Posted on August 5, 2009
RGMP 15: Maintain and update your skills
I made a list of 15 topics in multimedia journalism one day in February; from that list came this series of blog posts titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” With this, the 15th post, we have come to the end of the road, six months later.
In the 14th post, I explained an easy method for embedding your video in a post on your blog. (Video shooting and editing were covered in RGMP 12 and RGMP 13.) In this post, I will explain how I maintain and update my own proficiency in all of these skills.
I find that a lot of journalists I meet during training sessions make an assumption that I have some kind of computer background. This is not correct. Like Joe Weiss (the affable creator of Soundslides) and many other journalists who are seen as multimedia adepts, I am self-taught. And I’m no rocket scientist. I hated math classes when I was a kid. I disliked science. I had no aptitude at anything, really — except writing and copy editing.
Get over your fear
So the first step, I think, is to let go of your self-defeating ideas about how you are “not a computer person,” or how “computers don’t like me.” These attitudes are killing you — and your future in journalism.
The second step is to let go of all other rigid ideas (and even pigheadedness) you might harbor in regard to technology skills. Technology is fluid and ever-changing, and so, learning it and using it are an ongoing process. Accepting this and making peace with the idea are really helpful. There WILL be a new version of every software program you ever learn to use. The new version WILL be different. You WILL have to spend time learning the new features. Likewise, you WILL need to invest time in learning how to use each camera and recording device you take out into the field.
You can’t speed up time. Trying to learn something too quickly leads only to frustration and mistakes.
You must relax and accept that all of this — learning and improving — requires you to put in the amount of time necessary. There are no shortcuts.
Learn how to fail
Practice, of course, is your best teacher. Practice what you have learned. Try it out. The first try need not be journalistic — use some family photos, your hobby, something that’s fun for you. For the second and third try, please do not promise a product to your editor. Do not impose a deadline on yourself. While you’re still finding your way, give yourself room to fail.
Failure is your second best teacher. Our failures present us with puzzles to solve. They send us back to the instruction manual, back to the Google search, back to our mentors. Find out what went wrong, and your next attempt will be better. (Students hate to edit and revise and rewrite their own stories, but the great writers know that rewriting is what makes them great.)
The Web is a treasure trove of free advice. For every single one of these tools and software programs, there are discussion forums where experts answer the questions of newbies just like you. The more you practice searching for answers, the quicker you will become at finding the best answers.
Finding the best tutorials
In addition to forums, there are loads of free tutorials online. One of the most effective ways to find really good, current tutorials is through Delicious tags. People are not going to bookmark a tutorial unless it’s helpful. For example: imovie+tutorial. Another example: photoshop+layers+tutorial.
Once when I was in a session with journalism educators, I suggested they need not create original tutorials for their students. If they can find good tutorials on the Web, they can just send their students to those links. One of the educators asked if I could give him a list of Photoshop tutorials. Well, tutorials for Photoshop can be pretty darned specific, and I don’t know which skills he wants his students to know. So I told him he should find the ones that are best suited to his own courses, using Google and Delicious. He seemed a bit angry, as if I had asked him to do unnecessary work.
What I suggest, though, is that this is like teaching a man to fish, instead of giving him one fish to eat now. You will make yourself independent, knowledgeable, and self-sufficient if you put in the time to search the Web and find tutorials and answers to your own questions.
And yes, your early attempts will be extremely frustrating. You will find bad tutorials, outdated tutorials, advertising-bloated tutorials, spam sites, and all manner of junk as you search. But with practice, you will become quite good at finding exactly what you need — quickly.
When to ignore the manual, and when to RTFM
In the very early 1990s, one of my copy desk colleagues asked my advice for buying her very first home computer. When the computer arrived, she excitedly informed me at the office, but she hadn’t opened it yet — the box had arrived just before she left home.
After the weekend, back at work, I asked her how she liked her new computer. She still had not set it up!
Nervous about making mistakes, she planned to read the whole manual before using the computer. It took her about two weeks to find the time.
Now, personalities differ, and many of you would no doubt do the opposite — rip the box open, set everything up, and maybe even break something. But no matter which type you are — “I don’t need no stinkin’ manual!” or the other extreme — there are times when you really ought to go the other way.
Counteracting your natural tendency is one of the most important things you can do to increase you technology mastery.
Manual-lovers: You can save a ton of time by just playing with the controls, or buttons, or menus. Jump in and handle the tool without fear. Never use brute force, and generally, nothing will break! Turn to the manual only when this practice fails you. Give it some time. Learn how to learn by trial and error.
