My advice to journalism students

I’ve been through most of this before, either in blog posts or in person, whenever I get the chance to talk with journalism students, but it’s worth repeating. A few tweets this week seem to have proved that, so I’m putting this updated compendium of my advice together for posterity.

My advice to journalism students.

My advice to journalism students starts with this:


That doesn’t mean you have to blog about journalism, or build a rabid political audience, or chronicle every step the Googles and Twitters and Apples of the world take.

It just means that you maintain a Web site where you write on a somewhat regular basis.

And by “maintain,” I mean you have the opportunity to learn as much as you’d like to learn about basic formatting for the Web. HTML, CSS, and if you’re a step more curious or industrious, blog software that mirrors (or exceeds) the functionality you’ll find in the content management systems at most professional news organizations.

That’s how I got started in this business. In fact, to be more precise, I think the first bits of code I touched had to do with making the title of my first Blogspot-hosted blog bigger, and changing its font and colors.

From there I switched to a hosted WordPress blog, learned a lot more about HTML and CSS, then decided I wanted to do more, bought my own domain and hosting (shouldn’t cost more than $10/month) and taught myself much, much more about making WordPress and similar content management systems dance.

But that digital specialty, (I can make your newspaper’s blogs look and act professional, and I can train your reporters to be better bloggers), as valuable as it was in 2006, wasn’t the only thing I learned as a journalism student.

Become an expert at one analog craft and one digital craft

An analog craft. Yes. Not knitting. Which is cool, but not what I mean, exactly.

When I say “analog,” what I mean is a core reporting skill. Those things journalism professors and newspaper editors talk about whenever the conversation about “what j-school students should learn these days, anyway” comes up. It’s very easy for me to say “well, of course you’re going to pick these core skills up along the way, right?”

But let’s get more specific.

I highly recommend that you specialize in an analog journalism craft.

Maybe one of these:

  • Copy Editing
  • Enterprise Reporting
  • Photography
  • Photo Editing
  • Media Law

There are others, of course. But this is a short list of things you can pick up in school. I picked up a lot of copy editing, and some practice at what I’m ambitiously calling enterprise reporting, which I later cemented with an internship at a major metro paper.

The point: The Web is awesome, and we’ll get to those digital crafts in a moment, but you want to have more than one tool in the box. So, I recommend two diverse skills. Will Sullivan once called these “Peace Out” skills, because it makes it much easier to move from job to job as necessary, throwing up two fingers as you walk out the door.

Learn a Web craft

A long time ago in Web years, I wrote about a trinity of recommended Web skills for journalism students: multimedia, data, and community management. Learn any one, and you can get a job tomorrow.

That’s still pretty much true, but I’m encouraging you to pair that digital skill with an analog skill.

Great at video editing? Be great at photo editing for print, too.

Great at slinging XML into Flash maps? Be great at enterprise reporting, too.

Great at HTML/CSS? Be great at print page design, too.

Great at community management? Study up on media law so you can know when to cite Section 230 in the corporate lawyer’s office when the moment comes. (And it will.)

And vice versa.

Get the idea? Don’t be one-dimensional. You probably aren’t.

If you think online news is difficult…

If using a Web-based content management system is difficult, try putting together a print edition in an old version of Quark and then come back and tell me how hard it is to push the Publish button.

If editing video takes too long, then go back to developing your own prints in the darkroom.

If exploring the Web to find interesting widgets and tools to display content in a new way seems like an insurmountable problem, try cutting the stories, photos, and advertisements in your paper out with razor blades and pasting them into the right spot.

If you can’t be bothered to post a breaking news story online after your print deadline, try yelling “Stop the press!” sometime. (Good luck with that one.)

If you think selling online advertising is hard, try selling subscriptions.

May Carnival of Journalism

I’m jumping the gun on putting up this post to serve as the center ring for the May Carnival of Journalism.

Earlier today, I asked the list of carnivalers to consider answering this question at the core of driving innovation at mainstream news organizations:

What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?

People ask me a version of this question nearly every day, overwhelmed by the barrage of demands made on them by people like me who roll through their newsrooms and ask them to put in more time on online news.

Think you have the answer? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

I’ll add links below to what the CofJ performers have to say, but here’s a starter link to get the ball rolling:

Matt King, a reporter and beatblogger at what I’d call a small-to-medium sized newspaper in New York, says the low hanging fruit of the police beat is actually a bit of an albatross, and that meeting stories should be the next item up against the wall when the revolution comes.

What do you think? What are we covering that we could turn over to the community? What are we wasting our time on?

Rob Curley moderated a panel at the conference I was at last week, and he said that he tries to only work on projects that “move the needle.” So what are you spending your time on today that isn’t moving the needle?

Culture shock

Trying to turn the tide of the decline of newspapers from the inside involves a great deal of evangelizing and pontificating and running through sets of common scenarios with folks who are still firmly planted in the Paper business rather than the News business.

That’s no surprise.

And it’s no surprise that top-down, do-it-this-way mandates don’t work just because the ideas are sound.

Taking those two obstacles as a given, my basic goal when I talk with the staff at a newspaper is to try to identify — or bring out of the woodwork — one early adopter.  This might be a photographer or a reporter with a personal blog or an editor who got sent an interesting link in their e-mail and ended up bookmarking a blog.

The important part of the job isn’t speaking to the first 20 people on the conference call for an hour, it’s maintaining contact with the one person on the call who has the potential to Get It:  Moving from the Paper business to the News business isn’t as simple as picking up a different skillset; it’s about changing the mindset of journalists.

So find those early adopters and corner them.  Point them in inspiring directions and let them start to work out – on their own – where to go next.

Because you can’t mandate mindset.  But you can grow culture.

Related: Jason Kristufek’s notes on a few things Scott Sines said at a workshop in St. Louis.

Next Newspaper

Funny thing about the newspaper business.

If you’re interested in innovation, you find yourself constantly trying to demonstrate the present to people with their feet (and desks, workflow, and hierarchy) planted firmly in the past.

And while The Future of Newspapers mostly gets ink for being bleak, the future of news does not blink, or miss a beat, or stop to have a meeting to decide what color the background of its new Web site will be.

The future of news is Qik and Twitter and Friendfeed and Google Reader and Seesmic and Yahoo Live and whatever launches tomorrow that lets the people in your community share information and produce content by pushing a big red record button.

The future of news looks more like Blade Runner than Minority Report. And I don’t mean the part where Deckard reads the print edition. I mean the crazy chaotic floating blimp advertising and the bits of information flowing around mobile screens in places like taxicabs and the exposed innards of machinery.

So stop waiting for The Future of Newspapers to arrive, wrapped in a plastic sleeve with a business model printed on the outside, slipped politely behind the screen door by the paperboy. He got laid off last week. You’re going to have to try something new if you want to survive.