Journalism outsider is a lonely role. It’s a little like being a Janitor, a hired hand who tackles the unsavory duties avoided by the more fastidious and mainstream staff. You can find them doing web updates, or mobile app development, or “dealing with all that social media stuff”, or maybe, in more forward-thinking organizations, the R&D, but one thing they’ll rarely be found doing is much journalism. News with a capitol ‘N’ promotes from within, and the number of its High Priests who started as anything other than a writer is still pretty low.
As a Journalism outsider myself (using the traditional definition, my bona fides extend to only two semesters as Comics Editor at the Johns Hopkins weekly back in ’99) it’s interesting to observe that writing is still sometimes considered the basic journalism accomplishment. It would be like declaring that the default unit of Marine Biology is ‘naming fish’. I mean, it’s certainly a foundation skill for every marine biologist, and, depending on the job track, they might even end up doing some seriously classy fish naming, but it’s hardly the exhaustive definition of the career.
But as the search continues for a new skillset fit for a post-writing industry, seriously, how tempting is it to say: ‘But of course! We need more of those janitorial skills we’ve overlooked for so long!’ It’s a great ‘gotcha’ solution, isn’t it? Everyone loves to hear about a young savant coder who overcomes the cynical traditionalists and saves the day. Teach the Journalist of tomorrow how to livestream and podcast! There shalt be coding in 5 languages so they can make all kinds of news games and mobile aps and social media channels and data visualizations! It’s as though sprinkling technology over the field like pixidust can make the underlying bulk fly.
Surely on the changing menu of journalism, arguing if steak should replace chicken seems rather pedantic, no? We’re debating the merits of one limited skillset over another, an exercise which rather misses the point. Why are we still deciding between chicken or steak? Why are we arguing about the best dishes to put on the menu? Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to just teach tomorrows journalist how to cook?
Myself I come down on the side of methodology. The world has plenty of delightful news writers trying to find their relevency, but it’s just as easy to imagine the world full of of delightful news technologists trying to find their relevency. What does the world have very few of? Folks with the background training to orchestrate either group.
Skills are for interns. Everyone should know what the skills are and how they work, but if the Head of Digital is still spending his days thinking about HTML bugs then you’ve got a problem. The power in any field lies in the planning, not the implementing. It’s in the ability to see the bigger picture and plot a course through it, and to relay that vision to those who were hired for their limited skillset (who, increasingly, aren’t employees at all but rather someone’s college friend who’s between jobs, or a dude bidding on projects from Poland.)
Yes, anyone arriving at a journalism school should be expected to know a basic level of technology just as their counterparts of yesteryear were expected to know how to read. Perhaps there could still be remedial tutorials for those getting up to speed. But for the core experience? Perhaps it’s time to really take a page from software development. Instead of co-opting its low level skills, co opt its high-level ones! The Agile design cycle. Iterative Project development. Pitching. Usability testing. Gamification. Entrepreneurship. You know, the tech skills that actually matter.
Otherwise we risk turning Journalism school into a certification degree like Nursing or Air Conditioning Repair – full of important protocol but with a focus on skillset, not strategy. Taking a step back and thinking a little bigger would go a long way to making sure that students don’t end up as outsiders in their own field. Journalists are too valuable to waste as highly-paid Janitors for hire.