Originally published on April 5, 2012
When it comes time to fill one of those precious hiring slots, news outlets are looking for journalists with a wide array of skills
By Elia Powers
Arelis Hernandez couldn’t decide on just one box to check.
When it came time to choose her journalism school track — print, online or broadcast — the University of Maryland undergraduate wanted to select all of the above.
“What got me interested in journalism was the print side, and I always knew I could write,” Hernandez says. “I tried broadcast journalism, because it taught me a different set of skills. But I was inclined to go toward online journalism, because it was fresh and was something I could relate to as far as how I consumed news.”
Hernandez opted for the sampler platter approach to fulfilling her journalism school requirements — on top of newswriting and broadcast courses, she took graphics and design and all the online journalism classes that her schedule would allow.
Among her six college internships were a print position at the Associated Press, an online producer position at the Washington Post and a multimedia position with the Baltimore Sun.
After graduating from Maryland in 2009 with a broadcast focus, she soon earned the title of Web director at a national magazine. Two summers ago, Hernandez became a breaking news reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, where she is putting her wide- ranging journalism training to use. During a recent investigation into a missing Florida woman, Hernandez shot video of a news conference, edited the video using an iPhone app and sent out the package via Twitter.
Hernandez embodies what it means to be a multiplatform journalist. In an age when newspapers are producing video, radio stations are hiring editors to run their Web sites and everyone is pouring resources into bolstering their digital presence, many journalism job listings begin to look alike: Energetic reporter wanted. Please be comfortable working on a tight deadline. Familiarity with video and photo editing tools a plus. Knowledge of HTML highly valued. Experience with social media a must.
For recent graduates on the job market without six internships under their belts,
the demands can seem overwhelming. That is, if news organizations really expect new hires to be jack-of-all-trades journalists. And that is the key question: In today’s evolving journalism landscape, has knowing something about everything become a must?
Bob Cohn started his career in the late 1980s as an intern at Newsweek. He was hired to work full time in the magazine’s Washington bureau. Cohn mostly covered the legal beat and the White House in his 10 years at Newsweek. His was a traditional reporting and writing job.
Now editorial director at Atlantic Digital, the digital media arm of The Atlantic, Cohn hires young journalists who are expected to commission, fact check and edit stories, find photos, write headlines, embed video, do Web coding and then post.
“The range of skills young journalists need to know now is far greater than what I needed to know when I started,” he says. “The specialization of labor in the journalism world — those walls are coming down.”
Cohn says when he’s hiring young people, he looks for “junior editors-in-chief who are a master at many things,” as well as people who are intellectually curious and comfortable with technology.
“It used to be that to get hired or succeed, you needed to be good at one thing — a good writer, editor, fact-checker, headline writer or tech person,” Cohn says. “Now, I think you have to be good at everything.”
Dennis Foley, the Orange County Register’s reader engagement editor and newsroom internships and recruitment coordinator, says that when a spot opens up, he looks for candidates who have basic journalism skills and are adept at storytelling through new-media platforms. The same is true when it comes to hiring interns.
“We’re probably past the day when all you needed was a good-looking set of clips,” Foley says. “There needs to be some indication that you’ve been exposed to different tools and know how you’d use them in the newsroom. You need to be able to hit the ground running.”
Experience with video, audio and photography is always a plus for job candidates, says Jane Hirt, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. Hirt does recruiting and hiring for many of the jobs in the Tribune newsroom. Social media fluency is a requirement no matter the platform, she says. The level of fluency candidates need to show in other areas depends on the job.
“Is it required for a reporting candidate to have video experience? No,” Hirt says. “Is it useful and a bonus? Yes.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, says since the era of staff reduction began, news organizations have commonly laid off older employees and hired younger journalists who come armed with multimedia skills or can learn them fast.
While large news organizations might have the resources to offer multimedia training to new hires, small organizations likely do not, according to Leslie Walker, a visiting professor in digital innovation at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Walker says employers expect students coming out of college to know the basics of video, audio and Web coding at a minimum, and be well-versed in mobile journalism and social media. Web programming skills are golden in the job market, she says.
“The sense I get talking to employers is journalists on staff with multimedia skills have plenty of opportunities to use them,” Walker says.
