Reporters of the future: Only quick thinkers need apply

FOI ideas image: Yarn DeliveriesReasonably often, because of my job, I get asked what I think the skills a journalist of the future needs. Often – and this is particularly true of university academics – they immediately give me a buffet of options to choose from. Is it social media? Is it data? Is it video? What about podcasting?

My answer, sadly, doesn’t help much: Generally, it’s all of the above. But none of the above are any good if you don’t display the most important skills of all: Accuracy, curiosity and a desire to share.

When I was training on the Citizen series of free newspapers in Preston, I was lucky to be surrounded by a number of people who took the time and effort to knock a cocky 18-year-old into shape, ranging from a photographer called Rob Underdown who, over a pint, advised me on how to improve my attitude in the office to Gill Ellis, then the deputy editor, who dragged me – almost kicking and screaming – to my first Preston Council meeting. The very first reporter I learnt from on work experience, Gordon McCully, taught me the importance of great contacts and sent me out on what turned out to be the splash in the first week I was at the Chorley Citizen.

Then there were various people on newsdesks of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and the Citizens who took the time to point things out. But perhaps the point which sticks with me most vividly came from another mentor, a chap called Harold Heys, who was appalled my appalling spelling. Harold’s a bit of legend among a generation of Lancashire journalists who passed through this newsrooms, thanks largely to his infamous spelling tests. As a 17-year-old on work experience at the Citizen, I first encountered the spelling test and managed to get accommodation wrong.

Four years later and it was still my password to access the company editorial system every day. As ways of teaching you to spell, it’s second to none, if a bit limited. As a way of driving efficiency in the newsroom, it’s less effective. Anyway, Harold drummed into me – and many others – that the most important skill a journalist should hone was accuracy.

And that’s never been truer than now, in a multimedia age where newsrooms shouldn’t be producing content for the next day’s paper, but within minutes for never-full website.

But I’d argue that there’s another skill emerging which was maybe always essential, but is now as important as accuracy: Quick thinking. Anyone can be a journalist now – or, to save an argument, share news online like a journalist – but the successful ones will be the ones who think quickly.

Maybe that was always the case, especially in newsrooms with multiple editions in days gone by. But now a journalist doesn’t need to just write quickly, they need to source quickly, sift quickly, verify quickly and, most importantly, capture the evidence quickly.

One of the unexpected highs for me professionally over the last year has been working with the Irish edition of The Mirror as they launched their first website. Unexpected because I wasn’t expecting to do it. Their editor, John Kierans, is a legend of our profession and calls things as he sees it. That’s good news for me, because crikey he gets how journalists need to be in the future. As far as he is concerned, all of his reporters as ‘iphone reporters’ now – expected to file for their breaking news blog – similar to the ones on regional sites like the Daily Post, MEN and Liverpool Echo but covering a whole country – grab photos and shoot video.

And that’s where quick thinking comes in. Last week one of Ireland’s most notorious gangsters, John Gilligan, was released from jail. Gilligan was cleared of murdering Veronica Guerin, a reporter who was gunned down in 1996, but later convicted of importing drugs and jailed for 20 years.

Ahead of his release, his solicitors released this statement:

“Mr Gilligan wishes it to be expressly known that even if each paper, magazine and or television station offered him €1million, he will not give an interview.

“Representatives of the media are invited to desist from what is and will be a fruitless pursuit of Mr Gilligan and his family.”

Which makes the Irish Mirror’s video scoop on his doorstep all the more remarkable:

That video made the TV, radio and was requested by many other websites … only one reporter was quick thinking enough to shoot it on his phone. That’s what I mean about quick thinking in the future.

Another, slightly older, example, comes from the Manchester Evening News when reporter Pete Bainbridge was covering the riots in 2010. He shot this footage:

It’s that moment of quick thinking, to get the phone out, as   did at the Mirror, which made Pete’s work stand out during the riots. If journalism is the first draft of history, then liveblogging and instant coverage is what? The first draft of journalism according to the Guardian, and that works for me. That’s the space we occupy now, and for that first draft to any good, it needs to be as accurate as possible, with as much evidence as possible – and that’s where quick thinking comes in.

It’s not just video, of course. Screengrabbing an story-worthy Tweet would be another example, or being the first to think ‘I must contact them’ after seeing something online, or knowing how to search for the information to stand up a story, or knowing the best visualisation of that data set instantly … all can be summed up under the heading ‘quick thinking.’

A rather basic word cloud showing how often words are used in current job ads on Holdthefrontpage
A rather basic word cloud showing how often words are used in current job ads on Holdthefrontpage

So is the industry responding to this? Maybe everyone thinks it is a given – I don’t believe it is – but above is a word cloud using the text of all reporter jobs currently advertised on Hold The Front Page. The words quick or thinking don’t appear at all. That said, neither does the word accuracy, so maybe people do just taken it as a given that quick thinking is essential.

But I’d make the same point about a driving licence – yet that gets mentioned. A reporter who relies on cabs to get around but is a quick thinker or a car-owning reporter who can’t demonstrate that instant-second reaction to grab the evidence? No brainer I think.

So, in answer to the question: “What skills do journalists entering the profession need to have?” in future, below I’m offered the limited buffet options, I shall offer up “quick thinking.” Can you teach that? I don’t know … but that takes us back to a very well debated discussion about the real skills of journalism!

2 thoughts on “Reporters of the future: Only quick thinkers need apply

  1. What’s wrong with this sentence? (I’ll give you a hand.)

    But none of the above ARE any good if you don’t display the most important skills of all: ACCURACY, curiosity and a desire to share.

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