After decades of not going to Sheffield, 2014 was the year I found myself there on several occasions – incidentally, what a fine city it is, once you manage to negotiate the frankly rubbish rail links that run from west to east.
My most recent trip was at the invitation of Sheffield University journalism professor Peter Cole, who asked me to give a guest lecture on how the industry is changing, in my opinion, and what it means for students. Specifically, the brief was to give an insight into my innovation role, what skills I looked for when recruiting, the digital transformation of the newsroom and my own experience, along with new ways to tell stories.
Here’s what I talked about, some of it is taken verbatim from my notes, some paraphrased for shortness but the gist is the same:
Past behaviours inform future ones
Many titles in the regional press have been working in online spaces for a long time, in digital terms. Way back in the sepia-tinted days of 2008 there was innovative, experimental work being done around live content, social media and the use of digital tools. It wasn’t perhaps the most structured approach but it did mean there was a lot of trying, learning and success (and some failing, but that was ok too).
In the years since then, the onslaught of unchecked code being shoehorned into a CMS (whether it could handle it or not) has calmed somewhat, but I think that digital Goldrush was important. It helped us understand how the new world worked, what audiences wanted from it, where mainstream media could fit into it, and the possibilities of building things that told stories in new ways. It also helped us understand that not everything would work, and those failures should be learned from. Regional newsrooms are inventive, partly because of their historic need to be that way. I think it can make us braver about pushing into new digital territories in the future.
Innovations team work
I don’t post much of what the innovations team does, partly because I do struggle to find time/connectivity to post a lot, partly because, y’know, confidentiality, and partly because I don’t want people confusing my personal views and the views and opinions of my employer. But I should do because I’m really proud of what 2014 brought, in terms of innovation.
We worked with drones (Side edit: Here’s a 2015 prediction: We’ll see arrests and calls for tighter legislation around drones. I was talking to an Establishment Source recently and it is a definite Hot Button as far as law-botherers are concerned) and turned longform storytelling into a commercial opportunity; we went live in the Manchester Evening News newsroom; and the Google Glass project we’re running has turned me from something of a skeptic into an advocate for the role of wearables in journalism. Next in the pipeline is more video work, and tapping into the Internet of Things to foster culture change and audience engagement.
What I find most interesting about the innovations team work, however, is that it’s much more successful when we involve others. Whether it’s teaming up with external third parties, or combining with skills from the data unit or social media colleagues, the end result is richer for collaboration. Journalism is as much about human networks as it ever was.
When I started job hunting you needed an NCTJ qualification, perseverance and a degree of luck to break into journalism. These days, I guess the skills I’d expect to see used by a journalist would be a daunting list, and probably considered unreasonable to those whose newsroom experience ended somewhere in the mid-90s (looking at you, Hold the Front Page commentators). However, these are skills you use a lot. Some of them you’ll call on every day, without thinking, and your job would be much, much more difficult without them.
And to students who think it sounds like too much is being required, I’d ask them to imagine trying to acquire these skills when you’re already working in a newsroom – bringing in stories, covering meetings, building contacts. And then trying to learn advanced Tweetdeck, or Excel spreadsheet wrangling. Learn it before you have to learn it, would be my advice, because learning on the job is hard. I know, because I had to do it.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ journalist skill set any more. If you want to be a court reporter or a city editor, you’ll need to know Law and the pillar NCTJ skills or similar. But you will also need to be a skilled mobile journalist, adept in using a smartphone to shoot video, take photos, record audio, live tweet, and/or live stream.
As our audience becomes more device-orientated, we need to be there with them, providing the news – and our analytics show us that social platforms and live content are what brings us large audiences who are loyal and who share what we do.
So these are some of the skills and knowledge I look for if I’m interviewing candidates: An awareness and ability of and in audience engagement/social media; mobile and live journalism; multimedia; interactives; data visualisation; analytics; Search Engine Optimisation.
If you’re a senior journalist with an NCTJ or equivalent qualification, who wants to specialise in hard news reporting, you also need to demonstrate social media skills, multimedia abilities – video, audio, photos, for example – mobile journalism skills such as live tweeting or liveblogging breaking news and real-time events, data journalism, FOI familiarity, SEO knowledge. Knowledge of digital tools such as Storify, timeline and mapping software, basic coding knowledge, detailed knowledge of social search and verification processes will give you an edge.
If you wanted to specialise in data journalism, the ability to use tools such as Excel, data visualisation tools and ability to source and extract data is essential, but I’d say you also need social media skills (not least because there are a lot of data experts on social who are very generous with their knowledge) to source and promote your work. Then there’s SEO knowledge, plus enough coding knowledge to be able to articulate to a developer what you want to achieve.
Audience engagement roles are vital in today’s newsrooms. We rely on the ability to use analytics such as Omniture, Chartbeat, and social metrics such as Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics, to gauge what matters to audiences and apply journalistic knowledge to developing and shaping content. Understanding the spikes that exist through the day – from the 6.30am traffic, travel and headlines, to the evening social conversation and long reads can be the difference between snaring readers and keeping them, and missing them completely.
These skills apply across all departments in editorial – not just news – and anyone preparing for an interview these days had also be up-to-speed on their IPSO, copyright laws, defamation and contempt in comments, and rights-of-use of UGC on social platforms, because they will probably crop up in any interview.
Like I said, it’s a long list but when you’re up against perhaps 200 applications, showing use of social and live journalism, data journalism, mobile journalism, and some awareness of SEO/analytics could be the edge you need.
Journalists have learned a lot, quickly, in recent years about new way to tell stories and reach audiences. We’ve also learned what our audiences expect from us, because they tell us – very publicly across social media when we let them down. Social media skills are essential – it’s a publishing platform, a breaking news tool and a conversation engine, and expertise in this field can lead to an accelerated career path, just as it has allowed to growth of new business opportunities and media publishers.
There’s a lot said about the diminishing of the regional press, and it’s true some titles have disappeared, some have gone weekly or become purely digital, and probably all newsrooms have smaller staff numbers, than when I started 20 years ago. That said, I once worked at daily titles where the opinion column had its own journalist, who did nothing but that every day – I couldn’t then, and still can’t, imagine a working day so stultifying dull.
While traditional roles have reduced, new ones have been created and with them new opportunities. The route of reporter, specialist, news desk or subs desk, and then perhaps management is only one way to progress now – the newsroom conference table looks nothing like it used to- some don’t have conference tables at all.
In six short years, the newsroom as I knew it has changed out of all recognition, both culturally and physically. I suspect in six years time it will look different again.