Digital media skills every young journalist needs

What digital media skills does a young person fresh out of journalism school need to have?

We focus this blog largely on the how-to’s of digital media — how to Twitter more effectively, how to edit video, and the like — but let’s step back a minute and talk about which how-to’s are the most important for a young journalist.

A friend of mine and fellow journalist asked me about this recently. To answer his question, it first helped me to sit down with a legal pad and work out mentally some of the core skills — well, some are skills and some are more like values or principles — that every journalist needs to have, no matter where they work, or in what medium, or on what platform.

The list I came up with was:

  • Being honest
  • Being accurate
  • Being fair
  • Being interesting. No one’s going to read you or watch/listen to you if you’re boring.
  • Being able to tell people why they should care
  • Being able to look at a large amount of information and summarize it quickly and accurately
  • Being able to be your own editor: Knowing what to leave out, whether it’s what audio to snip out of that interview you’re going to upload to the web, or knowing what scenes of the video you shot that aren’t worth airing, or being able to say, “I can chop off the last two grafs of my story — we only have 12 inches to write this in, and those are the two least important grafs.”
  • Being able to listen to what people are saying, but also challenging them and questioning them, so that the audience understands those people better in the end.

It’s important to remember that no matter how much change there has been in our industry lately, downsizing and digitizing and generally turning the media world on its head, those skills and values have not changed a bit from the days when my mentors were copy clerks.

Those skills and values are still very much in need in the journalism industry. There are too many people running around out there with ungodly expensive high-tech equipment who can’t report a story. And, sadly, there are plenty of people out there who can report great stories who don’t have jobs because they don’t know how to use the high-tech equipment.

It would be great to see an undergraduate journalism program try to teach both those basic core principles, as well as a bit about how to use the ungodly expensive high-tech equipment, and produce young people on their way to being great journalists.

To that end, I think the core curriculum of a journalism program today should have two main thrusts:

A. To teach students the basic core skills and principles of journalism mentioned above (accuracy, fairness, good storytelling, thinking on your feet, etc.) that they will need in any medium in which they work.

B. To give students a wide variety of (at the very least) basic-level practical media skills to allow them to produce journalism on multiple platforms and expose them to the many directions in which their work, and their careers, can go as journalists.

With that in mind, I’d love to see every undergraduate of every journalism school in America walk out of school and be able to do the following:

1. Write a basic breaking news story in the inverted pyramid. The story must be accurate, fair, interesting and not plagiarized, among other things. To do this, they’ve got to have basic skills in interviewing people, basic writing skills (nouns and verbs have to agree, dammit) and a basic knowledge of journalism ethics (when we call someone up for an interview, we identify ourselves as a reporter, not as some long-lost cousin from out of town, etc.).

2. Be able to record the audio of an interview with someone, do a simple edit on the audio recording of that interview and upload it to the Web for an audience to hear. (Again, this also requires basic interviewing skills. No one wants to hear the audio of a boring interview.)

3. Be able to take a decent photograph, even if it’s with their cellphone camera — using a DSLR would be better, obviously, but when news breaks and they don’t have their $2,000 Nikon with them, they’ll have to use their cellphone or their point-and-shoot, and some of the same basic concepts apply no matter what camera they’re using. They should understand a bit about the rule of thirds and basic photo composition (don’t have a tree growing out of the head of the your photo subject!) and understand that, if they are using camera more sophisticated than the one on their cellphone, faster shutter speeds have more motion-freezing power but need more light, and using the f-stop on your camera to make backgrounds blurry so that the photo subject stands out.

4. Be able to make at least a short video story that doesn’t turn out looking like the Blair Witch Project. Even if it’s shot with a FlipCam or their cellphone camera, there are some basic concepts they should understand. Understand the importance of using a tripod to get stable shots that don’t make the audience nauseous, composition of scenes, making sure the audience can hear what’s being said, and the basics of using entry-level non-linear video editing software to move scenes around to tell the story — even if it’s the free Windows Movie Maker or iMovie software that came with their laptop. (I didn’t understand a lot of this myself until a couple of years ago, when I took a class at an SPJ convention that used FlipCams entirely. Now I look back in horror at the videos I took before then. I could use them as advertisements for Dramamine.)

5. Be able to perform basic functions in a spreadsheet and have at least a general understanding of how journalists use data to find stories. The business world and the government world routinely keep information in spreadsheets and databases today, so a reporter not being able to sort or add in a spreadsheet is a bit like a reporter of 30 years ago not being able to read. It’s just something you have to be able to do.

And while entry-level reporters don’t need to be experts at computer-assisted reporting, they need an idea of how journalists procure data and then use relational database programs to cross-check those data files to find things like sex offenders who drive school buses, or perform calculations to find, for instance, which ZIP Code or county sees the highest rate of Ritalin prescriptions written to elementary school students.

Young journalists need to know those tools are out there, and if they’re interested, they can continue their education/training in that direction. Even better if they come away understanding that databases and spreadsheets can be the stepping stone by which they can move on to learning programming and writing Internet applications as a form of journalism unto itself, such as creating sites like PolitiFact, EveryBlock and the New York Times“Represent” site.

6. Have an understanding of HTML and CSS and understand how they’re used to make Web pages. Web coding is a little like writing 30 years ago: It’s the conduit by which we journalists pass information to our audience, so we need to be able to work with that conduit and use it well. At the very least, young journalists will have an easier time understanding why their embedded audio interview doesn’t show up in the right place, or why their embedded video is way too wide for a certain page, if they understand the basic concepts of HTML and CSS.

7. Be able to decide which platform best suits a given story. Some stories are best told visually and are great video stories. Others are better suited to narrated slide shows. And some are still best told in prose. A journalist has to be able to decide which stories are best for which medium, and sometimes they have to change mediums on the fly, as their reporting progresses and the story develops.

8. Understand the basic concepts of libel and defamation and understand that these aren’t old-fashioned concepts that only apply to us geezers who worked for newspapers. They’re very serious issues that confront people who publish online as well. You can get your butt sued off just as fast (if not faster) for what you write on the Interwebs as for what you write in the newspaper. The same goes for invasion of privacy and copyright issues.

9. Understand the basic concepts of the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the people’s right to know, which everything we do is built on.

So, everyone, what did I leave out? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Jennifer Peebles is an old geezer who used to work at a newspaper and is now deputy editor at Texas Watchdog, an online-only news website based in Houston. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter at @texaswatchdog and @jpeebles.

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