No longer the ‘inky way’

15 June 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Well, it’s the 21st Century, and the contemporary journalist could be forgiven for staying in bed all day, for they know that whichever side they choose to get out of will probably be wrong. Media students around the world are assailed by such comforting facts as “20,000 jobs have been cut from American newspapers since the beginning of 2008”. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the type of Australian newspaper room of the 1920s described in R.B Walker’s Yesterday’s News, where journalists learned their skills “the inky way”. Cadets would be taught by a newspaper ‘schoolmaster’ in English expression, mathematics, shorthand and typing, and then off they’d go as  fully equipped journalists.

But, the last thing a 21st Century journalist should do is stick their unemployed or soon-to-be-made-redundant head in the sand. So, here are the top ten skills and strengths a journalist needs to ensure both they and their profession thrive in this new century:

1. Be Tech Savvy

This means becoming intimate with HTML web formatting, photo-shopping and practicing ‘safe SEO’. For all journalists, both old and new, it is invaluable to keep up to date with the tricks of the modern media trade. As jobs in print news rooms decline, employment in online news is the natural adaptive shift in focus a journalist may have. Thus, it will help immensely if a journalist is able to create and package their own online content. A familiarity with correctly sizing and uploading images and content for the web can mark a media professional as literate in all the ways that count.

In order to make one’s skill sets doubly remarkable, it may be even more impressive than the ability to speak Swahili, to be able to ‘talk’ and implement the magical skills of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). For the journalist who can ensure the content they or their publication writes is most likely to be found high up in the list of an online search, job prospects should look fairly promising. By intelligent out-bound and in-bound linking, use of URLs featuring article key words and content-based headlines, the SEO-skilled journalist can be an attribute to online news rooms.

2. Tools of the Trade

A carpenter can only do his jobs if his drill-bits are sharp and he brings his own extension cords and saw-horses. While news rooms across most mediums will (hopefully) be up to date with leading equipment, it cannot hurt for a journalist to carry around their own audio and visual capturing equipment as well as editing tools and portable access to the internet. Unfortunately these are not things with which journalists are born, but an investment in a Blackberry, i Phone, or laptop should afford a level of independence from the physical newsroom and make news-gathering a process that can occur comprehensively at any time. Also, use your repertoire of advanced gadgetry to secure a place in the hearts of online forums. Who knows how long they’ll last, but if you can stand viewing social networking sites as bona fide pathways to news and information, get on Facebook, get Twittering and Flickr-ing and whatever the next strange, slightly addictive forum to emerge is.

3. Obstinacy and Tenacity

According to Jay Rosen’s ‘flying seminar on the future of news’, “newspapers approach the abyss”. Still, if you’ve long held the urge to see your article columns stretched gloriously across a broadsheet page, and always need something on-hand to line the guinea pig hutch with, why should you acknowledge defeat? Rosen continues by comparing contemporary journalists to people forced to journey to a new land, like migrants “working out how many of our old customs are still useful, and how many we should leave behind in the old country”.

Yet as journalism expands through different mediums, whiile dwindling in others, a model of plurality may still include a space for the older media forms. Political journalist Cherian George optimistically contends: “in some markets newspapers are still growing. And, even where they are not, there’s no evidence that they will disappear entirely”. So, for both the news veteran and the fledgling journalism graduate, it may be wise to question prophecies of doom. If professionals continue to commit to quality and investigative news pieces on the printed page then the most traditional of mediums may not be altogether sacrificed for the newest digital conduits.

4. A Valid Passport and a Degree

At the risk of framing the contemporary journalist in an elitist image, it is necessary to define the official documentation a journalist needs for success in the 21st Century media landscape. A journalist, remains in many minds, an educated professional. It seems reasonable to assume a good journalist seeking to produce high quality news must have a level of training to match. On the UNESCO website journet, an article suggesting the qualities looked for by respected media outlets in journalism graduates include: initiative, creativity, critical thinking, reasoning logically and the capacity to “provide a proven academic track record (preferably in law, history or economics)”. The more widely a journalist has studied, it seems, the better their knowledge of the world and current affairs will be. Add to this a level of practical experience, and news audiences should be better able to trust members of a profession who have often ranked unfavourably in the ‘trust’ stakes.

In an environment in which global news is instantly accessible, a reporter should not underestimate the role travel may play in enhancing their work. In 2003 when ‘Reporters Without Borders’ published a ranking of countries according to their levels of press freedom, the US ranked below Costa Rica, and Italy below Benin. Only if reporters continue to travel, will  a global news transparency will only be encouraged.

