Nitpicking some myths about digital journalism

Andy Boyle wrote a response to Mark S. Luckie’s blog post 5 myths about digital journalism, and because I left a comment on Mark’s post, Andy called me out on Twitter. Now, I know Mark a little and Andy not at all (except via his tweets), but I think they are both bright and sincere young journalists, and I’m not taking sides here. I just feel like adding my two cents (especially since Andy won’t let me alone, and I say that affectionately).

Myth No. 1 (from Mark): A journalist must know everything. Why it’s a myth: In big(ger) newsrooms they have teams of highly skilled people who will be doing a good job at what a mere jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none would do in a mediocre way. Why Mark is wrong (from Andy): At his first newsroom job, Andy had to “record video/audio, shoot photos (iPhone/point and shoot), help others with database-related issues” and write/rewrite stories for print.

But Andy agrees with Mark that you (and he) don’t need to be a master of everything. I would like to invoke the “computer jesus” phrase here (just because I love it so much). I read Mark as saying that too many people think you have to be computer jesus to get a job in journalism today, and that’s an exaggeration. However, you can’t be just a writer, or a reporter/writer, and Mark certainly knows that and wasn’t saying you could. From what editors and hiring managers tell me, Andy’s experience is typical and normal in a legacy-print newsroom today.

So I’m going to say Myth No. 1 is a myth, AND journalists MUST be multi-skilled and versatile today. (But not computer jesus.)

Myth No. 2 is that social media will save journalism. Andy responds that no single thing will save journalism. There is no disagreement here. Everyone agrees that social media is a necessary and important part of journalism now (but it’s not going to save journalism, at least not by itself).

Myth No. 3 is the one that apparently bugs Andy the most: “Journalists must have database development skills.” Andy says this is not a myth; journalists DO NEED database development skills. Or does he? Well, no. Andy says:

I don’t think it’s out of the question to have every reporter know the basics of using Excel. It’s like telling a reporter, “I don’t want you to know how to file public records requests because we have people who are trained to do that.” No. Lame. The more people who start to understand how even rudimentary databases work, the better stories they can do. The better they can contribute to web projects. The more ideas they can bring to the table.

I think Andy (who does have database development skills) would agree with me when I assert that knowing the basics of using Excel is not equivalent to having “database development skills.” I agree 100 percent that every reporter — EVERY REPORTER, excluding no one! — should be able to use Excel to calculate and to clean data. So the myth here is that you have to become some kind of database guru — that is a myth.

Maybe Andy is concerned that some weak-minded would-be journalist will read Mark’s Myth No. 3 and think it means we can all be math morons. I hope not.

When Andy says, “The more people who start to understand how even rudimentary databases work, the better stories they can do,” I stand with him. I think Mark does too (although I don’t presume to speak for Mark). Maybe it would be better if Mark had just written that journalists don’t need to be computer jesus, and left it at that.

Myth No. 4 (from Mark): “Comments suck/ Comments are essential for democracy.” Andy says he doesn’t understand what Mark’s argument is. I do, because I’ve been hired by numerous newspapers (and state newspaper associations) to present training sessions about how to blog, and in those workshops, reporters and editors always insist on having a really long discussion about comments. Mostly they take the position that comments are evil, and why should we have them at all?

Frankly, I have met very few newspaper journalists who believe comments are good for giving the public a voice — but then, I’m in the room with the ones who came to training session about how to blog. Again, I agree with Mark because comments can often cause headaches (see Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies), but a blog without comments can hardly be called a blog. So if you’re going to have blogs, you’ve got to find a livable solution for dealing with comments. For people who’ve grown up on the Internet (like Andy, like Mark), I think this is a no-brainer. But then, I would suggest that Andy has not been in the room when those other guys are going on and on and on about how comments are good for nothing (and I wish I hadn’t been there either, because it just makes me despair to hear them).

Myth No. 5: “There are no journalism jobs.” Mark points out that the old jobs may be gone, or damned hard to find, but the myth is a myth because there ARE jobs in journalism, albeit new jobs that require “technical skills or experience (whether it’s blogging, multimedia, CAR, social media, etc.).” It’s the last bit that got Andy riled up, because he sees it as a contradiction to Myth No. 1. I disagree. The key word in Myth No. 1 is “everything.” The new jobs do not require the journalist to know “everything.”

I’d like to step out and mention something that’s commonly discussed with or asked of me because of that book I wrote back in 2004, the one about Flash journalism — meaning journalism that’s presented via an interface (or a wrapper) created with Adobe’s Flash application.

The way this comes up in conversations with journalists (and students) varies a bit. Sometimes they ask, “Should I learn Flash?” and sometimes they say, “I don’t want to” or “I want to learn Flash.” Some journalists prefer to say something like what Andy wrote:

… I don’t think it’s necessary that people need to know Flash — and in all actuality I think it’s a waste of time to learn (thus my never learning it) …

This doesn’t bother or offend me. There’s almost no one in journalism I would urge to learn Flash, with the huge exception of graphic reporters (or infografistas, as they are so marvelously called in Spanish). Flash is used in wonderful ways to make journalism visual and interactive — notably by The New York Times, but not only there.

So am I contradicting myself? Am I saying no one should learn Flash? Or am I saying journalists should learn it? Or some journalists? And which ones would they be?

All I’m going to say is that, for the time being, Flash is the best way to design and deliver certain Web-based interactive features — and particularly data-intensive ones. So somebody somewhere in the news organization needs to be really, really good at Flash and ActionScript 3.

