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Archive for December 6th, 2010
06 Dec

Debate over journalism required skills gets heated

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201012/1915/

Thanksgiving is traditionally the time distant family members come together over a delicious meal… and, well, fight. Last week a fight (okay, more like a heated debate) broke out over what skills a modern day journalist needs to have.

It began with a post from Mark S. Luckie, The Washington Post‘s National Innovations Editor, founder of 10000words.net and author of The Digital Journalist’s Handbook.

His 5 Myths about digital journalism sparked a flurry of reactions, most notably from Andy Boyle, digital developer with The New York Times Regional Media Group, Anthony DeBarros, senior database editor at USA TODAY and Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times and co-founder of DocumentCloud.org.

If you don’t know these names, you should. They are some of the most innovative minds in the industry … and I happen to respectfully disagree with all of them.

Well, sort of.

To be honest, I think there is more of a misunderstanding rather than a disagreement here.

Before I go on, let’s address a question that may have popped into someone’s mind: Who the hell am I to weigh in on this debate?

I’ve been a Web journalist for more than a decade and, prior to coming to USC Annenberg, I was the director of development for seattletimes.com where I led a team of engineers and designers. We developed and innovated projects for the site ranging from a taxonomy to geolocation to a custom commenting system to hijacking/hacking the print publishing system to data-driven special projects.

So, allow me to set up the framework from my point of view.

The skills that make up a successful, modern newsroom are as diverse as the communities it tries to cover and serve.

There are some traditional, fundamental skills that are still the unifying foundation, but there is also a new (really, not that new but not yet standard) set of skills each journo needs to have.

And let’s just say it: because our industry has been evolving/changing/etc., there are a lot of unknowns (and fears) about what that set of skills is to be a successful, modern journo.

Of course there is no shortage of opinions, including my own, trying to address those unknowns. But also among them are, well, some opinions spreading hype and bad information.

To be clear, the guys I mentioned above are not the problem.

Not even close.

Who I am referring to (and who I believe Mark was too) are the folks that are telling reporters – all reporters – that they need to stop the craft of writing an engaging story and replace it with the craft of writing innovative code.

They have also said things like photography is dead and copyediting is expendable, but that’s for another post… let’s focus on programming.

Their message essentially is if you don’t master programming skills to create an app or database, you don’t have a future in journalism.

And again, to be clear, the guys I mentioned above do not agree with that statement, at least based on what I’ve seen of their writings and work.

But that hype and bad information I described does exist. It has for years.

I can’t tell you how many times a panicked mid-career journalist or an aspiring student has freaked out asking me for advice on whether or not they need to be a developer/programmer or database engineer or Flash developer (three different jobs that share some similarities).

So cut to the chase Hernandez… what’s your take on the required skills to be a journalist today?

I do not believe you need to master programming to succeed in journalism.

I do believe you need to respect and understand the power of each and every craft, not just programming, but photography, design, texts, etc. that make up journalism. They are not as simple as hitting a button.

I also believe, at the most minimum, EVERY JOURNALIST (whether be it reporter, editor, photographer, etc.) of EVERY BEAT needs to be proactive in spotting opportunities to best use the diverse crafts.

I believe that, in terms of the data-journalism, EVERY REPORTER needs to know the basics of Excel and be able to function inside a database to find the story. But they do not need to build one from scratch.

But the reality is, depending on the size of your shop, you may be required to wear multiple hats that can touch on programming, photography, social media, etc. The good news is that there are tools and communities out there to help you.

NOTE TO PUBLISHER/EDITOR: Please realize that you need engineers/developers in your shop. You probably need twice as many as you current have. Don’t take this post as buzz or get it twisted thinking you shouldn’t hire more. You should. And you should also invest in training your newsroom in a variety of skills ranging from programming to photography to social media.

I agree with DeBarros and do not believe programming replaces the story. Never has, never will. When was the last time you had a driveway moment with a database?

But when was the last time you were able to understand the weight of 251,287 cable dispatches without a database?

Those are made possible because of different, yet equally important, skills. And thankfully, regardless of your answer, we don’t have to choose.

We need these diverse set of skills, of every level, populating our newsrooms. We need them to influence each other. We need them to work together. We need them… to survive and evolve.

We also need to acknowledge that not everyone will be able to do these skills. Some will be better than others. But, guess what, that’s okay.

Because if we are to attempt to serve our communities that are consuming and expecting our news and information in a variety of ways, we need a newsroom full of diverse people bring different experiences, skills, perspectives and ideas to the table.

We can’t afford to get distracted by feuding over something like this. We’ve got too much work to do.

π