5. Networking Skills

Luckily, this is not necessarily something you need a manual for. When asking Australian author Judith Pugh what makes a good 21st century journalist, she said that little has changed since the heady days of 1970s politics and art in which she circulated. She believes the ability to make oneself memorable to others remains invaluable and that “it is even more important with the internet as a tool than it was when I was in the political milieu”. In ‘The State of the News Print Media Report 2006’ (click here for the 2009 report) it was reported that around 35% of graduates find jobs in mainstream media. This suggests that it may be beneficial to paddle down other media streams. As the journalism industry diversifies and new media evolve, it is worth staying in circulation with a variety of media professionals.

6. Be ‘Blogospherically’ Advanced

Start a blog. According to journalist Mark Potts, who edits the Recovering Journalist blog, blogging is a “great way to keep your writing chops sharp”. This seems to be an ideal way for the (temporarily) unemployed journalist to keep their typing muscles limber, and perhaps create for themselves a distinct and marketable media ‘brand’. In the current unstable job environment, journalists who can demonstrate personal competence as well as familiarity with preparing audio and visuals for online formatting may position themselves closer to getting the job than their other ‘blogophobic’ contemporaries.

Similarly, the rise of such phenomena as ‘beatblogging’ is  providing  novel ways for journalists to cement their reputation and source stories. For reporters, blogging about their ‘beat’ or specific community can be the best way to generate local news content. Beatblogger Nina Simon recently observed that “journalism has gone multimedia, and two-way communication is a big part of web journalism”. Journalists using the blogosphere are also experiencing an investigative advantage, as the online medium enables ‘crowd-sourcing’, by which a journalist can pose a research question and find that experts and feedback come to them rather than spending excessive time chasing sources.

7. A Specialty Area of Expertise

Warning: the ability to tie a knot in a cherry stem with one’s tongue probably does not count in this section. Working on the dangerous assumption that a journalists’ general knowledge is pretty top notch, any reporter looking to excel in their field and secure a gratifying flow of accolades may benefit from intimate knowledge of a unique topic. 21st Century journalism is undoubtedly changing, but the Walkley awards, established in 1956 to recognize excellence in Australian journalism, are still up for grabs every year. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those on the mantelpiece? Your childhood fascination with the differences between Bactrian and Dromedarian camels or the processes behind manufacturing white-out may one day prove invaluable.

8. Reflexivity

Just as a good anthropologist may reflect that they only find the Bhutanese tribal worship of phallic objects strange due to their own Western cultural taboos, so too should a journalist be capable of reflecting “what am I reporting about, and why am I approaching it in this particular way?” Judith Pugh believes to be a sophisticated writer “is not just to see an event in the larger context, but also your own relationship to that event and to the other people in it”.

To communicate effectively and ethically has always been something of a prerequisite for journalists. As international news is now accessible via the internet and satellite television, the media is facilitating a huge volume of intercultural exchange. The contemporary reporter should be capable of deciphering news and events from foreign shores, while retaining an awareness that the ‘shared human experience’ may occur in the most diverse cultural contexts.

9. Awareness of Regime Changes

In the Australian media, journalists have long worked under a model of ‘much power shared by few’. The Murdochs, Packers and Fairfaxes are beginning to look like a collective ‘Ancien Regime’  and are themselves engaged in the complicated task of keeping up with new media. Journalists at all career stages should be alert to any ‘diversification’ of media bosses in the 21st Century. On home soil, the rise of Crikey, Business Spectator and its stablemates has created new kinds of jobs for budding journalists.In America, a range of businessmen and journalists are undertaking new endeavours and widening the spectrum for jobs producing quality journalism. Global Post founders Philip Balboni and Charles Sennott have set up a world wide network of ‘stringers’ to serve news organizations that could not otherwise afford their own foreign correspondents. Similarly, journalism in the public interest is being championed by Paul Steiger’s Pro Publica. It may pay for contemporary journalists to keep an eye on burgeoning new media outlets and potential employers committed to quality.

10. A Healthy Respect for the Past

All this looking forward may threaten to create a generation of journalists who have lost sight of the previous centuries that have shaped their craft. Reporters creating live video web streams and pod casts are still the descendants of 18th century journalists sending news of battles and politics by sea mail. According to writer R.B. Walker, the press have “inherited and maintained a tradition of independence from the government”. For the freshly-minted journalist, it may be overwhelming enough to have attained the necessary technological skills to thrive in this digital age and to obtain a job with a regular salary. However, what is the use of such an historical profession without a little bit of romance? In the words of American scholar W Sprague Holden, “no great cause was ever led by newspapers dedicated to keeping boats on even keels. No worthy crusade was ever accomplished by a policy of not rousing the animals”. A keen awareness of the press’s traditional role as the Fourth Estate – a critic of those in power, is an attribute journalists should embrace. Their work will be better for it.

Honours student Claire Delahunty has just begun her new day job at Business Spectator.