't spell and some I know don't know how to upload a photo to a website. They could learn all of this -- it's not that difficult, but they won't and they don't. To be left behind when we have a historic explosion in media technologies and innovation in the media industries is sad. Journalists should be jumping in with both feet instead of sitting around moaning. I sometimes think that journalists are the most risk averse profession around -- even when there's no risk!

Editors might not value then but publishers should do, given that a digital savvy journo can drive huge amounts of traffic to a website.

I fully agree with you Martin, journalists should get rid of the traditional training and get digital media skills. Magazines and newspapers are now available online and this means journalists who have skills on how to post articles online are the ones to be considered in the future when it comes to hiring.

What about blogs that have news articles? They need journalists who have skills on how to run them. Do you think journalists are at a threat of losing their jobs if they don’t acquire digital media skills?

I'm instinctively inclined to agree with you Martin, save that I think the problem with the survey is that pretty much any set of answers could have resulted in people complaining that X had come bottom and making a very strong case.

Imagine if in current times ethical/regulatory issues had come bottom? Or what people's reactions would be if "finding news stories" was last? Perhaps time management would not have triggered complaints if it had been bottom, though given the time pressures on some many journalists it would have also been a bit odd to put bottom too.

So I'm curious, how would you have scored your answers?

Good post. I graduated with a journalism degree recently and I wish they had had more classes related to digital media and online journalism. It really is something a lot of organisations are ignoring.

Nobody in the field of journalism should think that social media skills are not necessary (at least in the field of real journalism). Journalists could and should keep up with the technological demands of the job otherwise they would not flourish in this field..

Its absurd to think that social media of all things was placed at the bottom of the list! Are these people living in a hole? News headlines are spread via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn - thats just the way its heading. Digital Media skills are a must. Though I do acknowledge that there are times when traditional will have its place, and used in combination will be the only way that journalists will survive.

I no longer hire journalists in my work.

If I was hiring journalists I would regard web skills and social media skills as being on a par with being able to read and write. There are things you need to get through the door.

Having said that, I'm not sure how far those skills would need to go. Some CSS, HTML and even PHP would be useful, but Javascript? MySQL?

Nowadays, it should be mandatory for journalists to be experts on IT. Who dares to doubt that the present and the inmediate future of journalism is in the vast universe of internet? How many amateur journalists and reporters (bloggers) inspire us on a daily basis thanks to their knowledge of IT?

This is a really bad time for journalism. The internet is killing print media, so jobs with newspapers and magazines are disappearing fast

I am a believer in having digital skills as a journalist, but would still put some of those skills ahead of the digital skills. I would think that being skilled in interviewing, story writing, and legal issues would be more complicated to learn, and in turn would be of higher value then the social media and general web skills.

Most young journalists will already have a pretty good base knowledge of these things and will probably pick them up quickly.

Two things to bear in mind here Martin - one this is not about journalism education in the sense you imply. This is the NCTJ's version of the end of the apprenticeship scheme so has nothing to do with courses (unless you mean the exam refresher).

Secondly, lots of courses - Cardiff, City and Preston (to name the obvious three - with the obvious disclaimer that I work at Cardiff) - are committed to equipping students with digital skills. Cardiff is NCTJ accredited for its postgrad, but the NCTJ award is only one of a number of benchmarks the students have to go through. And it will stay that way while employers put the demand for the NCTJ certificate on their job adverts.

What they have to do in the office to get their NCE is down to their employers, and I agree this needs readdressing but can't see that changing in the short term.

It's that idea of "other" that is the problem here, but repeats what I was asked on my first couple of jobs in the mid 90s - if I was au fait with the "new technologies" of word processing and print systems instead of the typewriters they had just got rid of. Lots of the old guard were bemoaning the loss of their favourite machine and carbon copies.

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