Can you cut it in the interactive era?

According to Apple Computer boss Steve Jobs, we are all here to make a dent in the universe. But how do you make a dent in cyberspace as an online journalist, and what are you going to do about those denizens of the blogosphere who say they can do your job better than you?

Mr Jobs would probably advise you to buy Apple’s new ‘blogging, podcasting, do everything-out-of-thebox MacBook’, but getting the right technology is one thing. Getting the technology to do the right thing is quite another. And getting the technology to do the write thing is yet another.

Let me explain. Spending a lot of money on your website is a brave strategy when technology is evolving at a pace, so buying off-the-shelf packages such as blogging software can make sense. Harnessing technology to feed content to the reader in the way they want it, in the formats they have bought into, whether it be an MP3 or a BlackBerry, is equally challenging.

Doing the write thing, the journalism, requires new skills and new ways of thinking about how to get the story across and engage those who click on to your site. Readers no longer take a passive role but contribute to forums, discussions, blogs and polls, adding their own commentary, analysis and links to their own websites. They want to be editors at large, contributing editors – ‘citizen journalists’, reporting big news events, allowing their words and pictures to be emailed, texted, downloaded and published anywhere in the world. Some of them argue they can do a better job than us, that mainstream media has become cowed by commercial and political considerations.

However, what they, and we, all need is a good editor with experience, training, traditional skills and a whole bag of new tricks for the digital age. If you are a mid-career journalist whose background is mainly in print, TV or radio, there will always be an online component to your career and if you are a dotcom specialist it is even more important to keep abreast of developments and keep an eye on your competitors.

We are in a state of constant evolution so online reporters have to be adaptable and the need to understand and be involved in the production process should not be underestimated. The importance of good navigation, links and search engine optimisation – tagging stories and tailoring headlines so they attract traffic drivers such as Google and Yahoo – is a critical element of the job.

Big stories can be conveyed in packages using a selection of text, video, audio, webcast interviews, podcasts, picture galleries, blogs, FAQs, timelines and links to resources. Content delivery is increasingly shaping how we edit these packages – readers are using some or all of a combination of instant messaging (SMS), emails, bespoke feeds, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and their own websites and blogs to disseminate and pass on news.

In a recent survey, WSJ.com asked readers what they wanted and the answer came: “Information in the palm of our hand.”

Scared yet? Only if you think you are being left behind. The UK Association of Online Publishers (AOP) is reviewing how media organisations can track developments and improve training for journalists.

“The online industry is still quite young. If there is anything constraining it, it is the skills gap,” says Alexandra White, director of AOP.

The association represents more than 160 publishing companies and its members include the BBC, the Financial Times and News International. In its recent annual membership survey, it found a shortage of skills required by the online publishing industry. Seventy-four per cent of AOP members reported having unfilled vacancies in January 2006, compared with 58 per cent in 2005. Publishers rated difficulty in recruitment and retention as one of the biggest constraints to business growth.

A quick trawl of Guardian Unlimited’s recruitment site shows more than 300 new media jobs up for grabs as opposed to about 80 press jobs.

Of course, not all of those positions under the new media tag are strictly journalistic, but for those print professionals facing redundancy the good news is your skills are eminently transferable and this might be the time to reinvent yourself. The same goes for TV and radio journalists who know how to put a package together and make video and audio fly online.

Trainee journalists at universities and NCTJ accredited colleges are prepared for working in a multiplatform environment – sounds ghastly, doesn’t it? Let’s just call it convergence. In fact, let’s not, and just call it a newsroom, since these labels will soon be completely outdated as journalists write, edit and format for print, online, TV and audio.

If you are mid-career, now is the time to muscle in and show these whippersnappers how to do it. The AOP website (www.ukaop.org.uk) is a good place to start for short courses for the web journalist.

Universities are also filling the training gap by providing tuition. Bournemouth University has just launched its first online course aimed at mid-career professionals who need to re-equip themselves for future opportunities. A bookmark must is Poynteronline (www.poynter.org), which is full of resources for online reporters and editors and has launched an RSS feed so you can customise your information about courses and latest dotcom developments.

At this point you may be thinking this is all very well, but aren’t blogs and podcasts simply fads? In which case it is worth noting the latest forecast by technology analysts at Forrester Research. According to Forrester, the number of households in the US using podcasts in the next three to four years will grow from the current figure of 700,000 to more than 12 million. Can this really be true? As journalists it is our inclination to immediately investigate and question those figures – but you will find the bloggers have got there before you. And there are nearly 40 million of them out there.

And if you are thinking, ‘Goodness, I don’t even know how to download’, my advice is cheap, quick and easy. Grab a teenager (any teenager) and ask them to show you how to do it. If you want an indication of future reading habits, see how they surf the internet, communicate and distribute information via moblogging and community sites such as Flickr and MySpace. But a word of warning: ask the permission of the parent first.

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