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.

On the first day of film school at NYU…

…one department head or another asked the 140 freshman wanna-be Spielbergs/Godards/Raimis* in the room to raise their hand if they wanted to be a Director.

Many, including me, raised our hands.

The faculty response: “You’ll be lucky if four of you make it.” (I’m paraphrasing. This happened in 1994.)

When I talk to journalism students, I try to impart a little piece of that message.  How many of you think you’re going to be a star reporter at a major metro newspaper?  I ask some variant of that question, and hands are raised.

Hunter Walker is reporting for Gawker on his Columbia J-School orientation.

“Lemann also discussed our job prospects. Although he brought up the possibility that we may find work for a news organization he encouraged us to be open to careers as possibly starving internet entrepreneurs saying: “its a really interesting time to be in on the beginnings of the revolution… it’s a great time to put aside thoughts of worldly things and do something really creative if you have the nerve.” I agree with Lemann that this transitional period could lead to great opportunities, but I know firsthand that you need capital along with cojones to start your own business ventures.”

That’s something that approaches the right idea.

What the NYU orientation hand-raising exercise did for me was to focus my attention on learning a craft and a set of skills rather than being an auteur.

So, journalism students about to start school for the semester:  Are you trying to be an auteur, or an entrepreneur?

*I was a wanna-be Godard, and there weren’t many of those left at the end of four years.

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.

Links that redefine news

Wednesday night, I’ll be speaking with Steve Sloan’s New Media class at San Jose State University.

I’m planning to show off some of the best of your work.

Yes, you.

I’m looking for online news sites and projects that stray from the traditional definition of news.

I’m assuming these journalism students get enough Gloom & Doom handwringers from other sources, and I have no intention of discouraging anybody from getting into this business, which needs all the help it can get.

So, here’s a list of links. Add your favorites in the comments.

I’m really just scratching the surface here, and notably absent are any multimedia tools and examples.  Add your favorites in the comments.

A vote for change…

We talk a lot in the circles I run in about a new skillset for reporters and about how a wired journalist in 2008 should be keeping up with the technologies and communities that are quickly looking like Michael Johnson in 1996, looking back at newspapers over their shoulder, smugly.

Yoni Greenbaum walks right into the glass office and says editors need a heaping bowl of New as well:

“If I was a publisher, corporate officer or even an employee, I would want an editor who is active online; who blogs and uses Facebook and MySpace; who has a digital camera and knows how use it and how to upload those images; who has a cell phone that use beyond just work emergencies; who knows how to identify Flash applet on a website; who knows that Ruby on Rails is not a MySpace band; who uses a newsreader; I could go on, but the point is the old skill set of paying their dues and being a wordsmith and possibly an amateur accountant just does not cut it anymore, honestly it hasn’t cut it for a long time.”

Plenty more where that came from.

If I were a reporter looking for work, I’d be looking for a gig somewhere where the editor has a GMail address for his or her personal e-mail. That’s a simple barometer, but the second I see a potential boss reach for the Hotmail bookmark in IE6 during an interview, I get a little queasy.

Howard Owens will give you $100 to get with the program

That’s right, if you’re an ink-stained, hard-nosed reporter who thinks all this New Media stuff is bunk, Boss Owens has a hundred Amazon bucks with your name on ’em.

If you perform a few small tasks, of course.

Like, start reading blogs, get a blog, start writing, shoot some stills and video, upload them, join a social network or two, and generally, just get with the program and give the new world a try.

Lots of details in Howard’s post.

Do the net-savvy thing and tell a friend who isn’t.

Only hire the best.

From Yoni Greenbaum, on the topic of outsourcing applications, the division of print and online newsrooms, and the hiring of online journalists:

“We all know that, increasingly, online is where the money is, but it will take talent to earn it. I would urge newspapers to make sure they’re paying their online employees appropriately; if new positions open, hire the best you can afford. This is one place where you don’t want to go with the lowest bidder and more importantly, this one place where wrestling with a difficult issue and ultimately making the bad choice won’t do.”

I’ll take that next step: Newspapers should be hiring reporters who can work in more than one medium. As we repeat over and over again, the days of the one-tool player are long, long gone.

If you want to work in this business, pick up at least one Web skill, or best of luck to you and your print clips.