Hernandez, the Orlando Sentinel reporter, has had lots of chances to be a photographer and videographer on top of writing breaking news.
“Ideally,” she says, “my paper wants reporters to do all of these things well.”
But do some news outlets expect too much? Ernest Sotomayor, assistant dean for career services and continuing education programs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says many companies have unrealistic expectations for recent graduates on the job market.
“It’s somewhat baffling that they are going to expect that someone new to this business becomes an expert in everything,” he says.
Chris Harvey, director of internships and career development and a multimedia instructor at Maryland’s journalism school, says she hears repeatedly from news organizations that they don’t expect to find a candidate who is an expert in all areas.
“Most newsrooms acknowledge that people are better at one thing or another,” Harvey says. “What we say, after talking to hiring editors, is students still need to have a specialization. They need to be good at writing, shooting photos, collecting v
ideo or design. But they also have to be at least familiar with other areas. If you’re a print reporter, be able to collect photos and video, be able to take headshots or collect 30 seconds of video as a baseline.”
Walker agrees that while students are increasingly working across platforms, specialization remains critical.
Mark Blaine, a senior instructor at the University of Oregon who helped develop the journalism school’s multimedia course series, says he’s not teaching students to be one-man bands.
“That’s not how we see the world they are going into,” Blaine says. “I don’t believe in the old idea of convergence, where everyone does everything. Everyone needs to find a specialty and area of expertise. Those specialties, and what there is demand for in newsrooms, have shifted.”
Hirt, the Chicago Tribune editor, says that while reporters often shoot video on mobile phones, it’s not necessary for them to have extensive editing experience. That’s because the Tribune hires digital producers and editors — including four video interns — whose main responsibilities are to process and edit video.
Employers want young journalists to be adept at working in teams to create stories for multiple platforms and engage audiences using social media, Harvey says.
At the San Francisco Chronicle, journalists are expected to have some level of familiarity with social media and multimedia platforms. Reporters are trained to shoot video on smartphones and post it to the Web.
“It’s not super complicated to shoot video with the iPhone and do basic editing,” says Audrey Cooper, assistant managing editor at the Chronicle. “That’s the level at which we need people to be on the learning curve.”
John Hiner is vice president of content for the MLive Media Group, a digital media company in charge of content, sales and marketing for news organizations across Michigan, among them MLive.com, the Grand Rapids Press and AnnArbor.com. As the featured guest on a recent Poynter Institute online chat, Hiner said that his company expects to provide digital media training to its employees.
“The reality is, we can teach people to use the technology,” he wrote. “The biggest hurdle we have had is ingrained behaviors that are skewed toward legacy outcomes. The daily deadline. The print-length story. Staying in the bubble, inside of the citadel that is most newsrooms. There is a lot of anxiety among established professionals: They have always been very good at this one thing, and when the world changed and they were faced with responding, it creates a lot of insecurities.”
On a weeknight in early Feb-ruary, Sara Ganim, the crime reporter who broke the
Penn State sexual abuse scandal, stood before a packed auditorium at the University of Maryland.
Ganim, who tweets regularly in court while covering trials for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and shot video inside the Penn State football stadium months before she broke the abuse story, told students they should be comfortable working on all platforms.
“Television reporters have to know AP style because they have to write for the Web. Print reporters have to know how to shoot video… Photographers have to write more than cutlines,” she said. “Sometimes you’re the only person who will get up at 2 in the morning to go to a fire and, guess what, you’re shooting video, taking photos and writing a story and updating the Web and using Twitter.”
Ganim made a passionate plea to students: Stop thinking in terms of tracks or specialties.
“Forget the title. Stop. Throw that out the window,” she said. “You are not a print journalist. You are not a broadcast journalist. You are not a photojournalist. You are a reporter. And that’s the bottom line. Trash that old mentality.”
Journalism schools haven’t eliminated tracks and specialties. But many have altered the curriculum and adopted multiplatform as a battle cry. Since Hernandez graduated in 2009, Maryland switched from three tracks to two, keeping broadcast but replacing print and online with multiplatform. Scores of other universities offer multiplatform journalism programs and courses taught by professors who refer to themselves as multiplatform journalists.
