Teaching Examples

Careers in online journalism
November 4, 2006, 1:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

My job requires me to talk to as many online journalists as I can about what they do in their jobs. A recent pair of surveys, written up by a Medill graduate student in an academic report (PDF) that has been widely linked already, provides information about the skills used in online journalism jobs, and it’s worth reading.

It’s also worthwhile to consider the methodology used in the surveys. While members of the Online News Association were invited to respond to one survey (239 responses were received), the other survey was open to anyone (199 responses were received). Thus the results might give us a different list of required skills than we would get if we sat down with the people doing these jobs and asked THEM what it is they do.

I’m not saying every journalism student today has to become Adrian Holovaty. I’m not saying all students must become Flash journalists. Some people mistakenly see this as an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not. And out of any 50 online journalism jobs, you would be hard-pressed to find two that were identical.

Another side of this story of job skills needed in journalism today was summed up in a comment posted at Journalistopia:

When folks send me their resumes, I often feel bad for those who think they have two years experience working at a major news Web site. But really they have two years experience pasting photos into a gallery and writing cutlines.

The dirty truth is that many news organizations have taken perfectly competent young journalists and stuck them in a purgatory of cutting and pasting, like clerical workers.

No doubt we have lost many talented young Web jockeys because of this. (Will Sullivan offered up some awesome advice on the topic earlier this week.)

So before you start telling kids they don’t need to know HTML and CSS to get a job, for heaven’s sake, please TALK to some journalists who actually do this kind of work.

Consider this finding from the report:

Online news producers described a willingness to learn new things, multitasking and teamwork as very important to the job. More generally, these attitudes were summed up as the ability to “think online” — and the ability to convince others to do the same. They are the qualities that nearly all the hiring managers are looking for and that nearly all the producers use every day … (p. 2)

I have no problem with that — it’s totally true. But what about the parts of the survey that get to the specific skill sets the hiring managers are seeking?

The surveys divided 35 skills into four categories: Attitudes and Intangibles, Editing and Copy-editing Skills, Content Creation, and Online Production Tools. So while a lot of folks have fixed their eyeballs on those copy-editing skills (for which, as a former copy-editor, I have nothing but respect), I would like to draw your attention to the disagreement between the two columns below (taken from p. 5):

Online Production Tools
Here’s what I suggest: Look at the table and think about whether you believe it tells an educator to spend 72.7 (or 35.2) percent of an online journalism course on teaching students how to use a content management system (CMS). Of course not.

And if almost one-fourth of the producers use CSS frequently or every day, does that mean a journalism student should not bother to learn CSS? Come on.

Please keep in mind that if a news organization has an online editorial staff of four or fewer, they’re looking for a different kind of person to fill an open slot than the organization that has a staff of 20.

Get on the phone and ask a hiring editor what they scan the resume for when someone applies for an online journalism job. I know what they’re going to say, because they call me up and ask if I can send them any students!

They say: Flash. CSS. Video. Audio gathering and editing. And by the way, do you have anyone who can do what that Adrian Holovaty does?

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3 Comments so far
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I’m also curious about the amount and type of HTML that online journalists use every day. Are we talking hardcore coding, or inserting links, object, and img tags into a story? Tweaking a page to make it look right or setting up pages from scratch?

Similarly, “Photoshop” is vague. Are they resizing and optimizing photos for web viewing or making graphics?

Comment by Murley

For working in content management systems, students should at least know the basic text formatting tags, how to create a table and how to float images properly — all simple enough things.

I would venture to say that most college students know how to do this, thanks to MySpace and the availability of blogs.

For my money, I think managers are looking for a FAMILIARITY with all of these technologies Mindy McAdams mentioned, but with a strong knowledge of how it can be applied to journalism. You may not be an ActionScript god. But if you at least understand what it is and what it’s capable of, then you can help plan and produce a Flash graphic with a designer.

Comment by Danny Sanchez

As a former producer (now Web developer) for a newspaper Web site, I can definitely confirm the use of HTML, CSS and Photoshop.

Yes, most of the time producers at my paper aren’t building complex documents. But you must know how to do so to stay innovative in this fast-changing industry.

I would also stress that knowing HTML without CSS is essentially useless beyond copying and pasting. HTML is the bones, CSS is the skin — the two go hand-in-hand.

I also agree with Danny in that you need to have a good understanding of journalism in addition to Web geekery. When breaking news happens, both sets of skills (Web design and journalism) should kick in.

The same applies to copy editing skills. A producer should know how a headline will be understood both by RSS users and search engine spiders.

I’m dismayed, though not entirely surprised, to see the disconnect between managers and producers here. Some of them definitely need to come down and work in the field a little before sending out those job postings!

Comment by Patrick Beeson

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