Skills for journalists: The basics

Jennifer Peebles — a self-described “old geezer who used to work at a newspaper” — wrote a post at the SPJ Net Worked blog titled Digital media skills every young journalist needs. Like a lot of old geezers (I say that with affection!), she started with the fundamentals: Be honest, accurate, fair, etc.

I found the really good stuff farther down in her copy:

  1. “Write a basic breaking news story in the inverted pyramid.” This includes “basic skills in interviewing people, basic writing skills … and a basic knowledge of journalism ethics.”
  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.” As Peebles noted, you can’t do this well if you don’t know how to interview people properly!
  3. “Be able to take a decent photograph” — with a cell-phone camera, point-and-shoot, or whatever is on hand at the moment when news breaks. I would add that “decent” means usable. The young journalist needs to know what that means. What is news value in a photograph? Do they know how to capture that?
  4. “Be able to make at least a short video story that doesn’t turn out looking like The Blair Witch Project.” And by “make,” we mean shoot AND edit. Editing includes exporting a usable (that word again) video file for the Web. In my experience, that’s where the rubber meets the road. Too many students will turn in a video file that was exported with something wrong in the settings, making the video stretched or squashed, blurred, smeary (digital schmutz), or otherwise awful looking. Practice is what makes it possible to produce decent (usable!) video. Practice!
  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.” This is so important, and I think far too many students are stuffing their fists into their ears and singing “Lalalalala” right now while they are reading this. Here’s what Peebles added:

… 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.

She went on to list four more things she thinks every J-school grad ought to be able to do:

  • “Have an understanding of HTML and CSS, and understand how they’re used to make Web pages.” It has come to my attention that in various courses around the country, instructors are sometimes teaching outmoded techniques (such as using tables for layout). Wake up, kids! HTML5 is just around the corner!
  • “Be able to decide which platform best suits a given story.” This is SO important — but how will journalists do this if they are not continually seeking out new examples of online and multimedia journalism? Go beyond the home page of your favorite news website and make it a DAILY habit to check out the site’s latest Web-only videos, interactive graphics, and audio presentations.
  • “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.”
  • “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.”

I could not agree more with what Peebles wrote! My digest version here leaves out a lot of her insights, so please be sure to read her original post.

2 Comments on “Skills for journalists: The basics

  1. Pingback: links for 2011-04-19 « Sarah Booker

  2. No employer in our market expects entry-level journalists to know how to use a spreadsheet. This skill would certainly give new journalists an edge in seeking jobs with the higher-end employers, but most employers don’t see it as a basic necessity. Nor do they see HTML and CSS skills as basic requirements, though I do agree that students should be able to put together a basic page in HTML and at least understand how pages are put together with CSS. I taught students how to use CSS one semester and found it was a waste of time. While I agree with most of the points here, some of the suggestions beg the question, “Entry level for whom?” I think we educators have to be careful not to overload students with skills that students either do not need or need only a basic competency in – especially if such instruction comes at the expense of time spent on the true basics.

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