The new visual journalist

To find out what’s needed in today’s newsrooms, in mid-June I asked photo editors and multimedia producers at four newspapers which skills are still in short supply. Video editing, storytelling and audio skills led the list.

Even though his newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, has pulled back from its earlier online ambitions, Colin Mulvany said today’s visual journalism students must be prepared for an online future. That includes both gathering and editing audio, as well as posting stories and photo galleries from the field.

Video remains important even though it’s time-intensive; Mulvany, a photojournalist/multimedia producer, said he’s confident that video “will pay off smartly in the future.” All visual journalists need to have strong video production skills, he said. “You might not use them every day, but big news stories will demand video attention.” (Here’s a blog post Mulvany wrote after layoffs at his paper.)

Tom Burton, photo editor and multimedia producer at the Orlando Sentinel, concurred. “We could use more people who can easily work with nonlinear video editing programs,” he said. Experience with Final Cut Pro is preferred, but someone who understands a different editing system could learn FCP “in an intense four-day course.”

The traditional j-school approach, which “teaches you to have a single skill set that fits into a larger organization,” doesn’t cut it today, Burton said. “Those organizations are falling apart, and the jobs for a single skill set are gone.”

Every journalist needs multiple skill sets “to be their own publisher, in a sense,” Burton said. “In our newsroom, you can get your work on the Web quickly if you can gather the assets (words, photos, video), process them and build the page yourself. Otherwise, you have to wait for another overworked person to help you.”

Jen Friedberg, a multimedia producer at the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, said a journalist’s attitude counts for a lot. “Your curiosity and desire to tell the story should be paramount. Every visual journalist should know how to write a basic story in inverted pyramid form, shoot and edit a video that tells a complete story in about 1:30, gather and edit audio, shoot great images with everything from a cell phone to an SLR, turn it all out fast and get the information to where it needs to go online and to the people at your paper.”

Friedberg says today’s journalists should know some Web coding. Basic HTML will allow a photojournalist to add tags in video players and embed photos and videos in blog posts. Even though the newsroom content management system (CMS) shields the journalists from most of the code, “sometimes there are workarounds in the CMS, and if you have a basic knowledge of HTML, you can use them,” Friedberg said.

“Also, that way of thinking helps you understand what’s possible online and how to take advantage of the tools that are out there,” she said. “Not being afraid of HTML is a leg up.”

J-schools should teach students about the potential for innovative coding, Burton said. “If they have ideas, they can always find someone to collaborate with,” he added. Journalists who know how to code will find opportunities. “Almost no one in a newsroom has these skills today, but they are needed,” Burton said.

Tom Priddy is the multimedia editor at the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal. “I don’t envision everyone requiring a one-size-fits-all journalist all the time,” he said. “But for the average working photojournalist, you’d better be able to write a caption accurately, handle a blog, edit audio and video, post directly onto the content management system and send back five grafs on a house fire.”

All those interviewed used words such as ingenuity, creativity, versatile and flexible when describing “the right stuff” for a journalist today.

“The most critical part is how to tell a story — and knowing when a story IS a story,” Priddy said. “Recognize when you come across a good story. You need to know that before you can know which tool is best to use for which story.”

Mulvany suggested that educators should lead students to “look deeper into the ways a story comes together” — what works, and what doesn’t. “They can take the photos, gather the audio, but they fail to make it into something compelling.”

Both Mulvany and Priddy have been training journalists in multimedia reporting in their newsrooms for a few years. Mulvany said we can teach storytelling only after the students feel comfortable with the tools, but Priddy said we can’t really teach them mastery of the tools. “They have to do it over and over and over again,” he said. The only way to feel truly comfortable with the tools is to use them — a lot.

Beyond knowing how to use the tools, a journalist must be able to assess whether a particular story will work well or badly in different formats. “A school board story is lousy for a photo gallery, but it could be perfect for a mash-up of schools facing closure,” Burton said. “A story that has compelling people can make a perfect audio slideshow or video, if you can get them in an interview. And that interview is going to be different than an interview conducted for print.”

The skills in storytelling and the use of the tools go hand in glove. Students will be inexperienced at both, so they’ll simply have to learn both at the same time.

The current crop of interns “could be better at audio,” Burton said, “but that is the weakest area I see throughout the industry. You wouldn’t have to be all that good to be the best audio person working for a newspaper. Bad audio is very, very difficult to fix in the edit.”

All the photojournalists at the Star-Telegram are good at both gathering and editing audio, Friedberg said. “That has been sort of a long battle, but they’ve had to do it now for several years. They are pretty quick with it.”

Mulvany pointed out that for video or audio slideshows, both reporters and photographers need to write scripts and voice their own narration. “Yes, some sound awful at first,” he acknowledged. “But I am amazed at how fast people find their voice. I have pushed a lot for producers, both reporters and photographers, to voice their multimedia. It has not been a battle at all.”

One thing seems very clear: There is no place in the newsroom for a photojournalist who doesn’t also report, write detailed captions, file copy from the field, and work on the Web.

“I firmly believe there will be no more just reporters or just photographers,” Mulvany said. “We all need to have crossover skills. The Web demands it.”

This article was originally printed in the Spring 2009 issue of Viewpoints, the newsletter of the Visual Communication Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

8 Comments on “The new visual journalist

  1. Glad you focused on the importance of storytelling and news sense, which are still the most important factors in journalism, as you noted. Worried that some teachers and senior editors are more worried about the latest technology than the journalism of it all. But, obviously, it’s not a single-skillset world anymore so everybody better learn new media approaches or find another career. Thanks for this reminder.

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  6. This is a great resource and article. My high school journalism class has just launched our online newspaper for the new school year, and this article hits all the main points I plan on addressing with our young journalists. The self-publishing, cross-over skills needed for photojournalists AND writers is a unique challenge that I hope will make publication faster and more efficient soon.

    Thanks for this blog.

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