How far should trainees go with digital technology?

Twenty years ago, journalism training was relatively simple. Students picked a pathway – broadcast, newspapers, or periodicals, and found a course teaching the skills needed. With the skills they picked up, some work experience, the right contacts and a bit of luck, they landed that crucial first job.

Now, it’s not so simple. It’s still possible to enrol on courses in newspaper, magazine and broadcast journalism, and students may still aspire to work in these fields. The difficulty is the all-pervasiveness of the internet – wherever you want to work, learning online skills could make all the difference. Bizarrely, learning how to shoot video might help land you your dream newspaper job.

But Emma Harpley of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which accredits 60 UK journalism courses, said the first thing students should remember is not to neglect key skills like shorthand. ‘However the story is going to be presented, shorthand is key to actually getting the facts in the first place, so will always be a vital part of journalism.”

Harpley says students on NCTJ-accredited courses concentrate on core newsgathering skills that will always be solid and sound. Incorporating online skills into accredited courses is, she said, still ‘work in progress at the minute, as the industry is moving forward quickly”.

However, Harpley also believes young journalists should learn multimedia skills. ‘If someone’s very experienced in print then there’ll still be jobs out there even if they aren’t multimedia skilled. But looking forward, those kinds of jobs will be diminishing.

‘The future of journalism is certainly becoming very much more focused online – and it’s moving very quickly at the moment. Journalists need to keep their skills up to date,’she says.

Journalism training institutions and the industry seem clear that multimedia skills are important, but the industry still expects students to have all the writing and newsgathering skills of journalists qualifying a generation ago. Shorthand and media law are as essential as ever. With so much to pack in to a short course, it’s important to have a clear idea of what’s essential.

Bill Thompson, new-media pundit and visiting lecturer at City University, London, says he believes an understanding of new media is crucial for trainee journalists. ‘Just as we teach you about the legal environment within which you work, so we must teach you about the technological stream in which you are now swimming,’he says.

Those in training now have some things easier than their immediate predecessors. A few years ago, it was essential to know programming languages to work online. Thankfully, due to content management systems (CMS), Thompson says this is no longer the case. ‘As a recovered programmer, I’d like to teach you all Java, of course, but that’s just me being cruel,’he says.

‘I think you need to know enough about coding to be able to tell why the copy you’ve cut and pasted into your CMS template from Microsoft Word is screwed up. That means a basic understanding of HTML and AJAX.”

Everyone agrees that having multimedia skills will help you find a job. Knowing how far to go is still difficult to judge, especially when courses and the industry still haven’t set out their requirements.

Thompson believes a general approach is essential.

‘Nobody should leave a journalism course without knowing how to write copy, sub a website, record an interview for audio or video, make a radio package, drive a desk, do a stand-up piece to camera and make a video report, and use a content management system. Any less than that and you’re not a journalist in the modern age – sorry.”

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