“Journalism schools are realizing that the old tracks don’t really work for students the way the journalism landscape works now,” Hernandez says.
Harvey, the longtime Maryland multimedia instructor, says broadcast students are expected to be able to write short text versions of their stories for the Web and shoot stills, not to mention be adept with social media. Most reporting skills classes have students tweeting and blogging, often from the scene of a story.
“We want students to learn and be fearless about picking up new tools and learning new software,” Harvey says.
Sotomayor says a journalism school’s responsibility is to expose students to digital media platforms and make them aware of how news organizations engage with their audiences. He says Columbia tries to strike a balance between teaching multimedia skills — which students get before they begin the program in earnest — and teaching journalism fundamentals.
Hiner said on the Poynter chat that “one area where our editors have been a bit disappointed is in the readiness of people coming out of [journalism] schools.”
He said students often haven’t been immersed in digital reporting tactics and techniques and are not prepared to work at a fast pace.
The Chronicle’s Cooper has a very different complaint. “My No. 1 concern with hiring anyone — particularly interns or people new in their careers — is that they know how to report, which is something that I think is getting worse,” she says. “I get the impression that journalism schools are prioritizing teaching about multimedia over some of the basics. If you can’t report a story, all the multimedia skills in the world aren’t going to help you out.”
The Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates, conducted at the University of Georgia, found that recent graduates are increasingly doing nonlinear editing (in which editors can access any frame in a video clip without having to go in sequence) and photo editing, using a still or video camera and producing content for mobile devices in the workplace.
The study reveals a mixed picture for journalism school preparation. The majority of 2010 bachelor’s degree recipients said their college educations adequately prepared them for the workplace. Ability to write and edit for the Web, use still photographs on the Web and utilize social media were among the most common skills mentioned. Nearly six in 10 students said they emerged with the ability to adapt to the digital environment. And exactly half said they had the ability to produce for multiple platforms.
Yet half of respondents said they lacked some skill they needed for the job market, with Web skills leading the list.
Amanda Peacher, a public insight journalist at Oregon Public Broadcasting who gathers views and narratives from the public, says her graduate journalism school education at the University of Oregon exposed her to a wide variety of multimedia tools but didn’t give her in-depth experience using them.
“I’ve had some hurdles to overcome figuring out some technical skills by the seat of my pants,” she says. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take more time.”
Lee Becker, author of the journalism graduates report and director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia, says journalism schools aren’t doing their jobs if students aren’t being made sensitive to the dramatic changes taking place in delivery platforms. The challenge, he says, is that many journalism schools have long had strong divisions between television, print and, more recently, online tracks that can constrain efforts to embrace a multiplatform curriculum.
Harvey says that while the journalism curriculum has changed to give students enough to be employable in many areas, it can’t teach everybody everything. Becker agrees. He says that while journalism schools should expose students to multimedia
journalism, it’s unrealistic to expect students to emerge with a full set of skills.
“Because these skills are changing so rapidly, it’s probably the case that there are other providers more efficient and cost-effective for students to turn to than universities,” he says. “If they need to know a certain skill for video editing, they are probably better off turning to a commercial provider. Universities, if they spend time with those things, wouldn’t have enough time to spend on the fundamental skills of writing and reporting and editing.”
Peacher, who graduated from Oregon last spring and got her job in August, credits her program with teaching her about narrative storytelling. “I could see that being lost if too much time is spent on technical skills,” she says.
Peacher entered her program focused on being a long-form print journalist. Recognizing the shifts taking place in her field, she took a photojournalism course and became familiar with video and photo editing so she could become a teaching assistant for an undergraduate multimedia journalism course.
She also learned data visualization well enough to teach it to undergraduates. And if there’s one point on which those interviewed for this story agree, it’s that mastery of data and computational journalism is the most valuable tool students can take with them into the job market.
“If there’s one area that’s super complicated and requires having a good deal of training, it is database work,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Cooper. “If I see someone with that on their résumé, I’m going to weigh that highly.”
Elia Powers is a doctoral student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He has previously written for the Los Angeles Times, Inside Higher Ed and the St. Louis Beacon.