Manual-haters: You can save a ton of time by using the manual to tell you what is possible. This is particularly effective when something is really new and alien to you. Turn straight to the pages about menus or set-up or controls and scan for an overview. (This is especially helpful with audio recorders, which have some of the most diverse and cryptic menus for functions and settings.)
Don’t forget what you learned!
Once you have mastered a skill, it’s like riding a bicycle — you might be a bit wobbly at first, if you have not used your skill in some time, but you will be okay after a short while. You won’t fall off.
However, this is NOT true for skills you have not mastered. One of the most disappointing things I hear as a teacher is this: “I took your Flash class, but when I tried to make a Flash project six months later, I couldn’t remember how to do it.” Yes, six months of inaction can erase four months of learning.
Practice, practice, practice — even if you have no chance to use the new skill in your job. If you don’t practice, you WILL forget. Practice your software skills (video editing, Flash, etc.) with your laptop while watching TV. (That’s one of my own most common practices.) Use any family outing or other travel as an opportunity to gather audio, video, and still images, and then edit them together within a week after returning home. Re-allocate some of your daily news-reading time to keep up with new developments in the technology sphere.
The less time you have spent using your new tools and skills, the more important it is for you to make time to practice — frequently. An eight-hour marathon once a month will be less helpful than frequent, repeated tasks to keep your memory intact and to add new skills, one at a time.
Stay up to date
In RGMP 1, I provided links to two sites you should scan every day to stay abreast of new developments in technology and journalism. In addition, you should check out the sites below about once a month to treat yourself to some innovative approaches to online journalism:
- New York TImes multimedia
- Washington Post video and photos
- Interactive Narratives: Links to examples
- MediaStorm: Independent multimedia storytelling
Don’t ever kid yourself by thinking you have all the skills you need to succeed in journalism. That will never be true. By ensuring that you understand what audiences are using and viewing, and what other journalists are producing for multiple digital platforms, you will be able to make sensible decisions about your own continued learning and training.
Trim, cut, prioritize
Back in the day, about 1994, it briefly seemed as if CD-ROMs would be a great new platform for journalism projects. This turned out to be completely wrong, as the free Netscape Beta propelled the World Wide Web toward mass audience penetration. But for that nanosecond when CD-ROMs appeared to be the next big thing, I was eyeing an application called Director. It was expensive and had a very steep learning curve. I was reluctant to take on learning it. I dragged my feet a bit.
Then the Web became irresistible, and I taught myself HTML instead. While some interactive projects for the Web were created with Director, the files were quite large and took a very long time to download. The more the popularity of the Web increased, the more apparent it was that large, slow things would not be popular and would not be viewed by large numbers of people. Director remained useful for kiosks and other non-downloadable projects, but it became clear that it was unnecessary for Web developers to use Director.
Consider that example when you are thinking about learning a new skill — and deciding which one to learn first. What will you use it for? How well does it fit with your other skill sets? And above all — is it a skill that is going to be relevant for a long time?
A reporter who is always out doing interviews should certainly learn how to gather clean, clear audio for use on the Web, but a Web producer who never interviews anyone might have no need to learn audio gathering. A graphic designer should know how to use Flash to create animated information graphics for the Web, but most reporters have no reason to learn Flash.
So, keep a list of the skills you think you ought to learn or improve, but revisit your list often and revise it from time to time. Keep the top three items up to date — but not out on the cutting edge, where today’s hot new item might follow the path of the CD-ROM.
Acknowledge that you will never have all the skills you need — but at the same time, keep working to add new skills one at a time, step by step.
And don’t neglect your older new skills — time spent learning is never wasted, unless you have to re-learn what you carelessly allowed yourself to forget. This is a very real danger. So protect your original investment of time and effort by practicing your skills, even on small exercises, to ensure that you do not lose them.
Previous posts in this series
- RGMP 1: Read blogs and use RSS
- RGMP 2: Start a blog
- RGMP 3: Buy an audio recorder and learn to use it
- RGMP 4: Start editing audio
- RGMP 5: Listen to podcasts
- RGMP 6: Post an interview (or podcast) on your blog
- RGMP 7: Learn how to shoot decent photos
- RGMP 8: Learn how to crop, tone, and optimize photos
- RGMP 9: Add photos to your blog
- RGMP 10: Learn to use Soundslides
- RGMP 11: Tell a good story with images and sound
- RGMP 12: Learn to shoot video
- RGMP 13: Edit your video with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker
- RGMP 14: Publish your video on your blog