Most journalists should not spend even one second thinking about Flash. But those who become really, really good at it might find themselves getting one of those new kinds of jobs (Myth No. 5). And they won’t have to know everything (Myth No. 1) — maybe they won’t know how to shoot and edit video at all, for example, and that will not matter. And they might not be database developers (Myth No. 3), although they must be able to work with the database gurus, because the Flash expert is the bridge between them and the designers. They can’t be math morons.

As for comments and social media — the Flash experts probably don’t need to go there. But someone has to, because comments and social media are essential to journalism today — just like databases and those who develop them; just like multi-skilled reporters who can shoot video and edit audio and write rings around the average citizen.

And that’s no myth.

6 Comments on “Nitpicking some myths about digital journalism

  1. Mindy,

    “As for comments and social media — the Flash experts probably don’t need to go there. But someone has to, because comments and social media are essential to journalism today — just like databases and those who develop them; just like multi-skilled reporters who can shoot video and edit audio and write rings around the average citizen.”

    And I think this sums up the dilemma in today’s climate, because I think the number of “multi-skilled reporters who can shoot video and edit audio and write rings around the average citizen” are very, very few. And that will always be the case because each of those individual skills require the brain to be wired a certain way, and the brain that can perform all of those functions in a dynamic, relevant, professional fashion – efficiently – is extremely rare.

    I still believe, strongly, that the best journalism is typically produced by a collaborative effort: with an expert in writing, and expert in audio, an expert in video or still photography, and a producer/editor (who’s an expert in combining those individual disciplines in a compelling and relevant way for presentation) all contributing.

    However, the present economic and social climate is making these kinds of collaborative efforts unsustainable as standard practice. Let’s face it. The biggest obstacle to the future is how to fund journalism as a profession. There are plenty of journalists and students willing to carry on, but the media companies, who have traditionally provided the platform, are getting out of the journalism business – they are no longer willing to do anything as a public service unless it is hugely profitable. It’s a shame they see no obligation to give back to the audience that makes them profitable in the first place

    In practice, you just can’t do “everything.” And you’ve said as much in this post. But this is what journalists are being asked to do on a regular basis. I just can’t begin to express my dismay at the amount of mediocre multi-media reportage currently saturating the internet. It’s not due to lack of effort. I think journalists realize that they have to diversify or become unemployed. Unfortunately, I think the final products are suffering, and I wonder how long the novelty of multimedia will continue to engage audiences before the lack of quality becomes an issue. I’m just a little skeptical that one-man-band journalists can ever become “professional” in every discipline.

    And I guess this begs the question: Will journalism be a common, viable profession in the near future? If you can’t produce professional-level quality in every discipline, why should audiences choose to subsidize news organizations when they can get the same quality from amateur or semi-pro, part-time bloggers?

    Will journalism in the future be a viable career choice only for the prodigiously talented, truly Renaissance men and women?

    As a slight aside, I believe that audio could be the new frontier. This is from a photojournalist who strongly believes that the power of images to communicate the human condition and endure in human memory is superior to that of words. I will defer to the brain research that shows that aural stimuli is even stronger than images in memory retention.

    Journalism students should study sound production intensely. Not just chopping up interviews in Audacity. Learn what all those plug-ins do and how it effects the experience of the listener. Learn the value of natural sound in it’s ability to evoke emotion and communicate the tone and context of any given situation.

    Listen to NPR and other outstanding radio reportage, then learn how to integrate that level of story-telling with images and words – by yourself or in collaboration with others.

    Then, maybe audiences will start to notice and value that kind of service to humanity.

  2. I enjoyed this, and, on a more personal note: You’re the person who inspired me to start my own blog, telling a JOU 1100 class at UF to start blogging, start writing. Three years later, and despite my best efforts to not get a journalism degree or spend a lot of time in Weimer, it’s turned into a part-time job.

    So: Thanks, Mindy.

  3. Good stuff, Mindy. I think the key is to produce young journalists with an open mind — unlike some of the journalists occupying newsroom space today.

  4. Just a comment about No. 1. It’s almost comical (in a sad way) how reporters and editors often hit up newsroom online producers to fix their computer issues (I can’t print … My mouse doesn’t work … I can’t open my email because I forgot my password).

    So a corollary myth busted: Digital journalists aren’t part of your newspaper’s IT support desk.

    I also like No. 4. It may be a myth that “comemnts suck,” but as you note, it’s certainly no myth that most editors and reporters think comments suck. Better dead than read, most say.

  5. Great stuff, Mindy. And thank you for sharing “computer jesus.” Perfect. Jack’s comment brings back memories from, when I was at various times expected to fix cell phones, computers, faxes or modems (remember those boxes on your desk?).
    I agree with Mindy that “…comments and social media are essential to journalism today — just like databases and those who develop them; just like multi-skilled reporters who can shoot video and edit audio and write rings around the average citizen.” Journalists who live in the media world their audiences/readers/viewers inhabit are multimedia information consumers and communicators.

  6. As a social media coordinator I know exactly what you’re talking about when it comes to lengthy discussions about comments. While I don’t work for a publication of any type in a social media capacity at the moment, I’ve always taken the approach that ‘Any comment is a good comment.’

    While we all know that there are an abundance of net tolls out there who live to degrade and bash writers and other commenters alike, any comment means that people at least someone likely read your content and were hit by it hard enough to prompt a response.

    Even in the instance of negative commentary, this simply presents a chance for any business/publication to address the problem and do so in a public manner. Often times people don’t care if the issue is 100 percent resolved within five minutes, but that you’re at least trying to fix it or have acknowledged their existence.

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