The future of reporting is at your fingertips

Here’s a big question that’s generating a lot of brainheat right now. What are the skills we’ll need to teach the journalist of the (near) future?

That’s skills – like journalists used to need: Shorthand, typing and a passing acquaintance with the law – not attributes, as in ‘rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”.

It’s not that hard to work out what they’ll need – the ability or aptitude to drive somewhere between one and 20 bits of software. And to switch applications every year or so. But should we expect to have to teach any of them?

In the Nineties – after we all had PCs but before convergence and multiplatform journalism – news outfits expected to ‘train’new journalists in their content production system and maybe a photo, video or audio editing application. Oh… and Word, Excel, email because, we assumed, they wouldn’t have learned these at school or used them at college. But we took it for granted they could use a phone, turn on a tape recorder and switch channels with their TV.

What can we take for granted in 2008? Here’s one view from blogger/consultant Paul Conley – formerly of US chain Knight-Ridder, CNN, and Bloomberg, now a tradepress guru. One of his new year blog posts set the feathers flying.

Conley believes that to be a web age journalist, only one thing matters. You have to ‘live the web”. And young journalists who ‘live the web’get the idea of switching from one (intuitive) newsroom application to another just as naturally as they switch from Facebook to Twitter to Blogger to Flikr in life.

He gets a bit brutal, though. ‘When the fighting begins the training must end… we can’t gather up the print folk and prepare them as online journalists. You can’t prepare people to dig a fighting hole. You just tell them to dig. And the ones who don’t dig fast enough, deep enough or well enough, die.”

Extreme? Maybe there’s something in it.

It’s a soft option for those of us in journalist education to think in terms of ‘how’– and look at training in terms of which buttons to press, believing that’ll turn non-journalists into web-age journalists. Some like that way of thinking because it reduces learning to ‘deliverables”. But it misses everything that’s important in learning how to be a web-age journalist.

Here’s why. First, almost all school and college leavers have informally picked up a range of online skills in the same way that a decade ago they picked up word processing and email.

Second, except where news organisations’ IT departments have intervened to ‘improve’them or produce in-house versions, content production software is close to idiot-proof and will become closer.

Third, most new entrants into journalism ‘get’the idea of multiplatform life. Some will have made their own multimedia productions but even those who haven’t are in the zone.

Fourth, and most important, teaching young journalists only how to press the buttons means we’re not teaching them what really matters about multiplatform journalism. Or journalism for that matter: how to choose the best medium to tell your story and exploit that medium to tell it in the best way; how to tag and cut your content to enable users to personalise how they use it; how to use metadata to develop new forms of journalism, and why some of the old stuff (like accuracy, independence, ethics) still matters.

Maybe Paul Conley’s on to something – maybe we should forget about teaching ‘how”, and teach ‘what’instead.

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