No. 8: New skills emerge as newsrooms evolve

If you’re not seeing how to move beyond print, you’re already behind

The days of living the rest of your journalistic career as a print page designer are nearing an end – and that’s a good thing.

As the revolution in media radically changes how people experience news and information, the way the people formerly known as the audience interact with, deconstruct, and contribute content takes on fascinatingly collaborative dimensions.

The smartest news organizations are seeing a new road ahead, both flying high and traveling low to the ground. That whole macro and micro thing. And, as a result, the people who work in these places are integrating old and new disciplines in engaging ways.

Design and presentation skill sets are undergoing radical change. The newsrooms of the future – er, the present – demand a parting with the past.

When Andrew DeVigal, the multimedia editor at The New York Times, spoke to a packed room at the Society’s annual workshop in Las Vegas this fall, he talked about how one of the world’s most-respected news organizations has made the leap. And DeVigal gave encouragement to every news org trying to break free of a print-first past.

Indeed, The Times has become a leader in telling stories across media, whether that’s developing new interactives that leverage the considerable Times reporting and data resources (like this one, Represent, from Andrei Scheinkman and Derek Willis that tracks elected officials) or the amazing photography and video from this year’s historic election season or letting developers themselves hack into that vast repository of information.

“If you want to see where the future is heading, study these intersections closely,” media consultant and Visual Editors CEO Robb Montgomery wrote after seeing the photograph that leads this post.

“Andrew’s graphic is telling on many levels. It is good at focusing on pro journos pushing content out there smartly but I can’t see any evidence of enabling what I call the “Social Narrative” (community news tips, comments, UGC, ratings, embedding, et all). The narrative elements that I strongly believe also must be integrated in any new thinking regarding integrating newsroom workflows.”

Putting journalism and technology together

The stuff at The New York Times is impressive, but that’s a place drawing on a host of skills and talents to make things. Some people scoff at the notion that anyone else can do what The Times does.

DeVigal showed the Vegas crowd the power of templates, though. That means the news organization is putting more technical capability in the hands of everyone to build a culture that can thrive on whatever platform is best to tell the story. It’s deploying a development team to help see the path ahead, sharing its insights with the industry.

Smaller news organizations and universities are doing the same thing.

At Spokesman.com, Ryan Pitts, assistant managing editor/digital, and the crew in Spokane have launched a Site Update blog, a commonplace tradition for testing in Silicon Valley that’s now starting to take hold with new organizations. The Spokane team encourages users to comment and request fixes to the new site, as well as suggest new content that will keep people coming back. Welcome to the two-way (or more) street.

There’s a brave new world of storytelling that includes programmers who understand journalism, as well as that idea of “social narrative” that Montgomery described.

Over at the Medill School of Journalism, where I work, my colleagues Rich Gordon and Jeremy Gilbert just finished teaching a class that resulted in exactly this kind of ambition. The class project, News Mixer, aimed to solve two challenging problems: Improving conversations around news, and building news engagement among young adults.

News Mixer was created by six Medill master’s students: Andrea Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen, Kayla Webley and “programmer-journalists” Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark. Boyer and Mark, who had careers in computer programming before coming to Medill, enrolled at the school through a “programmer-journalist” scholarship program funded by the Knight News Challenge.

That melding of skills looks like the wave of the future. Deep audience understand coupled with new formats for presenting and interacting with information appear to be the natural next steps for news designers.

Ten basic new media skills that today’s journalist should know

Some journalists are just getting their feet wet online, as unbelievable as that may seem. Over at Silicon Valley Watcher, Tom Foremski suggested this year that you need basic skills like these:

  • How to upload an image to a blog. (I know journalists that don’t know how.)
  • How to add a link to text in an online story.
  • How to take and edit a photo and resize it for a web page.
  • How to embed the code for a video in a web page and resize it.
  • How to find relevant links to a story and add them to it.
  • How to take a digital video, edit it, and publish it in several formats.
  • How to make online stories discoverable.
  • How to read HTML and be able to fix common problems.
  • How to read CSS and be able to make modifications in stylesheets.
  • How to survive in an always-on work day, and produce two or three times as much content as before.

Between the obvious and the advanced

Mindy McAdams, who authors the influential blog Teaching Online Journalism, has a very helpful beginner’s guide to multimedia and a swell post on the basic kit you will want to get started as a multimedia reporter, just in case you need to start building those skills and you have no idea where to start.

There has to be more, right?

But, c’mon, there’s a lot more that a skilled online news designer or multimedia reporter needs to know. This all just seems like the basest of the base knowledge.

My former San Jose Mercury News colleague Chris O’Brien believes a mindset change has to happen before the print production cycle stops driving most newsroom decisions.

In a post at the Knight Digital Media Center, O’Brien asked these important questions: “Are the morning budget meetings and planning decisions still being driven by the need to create centerpieces and fill this section or that section? Are your critiques still driven by hanging the morning paper on the wall and discussing story placement? If these are the central conversations that are driving newsroom planning, then you’re not online first.”

So there’s a world of programs and programming that add to the online news design skill set, as well as the needed courage to leave behind the comfort and certainty of a print past. Designers better be ready because there are lots of people out there who are learning technical skills – and they are going to get those increasingly in-demand positions.

Nearly 30 years ago, when the Society was founded, newspaper designers were grappling with changes in technology that made possible things that seemed unimaginable to a previous generation. Seems like old times. Again.

2008: The Year in News Design

Matt Mansfield is vice president of the Society and an associate professor for the Medill School of Journalism.