Friday, February 20, 2009

Skills training is not enough for the digital journalist

AS an academic, I've been given a front row seat to the unraveling of the news industry without having to worry about my job. But if I were a journalist, the first thing I would be thinking about is what kind of skills I might need in order to retool for the digital age.
However, my 500-foot view from the ivory towers urges caution: it's not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it's whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.
I make this observation after working with newsrooms who have tried to implement broad training initiatives, as well as after interviews with many journalists who have attempted to gain new skills themselves. Here I get to take some license in that the journalists I've worked with cannot be named, as they are given anonymity for human subjects research protocol by the university.
But I can say that one of my major discoveries has been that training – learning to take a digital photo, the writing for the Web, the digital audio and video editing, the flash, and the social media, to name a few – is not for everyone, nor should it be the answer for everyone.
I don't mean to disparage the excellent training that is occurring. Not to toot our own horn, but the Knight Digital Media Center's Berkeley outfit has become somewhat of a standard bearer in multimedia training for journalists. Poynter's News U offers courses in online and multimedia training. In November 2008, in addition to its News U offerings, Poynter nobly piloted Standing Up for Journalism workshop to retool and reenergize laid off journalists.
The skills, though, aren't the answer. As one news executive said, "We need to take staff to Web 2.0 and beyond – to make learning more nimble and flexible." This executive, after putting staff through training pilots, realized that multimedia literacy and a basic understanding of what it meant to work in a Web environment was what people needed – before they could go about learning the hardware.
What is this multimedia thinking that should be happening in these training sessions? Here are a few suggestions for journalists and their news organizations.

1. Journalists need to understand how the Web and multimedia goals will work within their own organizations. News organizations need to clearly communicate how these Web goals will influence the work production cycle.
2. Journalists at all levels of the news organization should believe that they can contribute to the multimedia vision of their organization. The future of the newsroom is also in your hands, and thinking like this forces journalists to think multi-dimensionally.
3. Journalists are not alone in the newsroom. Even if journalists themselves cannot think about how to make their work relevant to multiplatform content, someone else in the news organization can. Most of your organizations have people on staff that can help you brainstorm, even if you can't. Multimedia training is also about making new connections across your organization.
4. Silos, departmental rivalries, and departments that don't communicate with each other cannot exist if multimedia initiatives are to succeed.
5. Journalists no longer control the distribution of the content they produce. This is a very scary thought for many journalists, but the reality is that once something is published (usually on Web sites), it belongs to the audience of readers and becomes part of a conversation about the news.
6. Journalists need to rethink and reposition themselves the leader of this new conversation, which includes everyone from the traditional water cooler chat to bloggers.

Of all of these ways to think about multimedia in news organizations, perhaps the most important point to emphasize is that Web journalism means a journalism of conversation. London School of Economics professor and former broadcast journalist Charlie Beckett has come up with the term "networked journalist" or "networked journalism," and explains the idea in his new book, Supermedia: Saving Journalism So it Can Save the World.
The idea is to take the best parts of the civic journalism and public journalism movements and sync these up with the possibilities of the Web. Through networked journalism, Beckett urges legacy journalists to think of themselves as participating in somewhat of a pro-am kind of relationship, where mainstream journalists share the process of production with everyday citizens.
Multimedia training doesn't need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, "not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution."
Journalists don't have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.
The truth is that most skills boot camps don't turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.
But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.

Source: Knight Digital Media Center

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